November 10, 2014

Change requires consistent commitment. Quick fixes often become mere stopgap measures that mask a problem until it becomes an emergency. On the other hand, sustainability is usually behind real change.

The best Jewish example of this notion was the venerable Rabbi Akiva. Famously, he did not start learning Torah until he was forty years old and without even knowing the alef-bet, he persisted.  Indeed, through consistent learning, he became one of the greatest sages in all of Jewish history.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, using a verse from Job (chapter 14) is taught to explain Rabbi Akiva’s extraordinary growth: “Water wears away the stones.” Over time, we are able to create real change if we stay steady, focused, and passionate on fulfilling the task.

It takes humans a long time to adapt to new realities. Consider how Maimonides explains why the Israelites needed 40 years in the desert to transition from Egypt to the Promised Land.

For a sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible…. It is not in the nature of man that, after having been brought up in slavish service…he should all of a sudden wash his hands of the dirt (of slavery)….. The Deity uses a gracious ruse in causing (the people) to wander perplexedly in the desert until their souls became courageous…and until, moreover, people were born who were not accustomed to humiliation and servitude (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:32).

Political philosopher Michael Walzer adds:

Here again is the argument for gradualism. Physically, the escape from Egypt is sudden, glorious, complete; spiritually and politically, it is very slow, a matter of two steps forward, one step back. I want to stress this is a lesson from the Exodus experience again and again (Exodus and Revolution, 58).

One of the more peculiar instances of a person gradually moving toward an eventual goal was the English physician and lecturer Peter Mark Roget (1779-1861). Although he was a famous physician and lecturer (and inventor of the slide rule), it was after he retired in 1840 that his true calling emerged. Perhaps as a coping mechanism for his troubled family life (in which numerous relatives were deemed insane: his uncle committed suicide in his presence), Roget began making lists of things by the time he was eight years old. In 1852, this obsession led to the publication of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, which has since been known as Roget’s Thesaurus. This compendium of words and their synonyms has proven invaluable to everyone from writers to toastmasters to crossword puzzle mavens. This was certainly a work compiled gradually over a lifetime, and as an adaptation to life’s difficulties.

Signing legislation into law takes only a moment, but social adaptation takes decades. America saw legislation passed in the 1960s for civil rights, and yet in the twenty-first century we still have not actualized complete equality. We might even be stumbling backwards, with the rapid enactment of voter ID laws, weakening collective bargaining contracts, closing access to contraceptive treatments, and the stubborn refusal of many states to recognize marriage equality. For all the human progress we have achieved, we have so much farther to go. This is what makes life worth living.

It might not only be inevitable that lasting change takes time. It may be ideal as well. It may be that we must take a longer path even when a quicker one is right before our eyes.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai used to say, ‘If there is a sapling in your hand when they say to you, ‘Behold, the Messiah has come!’ complete planting the sapling, and then go and welcome the Messiah’ (Avot d’Rebbe Natan, version B, #31).

On the other hand, we know that zrizut (alacrity) is a key Jewish virtue (as explained in the seventh chapter of Mesilat Yesharim). When we know what is right and good, we must act with urgency to bring change. Knowing the balance between our desire for swift justice and knowledge that lasting change requires longstanding work is the difficult task. We must move with urgency while keeping faith that our efforts to build a redeemed world will pay off.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of six books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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