While Robert Frost encounters two equally trodden paths in the forest and knowingly accepts that one day he’ll lie about choosing the one less traveled, many of us, throughout our lives, repeatedly encounter unequal paths and always choose the more obvious, and arguably easier, route.
How often, if ever, did we take risks? How frequently did we not follow the direction set out by those who raised us? All of us to one degree or another are fearful of change, of diverting from the set path. We are hardwired to be fearful of the potential losses that change necessarily requires.
Ron Heifetz, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, understands resistance to change as stemming from feared losses, particularly the fear of disloyalty, isolation and incompetence. The Palestinian, holding fast to his self-declared right of return despite political reality, fears disloyalty to his late grandfather who made him swear to forever struggle to find his way back to their ancestral village, while giving him the rusted key to his own parents’ home. The Haredi Jew, who internally questions received tradition, fears isolation from the only community he has ever known if he is to change his own practices. The mid-level manager fears real or imagined incompetence in trying to change the way her department has always functioned.
The Talmud tries to understand the mentality of someone who has made certain strides toward changing misbehaviour, but who still holds on to something unhelpful from his past.
R. Adda b. Ahava said: One who has sinned and confesses his sin but does not repent may be compared to a man holding a dead reptile in his hand, for although he may immerse himself in all the waters of the world, his immersion is of no avail to him; but if he throws it away from his hand then as soon as he immerses himself in forty se’ahs of water (i.e. a kosher mikvah), immediately his immersion becomes effective. (B. Ta’anit 16a)
This man seeks ritual purification through immersion in a mikvah. He seemingly wants to change. Yet, he holds onto a sheretz, a dead creepy crawly creature, which is a conveyor of impurity. So long as the sheretz remains in his hand, he can never become purified. Why doesn’t he just throw the sheretz away?
Is his head directing him to immersion, while his heart forces him to hold tight? Has this dead creature been with him so long that he is afraid of what discarding it will do to him? Is this whole immersion a charade for family or friends while all the while this individual never truly intends on changing? Does he even know that the sheretz, perhaps once alive and valuable, is now nothing but a source of pollution, now nothing more than a destructive influence?
We cannot know for sure why the individual in R. Adda b. Ahava’s analogy acted as he did. Certainly, however, we can be confident that each of has our own sheretz—something that we cling to that hinders growth.
Our religion values tradition, but not at all costs. Indeed, the unofficial motto of Conservative Judaism for most of its existence was Tradition and Change. Tradition is a default. Change is a choice, one that many of us, consciously or not, fight vociferously. Yet, in order to better ourselves and the institutions that we cherish, to live in new worlds rather than to dream about them, we must surely find a way to change.
This column is excerpted and modified from a Shabbat sermon delivered at Beth Tzedec on Parashat Pekudei 5774.