A Lesson From Smokey
On their surface, the e-mails had nothing to do with the uncontrolled wildfires then devastating southern California. Yet the confluence of the messages and the maelstrom held a truth worth contemplating.
The topic of the e-mails is of no matter. The writers were urging Agudath Israel of America to take a certain stance on a political issue. It was their tone that stood out. The correspondents had taken for granted that their own judgment on the matter was right, and were writing to insist that the organization come on board, or “get with it,” as one put it. Or, as another wrote: “Your Moetzet Gedolei HaTorah [Council of Torah Sages – Agudath Israel’s highest rabbinical body] needs to take a strong stand here…”
Agudath Israel is unique among Jewish groups. Its administration does not set policy; that role resides among the venerable rabbinic elders at our helm. The organization’s officers and executive staff are sometimes asked to provide the Council members with information, even to lay out various approaches to an issue. But we do not tell our religious leaders what we think they should think. One might say that we report, they decide.
It is an approach that rankles some, especially those who might not appreciate the humor in a sign I have that reads: “People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to those of us who do.”
But the fact remains: Judaism teaches humility, and special respect for the judgment of those most experienced and knowledgeable. The letters of the Hebrew word for “elderly” – zaken – are parsed by the Talmud to yield the phrase “this one has acquired wisdom.”
And so, particularly in matters of Jewish communal welfare, we believe that Jews are exhorted to heed the direction provided by the community’s most Torah-learned elders, those who have internalized a large degree of the perfection of values and refinement of character that the Torah idealizes. Even when those elders’ judgment differs from our own. Actually, especially then.
Commenting on the decision made by the Judean King Rechavam (King Solomon’s son) to shun the advice of the elders of his father’s court and heed instead the advice of younger advisors (Kings I:12), the Talmud remarks: “[What might seem] constructive on the part of the young [can in fact be] destructive; and [what might seem] destructive on the part of elders [can in fact be] constructive” (Nedarim, 40a). Rechavam’s wrong choice brought schism to the Jewish kingdom, fanning the flames of rebellion.
Which brings us back to more recent flames, those of the unprecedented California fires – which fire-management experts have dubbed “mega-fires,” since they are ten times larger and more intense than wildfires of a mere decade or two ago. More than eight million acres of American forest have burned this year already.
The reasons suggested for the unprecedented infernos include, of course, the “usual suspect” for all natural disasters these days, global warming. But the fact that Baja Mexico has evidenced only much smaller fires than adjacent San Diego County suggests strongly that something else is at work. That something, experts say, is a decades-old misguided conservation policy in the United States. Put simply, the longtime American approach to fire suppression — extinguishing small fires as soon as they appear, rather than allowing them to run their natural course and create undergrowth-free zones — has created huge swaths of unburned brush that, when fire does break out, serve as rich and abundant fuel for infernos of exceptional scope and intensity. “When,” asked University of California professor of earth sciences and fire-management expert Richard A. Minnich, quoted in The New York Times, “do we declare the policy a failure?”
So the culprit, so to speak, is Smokey the Bear. He seemed like a fine enough, if furry, fellow all those years, delivering his ursine, eminently common-sense message that putting out small fires was the obvious way to prevent larger ones. But he was wrong. precisely wrong,entirely wrong. Nothing personal (or specie-ist), but, in the end, only smarts can prevent mega-fires.
Now, with hindsight, we are wiser. Imagine, though, how the suggestion that forest fires be permitted to burn uncontrolled, would have been received had it been offered fifty years ago. It is not hard to imagine the e-mails (well, telegrams) chiding forest rangers to tell the Forest Service policymakers to “get with it” and “take a strong stand” against the obvious illogic of — goodness! — letting fires just burn!
It’s not only the so-called “Law of Unintended Consequences” that can figure into weighty decisions. A host of factors can make the right decision seem the wrong one, puzzling observers, even outraging them. To be sure, we all have a right to our opinion, and much can be gained by sharing our perspectives with others.
But two vital commodities in all-too-short supply these days are humility and respect for elders. We do well to consider that our confidence — “evidence” and all — that we know what is best no more qualifies us to make the right decision than putting a ranger’s hat on a bear’s head and a shovel in his hand makes him an expert on forest conservation.