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May 8, 2014 11:08 am

Judaism Teaches Long-Term Thinking

avatar by Jonathan Sacks

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Lag B'Omer Bonfire in Tel Hebron in 2013. Photo: Tzipi Schlissel / Tazpit News Agency.

In last week’s parsha and this there are two quite similar commands, both of which have to do with counting time. Last week we read about the counting of the omer, the forty nine days between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot:

From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Lev. 23: 15-16)

This week we read about the counting of the years to the Jubilee:

Count off seven sabbath years – seven times seven years – so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Lev. 25: 8-10)

There is, though, one significant difference between the two acts of counting, and it tends to be missed in translation. The counting of the Omer is in the plural: u-sefartem lakhem. The counting of the years is in the singular: vesafarta lekha. Oral tradition interpreted the difference as referring to who is to do the counting. In the case of the Omer, the counting is a duty of each individual. Hence the use of the plural. In the case of the Jubilee, the counting is the responsibility of the Bet Din, specifically the supreme court, the Sanhedrin. It is the duty of the Jewish people as a whole, performed centrally on their behalf by the court. Hence the singular.

Implicit here is an important principle of leadership. As individuals we count the days, but as leaders we must count the years. As private persons we can think about tomorrow, but in our role as leaders we must think long-term, focusing our eyes on the far horizon. “Who is wise?” asked Ben Zoma, and answered: “One who foresees the consequences.” Leaders, if they are wise, think about the impact of their decisions many years from now. Famously, when asked in the 1970s what he thought about the French Revolution in 1789, Chinese leader Zhou Enlai replied: “Too soon to say.”

Jewish history is replete with just such long-term thinking. When Moses, on the eve of the exodus, focused the attention of the Israelites on how they would tell the story to their children in the years to come, he was taking the first step to making Judaism a religion built on education, study, and the life of the mind, one of its most profound and empowering insights.

Throughout the book of Devarim he exhibits stunning insight when he says that the Israelites will find that their real challenge will be not slavery but freedom, not poverty but affluence, and not homelessness but home. Anticipating by two millennia the theory of the 14th century Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, he predicts that over the course of time, precisely as they succeed, the Israelites will be at risk of losing their asabiyah or social cohesion and solidarity as a group. To prevent this he sets forth a way of life built on covenant, memory, collective responsibility, justice, welfare and social inclusion – still, to this day, the most powerful formula ever devised for a strong civil society.

When the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah went into exile to Babylon, it was the foresight of Jeremiah, expressed in his letter to the exiles, that became the first ever expression of the idea of a creative minority. The people could maintain their identity there, he said, while working for the benefit of society as a whole, and eventually they would return. It was a remarkable prescription, and has guided Jewish communities in the Diaspora for the twenty-six centuries since.

When Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people to the Water Gate in Jerusalem in the mid-fifth century BCE and gave them the world’s first adult education seminar, they were signaling a truth that would only become apparent several centuries later in Hellenistic times, that the real battle that would determine the future of the Jewish people was cultural rather than military. The Maccabees won the military struggle against the Seleucids, but the Hasmonean monarchy that ensued eventually became Hellenised itself.

When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai said to Vespasian, the Roman general leading the siege against Jerusalem, “Give me Yavneh and its sages,” he was saving the Jewish future by ensuring that an ongoing source of spiritual and intellectual leadership would remain.

Among the most prescient of all Jewish leaders were the rabbis of the first two centuries of the Common Era. It was they who ordered the great traditions of the Oral Law into the disciplined structure that became the Mishnah and subsequently the Talmud; they who developed textual study into an entire religious culture; they who developed the architectonics of prayer into a form eventually followed by Jewish communities throughout the world; and they who developed the elaborate system of rabbinic halakhah as a “fence around the law.” They did what no other religious leadership has ever succeeded in doing, honing and refining a way of life capable of sustaining a nation in exile and dispersion for two thousand years.

In the early nineteenth century, when rabbis like Zvi Hirsch Kalisher and Yehudah Alkalai began to argue for a return to Zion, they inspired secular figures like Moses Hess (and later Yehudah Leib Pinsker and Theodor Herzl), and even non-Jews like George Eliot, whose Daniel Deronda (1876) was one of the first Zionist novels. That movement ensured that there was a Jewish population there, able to settle and build the land so that there could one day be a State of Israel.

When the yeshiva heads and Hassidic leaders who survived the Holocaust encouraged their followers to marry and have children and rebuild their shattered worlds, they gave rise to what has become the single fastest growing element in Jewish life. Because of them there are now, within living memory of the almost total destruction of the great centres of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe, more Jews studying at yeshivah or seminary than at any time in the whole of Jewish history – more than in the great days of the nineteenth century yeshivot at Volozhyn, Ponevez, and Mir, more even than in the days of the academies at Sura and Pumbedita that produced the Babylonian Talmud.

Great leaders think long-term and build for the future. That has become all too rare in contemporary secular culture with its relentless focus on the moment, its short attention spans, its fleeting fashions and flash mobs, its texts and tweets, its fifteen-minutes of fame, and its fixation with today’s headlines and “the power of now.”

Nonetheless the real business leaders of today are those who play the longest of long games. Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Larry Page and Sergei Brin of Google, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, were all prepared to wait a long time before monetizing their creations. Amazon.com, for example, was launched in 1995 and did not show a profit until the last quarter of 2001. Even by historic standards, these were exceptional instances of long-term thinking and planning.

Though they are secular examples, and though in any case we have not had prophets since the Second Temple, there is nothing intrinsically mysterious about being able to foresee the consequences of choosing this way rather than that. Understanding the future is based on deep study of the past. Chess masters have committed so many classic games to memory that they can almost instantly tell by looking at the placing of the pieces on a board, how to win and in how many moves. Warren Buffett spent so many hours and years as a young man reading corporate annual accounts that he developed a finely honed ability to pick companies poised for growth. Already in 2002, five years before the financial collapse actually came, he was warning that derivatives and the securitization of risk were “financial weapons of mass destruction,” a secular prophecy that was both true and unheeded.

Throughout my years in the Chief Rabbinate our team -and I believe leadership must always be a team enterprise – would always ask: how will this affect the Jewish community 25 years from now? Our task was to build not for us but for our children and grandchildren. The great systemic challenge was to move from a community proud of its past to one focused on its future. That is why we chose to express our mission in the form of a question: Will we have Jewish grandchildren?

The leadership challenge of Behar is: count the years, not the days. Keep faith with the past but your eyes firmly fixed on the future.

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  • Moishela

    BS”D
    Discussion with Moishela (with his family)
    A Handicapped child
    3 Cheshvan 5775 (Oct 26, ’14)

    FROM: http://www.dani18.com/uploads/MSL-C1.pdf

    Also a powerful Video from Moishela to the Jews
    “a wake-up call”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euVpNZ8qFyY

    “The Noose Is Getting Tighter”

    The world has absolutely gone mad, absolutely mad. Murder, accidents, weather related deaths, riots, plagues, Mamash a very scary world. Every day something new. Every day something more bloody. Every day more and more deaths. Every day we become more and more frightened.

    The noose is getting tighter and tighter around us, and the worst part about it is that no one seems to feel it except a very few. Very few people feel it at all. Either they don’t want to feel it so they ignore it, or they are really in some very strong daze or under some kind of drug that keeps them from seeing what is happening. It doesn’t even have to be medication, although I would imagine that in the western world at least 50% of the people are on some kind of psychiatric medication. They drug themselves on Gashmius on materialism so they won’t know, so they won’t feel, so they won’t be afraid. What is happening is frightening because the world is beginning to feel the effects of being ruled by a group of absolute maniacs, of people that are evil to their bone. They are planning crazy things and thinking they can get away with it, thinking that they can turn the world into their private domain, that they can take the Jewish people and turn them into Goyim. Their greatest goal that they want to achieve is they want to destroy, to kill nine-tenths of the world population. What can I tell you? We Yidden are being targeted. Our faith is being targeted, and we must, must come back to Hashem in order to stop it.

    I have dreams, I have such frightening dreams every night. I see cities being blown up. I see all kinds of terrible things happening. I see wild men killing and plundering. I see planes shooting and bombing. I see people dying of thirst and hunger, and I cry and I cry. I am so nervous and so afraid, not for myself – for my family and for Am Yisroel, how terrible, how terrible. I’m not even giving you the details of what I see but it’s very very frightening! I don’t know how to pass on to my fellow Jews through what I am writing, the difficult things we still have to face.

    How can I beg? How can I plead with Am Yisroel to open their eyes, to get rid of the Gashmius, to stop looking like street people, to start looking again like Jews, to start acting again like Jews? I’m talking to the Frum. What else can I say to you? What else can I do? If you read over everything I’ve said to this point, you should already be doing Teshuva in the strongest way, but I see in the streets that people are buying and buying things that are not necessary. I see that they are making fancy parties and fancy Chasunas and things that are not necessary. I see and I feel that children are growing up to love, to lust after Gashmius. I see how we are eating like gluttons, but have become very very weak in our Mitzvos and it makes me cry. Now we are facing the most horribly difficult time in history and we’re messing around with nonsense.

    What can I say? What can I do? I’m only a young person with an old head and an old heart, but I can tell you this: you better straighten up fast. You better get your act together because the suffering is going to be unbelievable if not, and if you take yourself in hand then you can save yourself so much suffering, so much misery. Do you understand? People, do you understand? You can save yourselves so much suffering, but if not it will be unimaginable suffering. I’m begging you. I’m begging you. Put your trust in Hashem not in people, not in science, not in chief rabbis, or in heads of state. Put your trust only in Hashem, only in Hashem, only in Hashem. We have to be like the Yidden that left Mitzrayim and spent forty years in the desert. We have to be like that. We have to have that kind of trust of Hashem without question, no matter what happens, no questions asked. We must know in our hearts and our souls that it’s all for our good, it’s to help us go higher, to help us reach the next stage of Creation which is Olam Habah of Moshiach Tzidkainu, and our journey upwards, to total salvation, to completely become one with Hashem. That’s what I have to say.

    I’m afraid that my words have become useless because people have become used to listening to them, even though they are harsh and they are strong and people see around them terrible things happening, but they are getting used to it. They want their Gashmius more than they want to listen. So I will say a few more sentences to make sure you understand. Please, please do Teshuva. Change your way of life. Become Tzniusdik, the men and the women. Trust Hashem in everything. Don’t go looking outside of your Daled Amos for the Yeshua. The Yeshua is only with Hashem, only with Hashem. In the near future we are going to witness very bloody happenings, very frightening and very bloody. Here in Eretz Yisroel there will be more riots and more trouble, but in Chutz La’aretz it will be really bad, really bad.

    Between now and Chanukah we are going to have a rush of incidents all over the world, that will put great fear into most of the population of the world. You won’t know where to look first, up, down, left, right. Everywhere there will be trouble big big trouble. Hashem is trying to show us that the inevitable must be and that means that we are coming very close to the Geula Sheleima, and the hardest part of this birth is now and therefore you can either have an easy birth or a very difficult one. It’s your choice.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    This article truly shows the way Jewish society must adapt itself to its focus on the future as it remembers the past. No doubt that division within Jewish civilization represents a breach in both trust and promise for the Jewish people in the future as rifts in civilization challenge the very probity of Jewish culture and its ability to coalesce the Jewish people. Thank you, Rabbi Sacks, for such an insightful, meaningful, and enriching essay.

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