Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
In his work The Gay Science (Aphorism #341), the renowned 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) explained his theory of the “Eternal Recurrence”:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'
Nietzsche has us imagine what our reaction would be, if we were told that we were to relive our lives repeatedly for all time, and whether this would be heaven or hell, based on the life we had lived, including all the choices we had made in life and their consequences. Nietzsche believed that we must learn to embrace the radical freedom we have in every life choice we make, so we can make the right choices. To Nietzsche, living life to the fullest possibility was critical, as this was the only life, and eternal recurrence measured one’s progress. Ironically, shortly after his revision of The Gay Science, Nietzsche suffered a severe physical and mental breakdown and never wrote again.
In contrast, the classic and controversial text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar (70, 132a), explains that we will indeed return to this world in a state of reincarnation as many times as are needed until we have perfected ourselves, and thus made ourselves fit to return to our Creator:
If there is even one organ in which the Holy Blessed One does not dwell, then he [the person with such organ] will be brought back into the world in reincarnation because of this organ, until he becomes perfected in his parts, that all of them may be perfect in the image of the Holy Blessed One.
In order to perfect ourselves and affirm our lives, we must heighten our awareness of ourselves through deeper contemplation and affirmation of life, gradually rising in levels of spirituality through a mystical study of the Torah. In doing this, we must also be perpetually aware of new ideas, senses, and emotions, always ready to reinvent or reawaken ourselves. Interestingly, the Zohar may be compared with Buddhism, where a soul is reincarnated until it is extinguished into the oneness of the universe. In the Zohar, however, the gradual rise leads to the Creator.
The prominent Transcendentalist American Henry David Thoreau (1816-1862) expressed a similar vision in his seminal work Walden (1854):
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.
Thoreau’s approach was from a belief system closest to the Unitarian church, along with a prophetic love of nature. In spite of long periods in isolation at Walden, Thoreau did believe in active reform. He was a prominent abolitionist, and his short pamphlet on civil disobedience greatly influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the tactics of the American civil rights movement in the 20th century.
To live a contemplative life, then, we must affirm not only the major things, such as family, health, and happiness; we must rather affirm all of our life decisions and actions. This idea of recognizing the importance of all of our actions is expounded in Pirke Avot 2:1:
“Rabbi [Judah HaNasi] said: What is the proper path that a person should choose to follow for oneself?... Be as scrupulous in observing a minor mitzvah as in a major one.”
All of these major thinkers stressed the importance of our life decisions. Nietzsche challenges us to approach each moment of our lives with full freedom and responsibility, as if we were to relive each moment for eternity, an idea later espoused by existentialists. Thoreau tells us to make every moment in the life of a person “worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” which has inspired people to cultivate inner spirituality in addition to causes such as nonviolent resistance and ecology. While these thinkers offered powerful insights, Judaism reminds us that all of life is important, both the big things and the seemingly small things. The Rabbis tell us that nothing is insignificant, that both minor and major mitzvot merit our full attention and dedication. We need not wait for the next life, as the Zohar says we might, to affirm our lives; we can take the next step toward perfection in every single moment in this life.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"