Change in Order to Preserve

“Shev v’al ta’aseh adif — [In a case of doubt] remaining stationary is preferable,” is a familiar Talmudic principle. But we learn in this week’s parashah Vayeishev that there are times in life where the inertia principle does not apply.

After all the travails of Lavan and Esav and Dina, Yaakov Avinu sought nothing more than a little peace and quiet, But, as Rashi, explains peace and quiet are not the natural state of a tzaddik in this world. And so Hashem immediately brought Yaakov’s most difficult test – the disappearance of his beloved son Yosef for 22 years.

For the tzaddik, the natural state is one of continual striving. There is no possibility of remaining stationary. If one is not ascending on the spiritual ladder, one is descending – just like the angels in Yaakov’s dream. In the tzaddik’s world – the world of ruchnios – there is no standing still.

At the communal level too, it is often impossible to remain standing or to continue to operate according to old battle plans. Often times, just to preserve what has been gained, it is necessary to change the course of action that made possible those gains in the first place.

Not long ago, the Belzer Rebbe observed the remarkable growth of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael over the last six decades and commented, “It will take no less siyata d’Shmaya to preserve what was built than it took for the building itself.” I understood him to mean, inter alia, that building and preservation are separate stages, and the hanhaga of building may not be the hanhaga of preservation. After all, in the process of building a great deal changed from when the process began.

Today, the Bais Yaakov system is so embedded at the heart of the Torah community that it is hard for the current generation to begin to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Sarah Schenirer’s movement..Yet Rabbi Chaskel Sarna, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, once said to an audience of gedolei Torah and roshei yeshiva that the person who had done more for Am Yisrael than anyone else is the preceding hundred years was none of their ancestors, and had never even learned a single blatt Gemara. Everyone present laughed until he revealed the name of the person about whom he was speaking: Sarah Schenirer. At which point, all agreed.

True, she convinced the Chofetz Chaim and the Imrei Emes of Gerrer to join her revolution, but she was the one who saw the need that had escaped others: For the young women of her native Cracow, Yiddishkeit had become an empty shell that they were eager to abandon. Had matters been left to head in the same direction there would soon have been no Jewish women left eager, or even willing, to marry a Torah scholar.

A radical change in women’s learning was needed to preserve Torah itself.

And similarly when the Chazon Ish declared that Hebrew would henceforth be the language of instruction in Chinuch Atzmai. He knew very well that blood had been spilt in Jerusalem over the issue of Yiddish vs. Hebrew as the language of instruction in the chadorim.

Yet he also decided that those holding up the banner of Yiddish instruction were like the generals who are always said to be preparing for the last war. “Yiddish is not the battle front today,” the Chazon Ish said to those who came to question his decision. The battle of the hour, in his eyes, was the preservation of the ancient religious culture of Jews from Arab lands. Had Chinuch Atzmai remained Yiddish-speaking it could not have absorbed that population and they too would have been largely lost.

In business today, we see countless examples of the impossibility of just “playing it safe” and trying to protect one’s market share. Witness what happened to companies that once dominated their respective markets right up until the time those markets simply ceased to exist – Olivetti (typewriters); Eastman Kodak and Polaroid (film).

Just carrying on with what we have been doing until now is often not the best way to protect once past achievements. Standing pat is never a response with respect to preserving one’s level of ruchnios and often not in hanhagas of the Klal either.

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5 Responses

  1. max says:

    So I guess that Solomon Schechter wasn’t so wrong when he thought that some change was needed to “conserve Judaism”

    [YA – He was. It just wasn’t the change that he had in mind.]

  2. max says:

    What is fundamentally the difference?

  3. Reb Yid says:

    This is no less true of, say picking single stocks (instead of an index). Or try cities. The ones that specialized in one industry or another were mostly doomed to failure unless, in cases like Pittsburgh, they were able to reinvent themselves and diversify.

    We can look at Hasidim in that vein, too, in Judaism’s successful attempt to diversify from the hegemonic mitnagdish model in the Ashkenazi world.

  4. dr. bill says:

    That change occurred is a historical truism. The roles of the community and its Rabbis, though often argued, is also well documented. What gets people all riled up is particular examples. Try modifying either the view of the Chazon Ish ztl on the draft or the Rav ztl on inter-denominational dialogue, and watch the reaction. The issue comes down to whether a distinction in the metziut should make a difference in suggesting changed behavior. It is in this area where machloket reigns.

    I often wonder when I see Yosef in a Shtreimel, whether some doubt that change even occurs. OTOH rapid (and disastrous) change in behavior can result from (grossly) overstating the extent of the change in the metzius. Easy answers do not exist; pook hazi – most of the time there are more advocates for going too rapidly or too slowly.

  5. Dos is Reality says:

    OK Jonathan, just say it overtly – the Chareidi education system for boys in Israel is broken, and we need more American-style Mesivta high schools for teenagers and Touro-like college options for young men. Everyone knows it, the vast majority of people will say it quietly amongst themselves – and yet the inertia, prodded by the overzealous minority who dominate the Chareidi public square, are preventing it from happening. True, there are a few upstart institutions that are bucking the trend – like the Mesivta of Beit Shemesh and Chedvas Ha Torah in Y’lem – but the Chareidi establishment is doing everything they can to marginalize them as an option for “regular” Chareidim. You are prescient is hinting that, absent these types of choices being made available to them, the mainstream Israeli Chareidi public will eventually vote with their feet.

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