On Not Staying the Course

“Stay the course.” It’s a formidable command supposedly given by the captain from the bridge of a ship in a storm. In recent decades, it has been used to describe a political strategy described by William Saffire as persisting in an action or policy or remaining with a plan despite criticism or setbacks.

A part of Jewish life is all about staying the course. In the opening verses of Perkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Ancestors), it advises us to “build a fence around the Torah.” Hold tight, the text tells us. Make sure the lines are clearly demarcated. Or, as Tevye says in Fiddler, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on a roof!” If it was good enough for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it’s good enough for me.

Except it’s not good enough. Leaning back into the past for balance and precedent is not a winning gambit. Instead, it’s a slow fade to mediocracy and obsolescence. Stay the course is doubling down on the status quo. Staying the course does not follow a most fundamental part of life itself: evolution.

I think that’s why fundamentalists despise the science of evolution so much. It’s not really about the way evolution challenges the inerrancy of the Bible. It’s the notion that the process of change is built into the very fabric of the Universe. Change is guaranteed.

Trying to stop evolution is ultimately impossible. Trying to stop evolution creates revolution. As Jeff Goldblum says, “Nature finds a way.”

The catchphrase, “going back to normal,” is au courant. It is also misleading. There is no such thing as going back. There is no future in staying the course unless you’re a purveyor of the past. I know that nostalgia sells. But it’s all inert; it’s symbolic, a reminder of what once was. And reminders can be invaluable.

Jewish tradition is built on our past, honoring it, taking the most valuable lessons we have learned over the millennia, and propagating them. But we don’t survive through memory. We thrive when we acknowledge what we want to be and where we want to go. We take the path through the template of our past and then emerge in a new place, a place we can’t know until we’ve arrived… and then get ready to jump again.

There is no staying the course. It’s like building a sandcastle at low tide. You finish, and it’s beautiful, and you’re so proud. And then the waves start to come in. And when you’re a little kid, you believe – you really do! If you keep bailing the moat, building higher walls, your creation will be saved. Which is impossible.

So you learn how that works, and maybe you build it up the beach. Using the same substance you’ve always used. It’s not the same sandcastle. It’s a new one. And it will last… until, because of wind or rain or a mean kid knocking it over, it’s gone. All castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually. And then it’s time for a new castle.

Ultimately, we know that our lives ARE as shaky as a fiddler on a roof. That’s not a negative statement; it’s just the way it is. Everything will follow the arrow of time. There’s only one direction, and it’s forward.

We are not who we were 25 years ago. It’s helpful to know the norms and expectations of the past. But it would be utterly contraindicated to seek the shelter of the past. We are living at a pivotal moment, one in which we are mandated to lean forward, uncomfortably forward. Sometimes we will lose our footing. We can – we must – embrace the past while we simultaneously evolve. That’s a tricky dance. But we can do it, not by staying the course but rather by daring to use our creativity and intuition. Tevye was right: it’s a new world. Every day.

Shabbat Shalom,

rebhayim

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