Torah Readers Reflections

Change takes time… Human nature

If God can do miracles that change nature, such as crossing the reed sea, turning water to blood, etc. Then why could he not change human nature and replace fear in the hearts of the Israelites with courage? What is special about the nature of mankind that even God doesn’t dare change?
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This Essay is based in part off the essay “Time and Social Transformation” published by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - Covenant and Conversation Exodus pg. 97

Freud likened the change process to the successful work of mourning the death of a loved one. He observed that grief work does not happen overnight, all at once. Day by day, bit by bit, and painfully, the mourner works through each and every memory of his loved one. We naturally picture a future with our loved ones; when we lose them, we must let the picture of that future go, too. It is a slow, painful process. But if we are to recover from the loss and move forward, we go through this process. We don't want to do it. Sometimes we don't think we can do it. But we do it, one step at a time. Sometimes it feels like it will never end. But if we stick with it—if we keep facing the reality of our loss and the feelings that go with it—we are able to move forward.


One of the reasons why lasting change takes so much time is that there is an enormous pressure in the human psyche to maintain the status quo. The mind is like a rubber band; you can easily stretch it temporarily, but it snaps back to its resting position. We resist change.

People crave the familiar; we take refuge in what we know. There is a basic principle in the deep layers of the unconscious mind that sameness=safety and change=danger. This is why it is so hard to break a habit, even if we know it is not good for us.

Right at the beginning of this week's parasha of Beshalach we read the following:


Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. (Ex. 13:17-18)


The text is very clear - God tells us the exact reason why He took the people the long way - if they see war they may want to return to Egypt. So, the question must be asked, after so many miracles that God did in Egypt, why did he just not remove fear from the Israelites hearts and replace it with courage?  To answer this we must look to an amazingly radical and very deeply controversial answer from the great medieval scholar, Moses Maimonidies. In The Guide to the Perplexed Maimonides poses a fundamental question. Why, if the sacrificial system is central to Judaism, were the prophets so critical of it?


Maimonides’ answer is that sacrifices are secondary; prayer - the uniting of the soul of the individual with the mind of God - is primary. Judaism could survive the loss of the outer form of worship, because the inner form - prayer - remained intact.


Maimonides recognizes that this idea is open to obvious challenge. If sacrifices are secondary and prayer primary, why did God not dispense with sacrifices altogether? His answer remains controversial to this day - The Israelites of Moses day could not conceive a form of worship that did not involve sacrifices - this was the norm in the ancient world. It is as if we were to remove ourselves from this time and start thinking as they will in a thousand or two thousand years from now - we can not conceive what that will be - but God, who lives beyond time can see and understand the progression of man.


Maimonides’ fundamental assertion is that there is no such thing as sudden, drastic, revolutionary change in the world we inhabit. Processes take time and there are no shortcuts.


If this is true in nature, it is all the more so of human nature. The Torah is opposed to slavery - The free God desires the free worship of free human beings. That one person should own and control another is an offense against human dignity. Yet the Torah permits slavery, while at the same time restricting and humanizing it. 


This leads to a deeper question. Why did God not circumnavigate human nature? Why did He simply not intervene and make the Israelites of Moses’ day see that the various practices of the ancient world were wrong? Here Maimonides states a truth he sees as fundamental to Judaism. God sometimes intervenes to change nature. We call those interventions miracles.  But God never intervenes to change human nature. To do so would be to compromise human free will.That is something that God, on principle, never does.


To put it simply: it would have been easy for God to create a billion computers programmed to sing his praise. But that would not be worship. Worship is not worship if it is coerced. Virtue is not virtue if we are compelled by inner or outer forces over which we have no control. By creating humanity, God, as it were, placed himself under a statute of self limitation. He had to be patient. He could not force the pace of the moral development of humankind without destroying the very thing He had created. This self limitation was God’s greatest act of love. He gave humanity the freedom to grow. But that inevitably meant that change in the affairs of mankind would be slow.


Maimonides’ prooftext for this assertion is the verse with which our parasha begins. Why did God not put courage in their hearts? Because God does not interfere in human nature.


Maimonides take it a step further however:


It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness until they acquired courage. For it is a well known fact that traveling in the wilderness, deprived of bodily enjoyments like bathing, produces courage… Besides, another generation arose during those wanderings that had not been accustomed to the degradation of slavery.


In other words: it takes a generation born in freedom to build a society of freedom. To demonstrate this we need look no further than the world we live in today.


The modern world as we know it was formed through four revolutions: the British (1640), the American (1776), the French (1789) and the Russian (1917). Two - the British and American - led to a slow but genuine transformation towards democracy, universal franchise and respect for human dignity. The French and Russian revolutions, however, led to regimes that were even worse than those they replaced: the “Terror” in France, and Stalanist communism in Russia. 


The difference was that the British and American revolutions, led by the Puritans, were inspired by the Hebrew bible. The French and Russian revolutions were inspired by philosophy: In the French, Rousseau and the Russian, Karl Marx. The bible understands the role of time in human affairs. Change is slow and evolutionary. Philosophy lacks that understanding of time and tends to promote revolution. What makes revolutions fail is the belief that by changing the structure of power, you can change human behavior. Political change can be rapid. Changing human nature is very slow indeed. It takes generations, even centuries and millennia.


The shape of the modern world would be very different if France and Russia had understood the significance of the opening verse of this week's portion of Beshallah. Change takes time. Even God himself does not force the pace. That is why He led the Israelites on a circuitous route, knowing that they could not face the full challenge of liberty immediately. There are no shortcuts on the long walk to freedom.



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