Q&A : The Year 2011 – January 2011 – “Jewish Life” magazine
What’s in store for us in 2011?
There are two problems with making predictions. Firstly, these predictions are often wrong. And in fact, there are some classic mistakes that have been made in this way.
One of my personal favourites is the prediction of Arthur James Balfour who said, “The motorcar will help solve the congestion of traffic”. Another classic example is Orville Wright, inventor of the aeroplane, who said that no flying machine would ever fly from New York to Paris.
So what is this demonstrating?
That we can never predict anything because Hashem is in control of the world. Human beings only see a very tiny fraction of reality and even then, we are very emotional about it. We like to think of ourselves as incredibly rational, but actually, people are emotional beings, and many decisions are made based on factors other than the sheer rationality behind them.
And the second no-no behind making predictions for the future?
Secondly, the mindset of predictions actually creates a negative approach.
It is a mindset of passivity. What does my future hold? What can I see in the crystal ball? Wanting to know what will be is a reactive and passive mindset, not pro-active and creative
Isn’t that human nature – what would the correct approach be then?
The correct Torah approach is that we don’t sit back and predict the future. We create the future.
Isn’t it a bit of a chutzpah for us to say that we mere mortals can create the future – you have just explained that Hashem is in control!
There is an amazing idea in the Gemorah that we are called upon by Hashem to be His partners in creation. And He wants us to help create the world with Him. He gives us the free choice and the space to do that, and we then have to rise to that challenge.
So how do we do that?
What Hashem wants from us is to be active, pro-active, creative, and innovative – when dealing when all of life’s issues and when dealing with all of the mitzvahs that we have to do.
Take for example the mitzvah of tefilla, davening. Reb Yerucham, one of the great Rosh Yeshivas of Mir before the war, explains that really it is an act of partnering with Hashem. Because G-d knows what He wants in the world. So why do we then, for example, pray for healing for someone who is sick? If for whatever His reasons (which we can never work out for ourselves), Hashem has decided that this person should be ill in such a way –why pray? But this isn’t so. In fact, Reb Yerucham says that Hashem invites us to daven. That He wants those prayers.
Reb Yerucham explains that is an aspect of us being partners with G-d. So that we care about the world, what happens in it and what happens to other people as if it is our own. Like a business partner who cares about the business because it is also partly his. Through our prayers, we engage with Hashem about the state of our lives and our world.
Can you give an example of a less introspective mitzvah?
Yes. Chesed (loving kindness) and tzedokah (charity). These two mitzvahs are based on a struggle against the status quo. They are about not accepting things the way they are. In the Gemorah, one of the Roman philosophers asked the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva why we give charity to the poor – because if Hashem had wanted those people to have money they would have it. He asked, ‘Isn’t this trying to undo the will of Hashem?’ Rabbi Akiva’s answer was no – this is Hashem’s will. Hashem wants us to make the world a better place with Him as His partners – through our davening, through our chesed and tzedokah, etc.
At some point, though we have to accept that things have to be a certain way. Otherwise, we would constantly be bashing our heads against the wall when things don’t go as planned….
That is an important point. But we are still in a partnership with Hashem, and in the framework of that partnership, to stay with the business analogy, Hashem is the majority shareholder. Reb Yerucham said that we are not just there to be instructed by Hashem. We are not, so to speak, His employees – but His partners. We defer to His wisdom, but we don’t deny our responsibility of taking ownership and feeling a sense of belonging in the world. And after we have done everything in our power to create a better reality, we accept His final decision.
What does this mean for us as individuals for the year going forward?
Partners don’t sit back and wonder what is in store for the business. Partners say, how can we, together, create the future of the business. And what this means for us as individuals is that in our Judaism we have to live actively – no one is going to do it for us. And, the more effort you put into something the more you love it. But giving is active not passive. Judaism is about being pro-active and creative – making a better world, and that requires action.
And to apply that to other areas of our lives…
Parenting – one of the themes of this month’s magazine – is an active job. It is not passively to sit by and let children take any direction they choose. The Talmud says that there are “three partners” in a child : Hashem, the mother and the father. This refers to conceiving, giving birth and raising children. To have children and to build a family is one of the supreme acts of creativity that exists, and is one of the highest fulfilments of our partnership with Hashem.
And as a community?
One of the things that I think has made the South African Jewish community so successful is the spirit of proactive engagement and the drive to create new things. Look at the last 150 years of our community – we have built shuls, a Beth Din, kashrut infrastructure, schools, welfare institutions, emergency services, medical services, and most recently proactive security in the form of CAP. And all of this has been built in the spirit of active creative partnership with Hashem. Because we cannot do any of this on our own, because everything in this world requires Hashem’s will. But having said that, He wants us to get involved, not to sit back and ask what is waiting for us in the new year. We have to do what we have done as a community in the past – create our future in partnership with Hashem. And look at everything we have accomplished like this so far….