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Unexpected Changes


Rabbi Berel Wein

Having always preached in my life to myself and to others that the only certainty in life is uncertainty itself, I was not surprised, though still slightly frustrated, when my flight plans were radically changed by some circumstances beyond my control. Tickets had to be exchanged, taxis reordered, and pickups at my arrival destinations completely rearranged. I reckoned that about twenty people had to rearrange their schedules because of my enforced change of plans.

We are ill equipped emotionally to deal with the unexpected though all of us are buffeted by the unexpected repeatedly in our lives. We are surprised and disappointed when things do not go as planned though in reality we should be surprised and delighted when plans do work out. Murphy’s famous law that whatever can go wrong will eventually go wrong has more than a grain of truth to it. And we are all aware of the famous maxim about the best laid plans of mice and men.

In short, we should learn to expect the unexpected and be able to deal with it as it arises, as it surely will. In an uncertain world, uncertainty will always reign. It is the person who is flexible and who easily adjusts to new circumstances that will be most successful in life. Those who are irretrievably set in their ways will find life to be enormously frustrating, disappointing and depressing.

Often this mindset of rigidity leads to domestic discord, business failure and even social violence. It is this inability to cope with the constantly changing world that causes enormous problems in human and national society. We should be aware and wary of this.

The Jewish people have had to be the most adjustable and flexible of nations in having to deal with the centuries of change that it faced. In certain areas the Jewish people were very successful in dealing with these unexpected changes. They learned to adjust to exile, persecution, Christianity and Islam without sacrificing their central core beliefs and practices rooted in the eternal Torah. They created languages, societies and vital movements within the Jewish society all within the parameters of Jewish tradition and Torah values.

However the unexpected changes caused by the rise of the ideas of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment posed great challenges which the Jewish world is struggling with until today. Modernity, democracy, scientific discoveries and new theories regarding nature, astronomy, creation and human behavior and psyche all posed and still pose today challenges to traditional Judaism that were not present for many previous centuries.

Traditional Jewish thought was blindsided by the onslaught of the ideas and new certainties of that Enlightenment. Many of those certainties of the Enlightenment itself have been proved wrong by further changing circumstances. The Enlightenment was certain that education was the key to solve all human problems. Yet in the Holocaust a high proportion of the executives of the Nazi death camps were PhD’s and MD’s. What about the great believers in Communism, Lenin, Stalin and the Marxist wave of the future? The difficulty to deal with unexpected changes is not restricted to traditional Judaism.

The sweep of secularism and assimilation that swept the Jewish world in the wake of the ideas of modernity forced traditional Judaism to take a conservative, defensive view of its world. Paradoxically, this at one and the same time saved the core of the Jewish people from spiritual destruction while at the same time it weakened its ability to have to deal with newly unexpectedly changing circumstances.

There is no doubt that our world today after the Holocaust, the creation and growth of the State of Israel, and the vast changes in the Jewish Diaspora, is a completely different world than that of Eastern European Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet somehow we have not adjusted to these sea changes in our condition. We will undoubtedly be challenged by even further unexpected changes that will fall upon us.

There will be no avoiding these changes, just as one cannot be on a flight that an airline has cancelled. (Take my word for the accuracy of that last statement!)

Flexibility and adjustment to changing circumstances and societal norms will be demanded of us. We must preserve the Torah at all costs and it cannot be preserved by violating it - driving to the synagogue on Shabat only eventually helped destroy the Shabat and weaken the synagogue. Yet we cannot recreate seventeenth century shtetl Eastern Europe. How we will deal with these unexpected, and yet certain to come, changes in our world will define our mettle and success.
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