The Secret of Jewish Progress

November 15, 2021 | by

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The king is dead, long live the king!”

This well-known cry is heard in monarchies whenever a new king is crowned. Part of what makes it powerful is that, at first, it sounds self-contradictory: If the king is dead, how can we wish him a long life?

Only after a moment do we realize that the two kings mentioned are different people. This is of course intentional: It is meant to emphasize the totality of the change in rulers. The moment the old monarch dies, it’s as if he's gone and forgotten, and from now on, the new monarch is the one and only king, the new exclusive, eternal bearer of the crown.

This existence of this custom is more than anecdotal. The pattern of erasing the past and starting all over with something completely new is deeply embedded in Western culture, and comprises one of the most fundamental differences between it and Judaism.

A History of Upheavals

After bidding farewell to Esau, the Torah enumerates the great people and kings who are destined to come from him. Included is a list of “the kings who ruled the land of Edom before the Children of Israel had a king.” After each of these kings is named, it is written that he died and immediately afterwards a new king reigned in his place.

According to tradition, Edom represents Rome, or more broadly, the West. The description of the kings of Edom can therefore be seen as alluding to a recurring pattern characterizing Western civilization. Western history is replete with revolutions attempting to destroy what came before and establish a new order that promises to solve all previous problems – until of course that new order is overthrown by the next revolution.

There are many examples of this. The hedonistic cultures of Greece and Rome were replaced by a Christian theology espousing asceticism and abstinence, only later to be replaced by a very this-worldly secularism. The French revolution rebelled against the ancien régime, but deteriorated into a reign of terror that had to fall before it could become a democracy. The Communist revolution overturned the Czarist rule, but quickly turned into a dictatorship that eventually collapsed.

The “he died... he reigned” dynamic is found even in the history of science, art, and culture: antitheses refute theses, new paradigms topple the old, modern movements succeed outdated ones – and each time there’s the feeling that this is “the last word,” the pinnacle of progress.

We are now witnessing the fallout of several such hasty revolutions. Drunk on the technology of the smartphone, society was quick to equip every child with their own personal screen of delights; it took a whole generation to begin to see the resulting damage and start pedaling back with apps like YouTube Kids and Google Families. The leaders of the sexual revolution broke almost all traditional sexual mores, leaving society to deal with children exposed to pornography, a loneliness epidemic, and a wave of “me-too” litigants. A short-sighted academic fad portrayed all gender differences as oppressive “social constructs,” and now a whole generation of parents and educators are facing an unprecedented wave of gender-confused children seeking to do irreversible damage to their bodies.

“My own slow pace”

We can see this pattern with Esau himself. In a moment of fatigue, he scorns his birthright and sells it to Jacob for some lentil stew, but later regrets it and claims he was tricked into it. One moment he honors his father, preparing a meal for him, and the next he starts making plans for what he'll do after his father passes away. First he wants to kill Jacob, but further down the line embraces him and suggests they live together. Western revolutions are rooted in the fluctuating character of their founder.

Opposite Esau stands Jacob, who embodies a different approach. When the brothers unite and Esau invites Jacob to join him, the younger brother replies in the following words:

… My master [i.e. Esau] knows that the children are tender, and the flocks and the cattle, which are raising their young, depend upon me… Now, let my master go ahead before his servant, and I will move at my own slow pace, according to the pace of the work that is before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my master, to Seir."

The key words here are “I will move at my own slow pace.” Jacob doesn’t rule out joining Esau. He too wants all the wonderful things Esau wants. But he doesn’t want to act hastily. As befits his name, he wants to advance “toe to heel,” each foot touching the previous one. He doesn't want to rush things and then discover he left something behind.

What causes Jacob to proceed so slowly? He notes two factors: "according to the pace of the work that is before me," and "according to the pace of the children." The Hebrew term used here for “according to the pace of” is le-regel, which comes from the word for "leg." The verse thus brings to mind two weights attached to the legs, slowing the pace of the walker.

The first is work. On the simple level, this refers to Jacob’s sheep and cattle. However, in another place the Sages tell us the word "work" alludes to the building of the Sanctuary. According to this, “work” can be interpreted as the ambition to turn this world into a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Jacob isn’t interested only in practical solutions that “work,” but in life based on spirituality and an affinity for what’s beyond this world.

The second consideration is children, representing concern for the next generation. The novel and the revolutionary are not necessarily suited to the tender souls of children, nor to every generation. Multi-generational thinking allows us to examine things from a wider, more far-seeing perspective, and tends to put some brakes on the adoption of new ideas in favor of a stable and flourishing future.

Suspect the New

Jacob’s level-headed approach doesn’t necessarily state that “the new is forbidden according to the Torah,” but it does view innovation with some wariness: Is it indeed all good? What is hidden within it? Does it sit well with the old ways we shouldn’t summarily dispose of? The word "new" in Hebrew, chadash, is made up of the same letters as the word for suspect, chashad. The new is something to be suspected.

This is the secret of Jewish progress. We don’t get mired in the past, but we also don’t throw it away; we carry it with us towards the future. We don’t march in place, but we also don’t jump ahead; we walk with moderation step by step. We aren’t satisfied with just the old interpretations, but we also don’t dismiss them; we add to them new interpretations that respond to the times.

Point to ponder: The Sages say “the innovator has the lower hand.” The simple meaning of this saying is that he who seeks to change the status quo is always at a disadvantage. But I heard from Rabbi Moshe Genuth a new interpretation of this expression, which is both conservative and revolutionary: Anyone who wants to innovate must place his or her hand on the lowest, earliest level of the structure, and from there raise the whole structure upward. Innovators need to take with them everything that came before them, and elevate it. In this way, their innovations will be connected to those of previous generations, will be accepted by all, and will carry the past into the future.


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