(NOTE: In a day or so, I will be leaving for Israel to enjoy a three month Sabbatical, devoted mainly to writing a book on the Jewish ethic of personal responsibility, something of a lost value today. I plan to keep writing here – sorry, David – but more sporadically than usual. – RSP)
The Biblical figure Yitro (Jethro, in English), best known to us as Moshe’s father-in-law, confronted his exalted son-in-law just a short time after he joined the camp of Israel and critiqued his style of leadership (Sh’mot Chapter 18). He saw that Moshe stood alone judging the people from early morning until late night, and admonished him that “you will surely become worn out – you and the people that are with you” (18:18). But surely Moshe, one of the most brilliant individuals to ever walk the planet, could have realized this on his own, so what did Yitro see that Moshe didn’t?
Rav Moshe Gantz, longtime teacher at Yeshivat Shaalvim, explains (in his Pnei Shabbat) that Moshe perceived the world on an ideal plane. He was the only human being ever to speak to G-d face to face, as it were, and therefore saw it as his primary obligation and responsibility to transmit the Torah as he learned it in precisely the same form that he himself has acquired it. As articulate and as intelligent as other intermediaries might be, they could be no substitute for the original, and Moshe had the clearest and most complete understanding of Torah of anyone.
Yitro realized that, but also saw the practical aspects of life. Ideally, Moshe would be the only teacher, but practically – looking at the long-term – it was obvious that Moshe would be wearied by the task to the point of possible collapse. Therefore it would be better to compromise somewhat on the ideal (and appoint officers to assist him in his work) in order to attain what is almost as sublime but is more capable of realization. In the end, G-d Himself agreed with Yitro.
This is a remarkable point that is often lost in the turmoil generated by causes and activism. There are times when choices have to be made between maintaining 100% ideological purity and accomplishing nothing, or compromising on some of the ideal – and achieving perhaps 70-80% of one’s objectives.
The late Robert F. Kennedy once said (quoted in “RFK and His Times,” by Arthur Schlesinger) that “Liberals have a sort of death wish, really wanting to go down in flames. Action or success makes them suspicious, and they almost lose interest. (That’s why Adlai Stevenson is always the second coming – but he never quite accomplishes anything.) They like it much better to have a cause than to have a course of action that’s been successful.”
It is arguable how much today’s liberals would disappoint Bobby Kennedy. Certainly, Bill Clinton learned and implemented the art of compromise. Barack Obama, cut from a different cloth, is more old school – not only failing to seek compromise (not even attempting to reach out to his adversaries) but also consistently impugning his adversaries’ motivation as unprincipled and merely partisan politics (of the sort that he admits practicing when he was briefly in the US Senate). He, too, lives in the world of the “ideal,” even if his ideals are far from those of Moshe, the fawning praise of his acolytes notwithstanding. As an “idealist,” he can afford to speak in platitudes – to talk of ending poverty, ending war, stopping violence, healing the planet, and uprooting meanness – and without having to offer details or even direction. That luxury is gift accorded to him by his adulators. But if the conflict of two wholly different sets of ideals is not resolved through compromise, then stagnation and paralysis result – which is the present state of the American government.
What is more interesting, though, is the Moshe-Yitro dialectic as it relates to our religious world, which also demands a balancing of the ideal and the practical. I have found that parents are a child’s early source of both the ideal – a vision of the lofty standards that Torah asks of us – and the practical – the ways of implementing those values in real life. But as a child matures – and often ventures off to study Torah in Israel or elsewhere – the child’s new teacher (Rebbi) becomes the proponent of the ideal and the parents are left to struggle with what is realistic and often mundane. Thus, Torah teachers largely advocate for intensive and exclusive study of Torah for as long as possible, and then for some point beyond that stage, while parents are forced to raise the uncomfortable but pragmatic issues of career, support, marriage, family, etc. And when parents also value Torah study, as they should, the tension between the two paths can be extreme, as parents try desperately to keep their children somewhat grounded in the “real world” of work whereas the Rebbeim are advocating the maintenance of the idyllic world of pursuit of G-d’s word.
As we see from the Moshe-Yitro debate, both approaches are valid and both need to be accommodated. There is always the possibility that one will become so enamored with the “perfect” world that the inability to realize it will be frustrating and debilitating. It is not unusual that young people back from intensive Torah study in Israel fail to maintain the same rigor in their studies; the transition from one world to the other is incomplete, and the balancing act goes awry. It is, frankly, easier to live in the extremes than in the broad middle, at least for a time.
By the same token, an overemphasis on the practical can leave one without any vision in life at all, without any aspirations for anything grander than a bigger house, car or television set. How depressing is that!
The proper approach is to be inspired by the ideal, but to always seek to realize it or its equivalent in the real world where ideas are tested and values are explored. “If you grasp a lot, you cannot hold it; if you grasp a little, you can hold it” (Rosh Hashana 4b). If you grasp a little, and then a little more, and still more, than soon the ideal is achieved – if not in politics, then at least in the life of the spirit.