Dig To See the Roots
What the 10th of Tevet Might Teach Us
In the mythical town of Chelm in Poland, there was just one little bridge over the valley. People noticed that there was a crack in the bridge, causing some people to trip and fall. The crack widened until some people were breaking their legs. It widened further and there was a danger that people might fall through it, and then when the gap became exceptionally wide, people, wagons, and horses were falling down it to the valley below. The council of the sages of Chelm decided to deliberate on the issue. At the end of an entire day’s discussions they announced their decision: They would build a hospital in the valley below.
Chelm stories are always great for the way they can drill down, humorously, into really important and sometimes obvious issues. This one is all about treating the symptoms and not the root cause of the issue. It has relevance for pretty much any situation and has a connection with the fast day that the Jewish people are marking in the week ahead-the 10th of Tevet.
Traditionally, it marks the initial surrounding of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. We primarily spend our time thinking about the destruction of Jerusalem with the 9th of Av. To a lesser extent, we also look to the 17th of Tammuz, another minor fast day. This day though, the 10th of Tevet is vital as well. Like the folks in the Chelm tale, if they assessed what happened during the Tevet part of the timeline, maybe the events of Tammuz and Av don’t happen in the same way. After all, it took them another 18 months to actually do the destruction!
We are living in a world with big problems, many of which require big solutions but not all of them. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once asked about a particular geopolitical issue in a letter in 1975. The letter writer was wondering how to fight off the feeling of being overwhelmed at not knowing how to address such a big issue. Here is part of his response:
“There are people who claim that it is necessary to think and act “big. Surely they mean well; and to the extent that such resolutions are practical and are actually carried out – they are very helpful to improve the situation. Yet, we must never overlook – indeed, rather greatly emphasize – the so-called “small and unsophisticated” things which each modest congregation, or even each individual, can and must do – beginning with the old, yet ever-new, Jewish way, collectively as one people and also as individuals.”
It is a beautiful piece of Torah that is timeless. Whether faced with huge problems or small ones, the first steps are the same. Assess the situation. How did you get there in the first place? Understand what basic steps need to be taken. Start with those and see where it gets you.
Right now, just in the Jewish world, we are bombarded with haranguing think pieces about Jewish continuity, Jewish literacy, connection to Israel, and so many others that make us think the end is nigh and we need grand, wholesale changes. It’s hard to know where to start. As Adam Grant notes, thinking just about solving problems and not thinking of how they were creates a culture of advocacy instead of one of inquiry. Before we activate, we have to investigate.
In the Jewish realms, one place to begin is where we have always been. We have had our pillars for thousands of years: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Hasadim-Torah, Prayer, and Acts of Loving Kindness. I don’t mean those in a shallow way. How can we rededicate ourselves to deep and immersive Torah learning that responds to the needs of the world and feels relevant to a 21st century life? How can we create prayer that is resonant, contemporary, and impactful? Perhaps most importantly, how can we infuse more kindness into our daily interactions with others and with ourselves? What has caused us to miss the mark on those so woefully? We need more of all of it. This 10th of Tevet, whether you are fasting or not, sit with these questions. Let me know if you come up with anything good. Look at the roots, not the symptoms.