Paradox, I believe, is the trademark of all things Jewish: If you've resolved anything Jewish without any trace of paradox, go back and get your facts straight. There ain't no such animal. In fact, that's how most misunderstandings arise: They are the creations of innocent minds that will go to all extremes of distortion to save their souls from the discomfort of eternal, sustained paradox.

One paradox that lends itself to disastrous sins of misunderstanding is the tension between tradition and progress in Jewish life. Are we the guardians of the past, our chief mission and mandate to preserve our heritage at all costs, untainted by the winds of change? Or are we the opposite—the fomenters of revolution and dissent, ever out to upset the status quo and leave nothing untransformed?

Quite clearly, we are both. Think of the image of the first Jew—who was also the first iconoclast: A recalcitrant teenager smashing the idols in his father's home. Think of our birth as a nation through a revolt against social injustice. Think of our people's contribution to history: The Jewish idea of innate human dignity, of social justice, of purpose, of a goal of world peace, of a G‑d that cares about His world—this has always been the radical element to which all social change can ultimately be traced.

Yet our identity is preserved through our traditions. We adapt by returning to them for precedent and fortitude. We study them continuously and cherish them more than any other possession.

So there is a dual dynamic here, and as in any duality, we must determine which side of the coin is dominant and which secondary: Does progress serve tradition, as a sort of adaptation scheme to preserve the species called the Jewish People? Or does tradition serve progress?

The second proposal is inescapably evident: The thrust of Torah is to change the world. Tradition is no more than a safeguard to effective change.

The essence of Torah, after all, is Halachah (Torah law)--and every Halachah can be reduced to the same statement: The world as you find it is like this. You must make it like that. The same with the stories of our people: The story of Genesis, of the forefathers, of the Exodus, of our entire history, all move in a well-defined progression towards a purpose and a goal. Indeed, it has been posited that the whole idea of progress originates with the Bible.

Tradition, then, is the guardian of progress. Because progress without tradition is just change for the sake of change, spinning about in hopeless circles. To truly move forward, you need a tradition of progress—so that you will remember from where you are coming and to where you aim to go. You need traditions to preserve identity, so that when you participate in the world's progress, you do not forget who you are and what are your true goals. To be effective in the long term, you need to stay on the outside while working on the inside—yet never forgetting that the true purpose lies on the inside. Tradition is the foundation dug deep in the ground to support the monument of progress towering in the air.

So obvious, yet so easy to forget—especially for those who will always seek the easy way to resolve all paradox: by clinging to one side at the expense of the other.

Which for me explains otherwise astonishing phenomena:

In the early 1980s, the Rebbe began talking much more about the messianic idea in Judaism. Moshiach moved from the realm of ideas to the reality of a full-blown campaign, from tradition to buzzword.

I was studying in Yeshiva at the time and it had all the look and feel of an electric storm. The sense of empowerment was awesome—the whole world stood on a precipice and any one push could carry it over the threshold. And the tension only magnified from year to year.

I was puzzled, however, by the cold reaction in much of the Jewish community. For many, the term "moshiach" had almost left the lexicon. Statements were made to the effect that messianism just was not a Jewish idea!

How could Moshiach, so central to Jewish destiny, have become alien to Jewish thought? Today, in retrospect, I can understand: Torah life, in the 300 or so years of reaction to the "enlightenment" and assimilation, had become tradition centered—to the point of abandoning the other pole. The purpose of that tradition had been buried in its dust. Jews had come to identify Judaism with preserving the past. So when someone now discussed moving towards a future, to that mindset it sounded alien and downright dangerous.

Twenty years later, everyone talks of Moshiach—including those who were so stunned by the idea 20 years ago. The danger is that this too can become another traditional, quaint legend. We can all sit quietly, minding our own business, believing that eventually the Moshiach is going to come due to our being so good.

True, it is beyond the scope of us human beings to transform the world so radically on our own. As the Maharal of Prague writes, there is a certain inescapably supernatural element to our messianic belief. But—and perhaps this is another of those paradoxes—that never freed us from doing all that is in our power to turn the world on its head. And how do we turn the world on its head? As our tradition teaches us: By opening the floodgates until the deepest wisdom of the Torah is made accessible to every human mind, and by carrying that wisdom into acts of beauty and caring for life and for our planet. Proactively, with guts and with savvy.

By tradition we are the bearers of that torch. And the world awaits us to carry it high once more.