Rabbi Aaron of Karlin – one of the first great Hasidic leaders – once set out to influence R. Haike, a righteous and learned man from Amdur, Lithuania, to cease living in seclusion and join the burgeoning Hasidic movement in order to influence the society around him. Rabbi Aaron did not deliver a lengthy sermon. He said a single sentence: “When one does not get better, one gets worse.”
These few words were enough to shake R. Haike’s soul. Until that moment, he had considered himself a saintly Torah scholar, but this one sentence haunted him. He started thinking: “I may be a fine person, but I am not getting any better!” Finally, he got up and joined the Hassidic movement. When he returned to Amdur, he deeply influenced his townspeople.
Had I had as much power as Rabbi Aaron, I too would have said just that one sentence; but since I do not, I shall have to elaborate on it. This sentence holds true about everything in the world. Nothing ever remains totally stable. Some things are relatively stable; but generally speaking, there is a dialectic, namely, the more alive a thing is, the less stable it is. Only objects that do not interact with anything else remain stable for relatively long periods. But whatever does interact with its surroundings cannot remain in its current state. This is as true for keeping house as it is to running a state, for the life of the individual, for the history of an entire society, and for the world of flora and fauna. Whenever no additional effort is invested, whenever an attempt is made to keep things in one place, there is decline.
This fact is much more evident, true and painful here in the former Soviet Union (FSU). True, the very fact that you are reading this article, your very connections with a society that identifies itself as Jewish, and your openness to things Jewish all constitute a tremendous change compared with the state of things here in the past. But this dramatic, historic change has been mostly on the theoretical level. Practically and objectively, there is still so much to do that one should ask oneself how long one should be content to remain on more or less the same level?
In regard to the state of Jewry in the FSU, such questions must be asked sincerely and courageously.
In every family there is the paradox of the good kid and the bad kid. The good kid is always scolded: Why didn’t you do so-and-so? Your grades are not high enough. You went to sleep too late. You did not arrive on time, and so on. The bad kid, on the other hand, is in a much more comfortable position. If one day he does not break a window, he is praised by all: How wonderful of you not to have broken or spoiled anything. Thanks for coming home before 3 a.m.! How nice of you not to have pulled the cat’s tail. And so on.
Until now, the Jews of the FSU have been “bad kids” and thus whatever they did was terrific and wonderful. Someone teaches another the alphabet? That’s great. One does not harm others ? it’s outstanding. One who knows that he is Jewish and is not ashamed to say this to two other Jews deserves a few medals.
Until now, we have had plenty of that. Or to bring an example that does not contain moral judgment: We don’t tell a healthy person, “You look so good, your cheeks have better color, your breathing is fine.” Such things are said, rather, to someone lying in hospital barely alive. When a very ill person suddenly moves a toe, or eats two spoons of soup, everybody cheers.
A newly healthy person, on the other hand, receives no compliments for walking on his own. Indeed, all sorts of demands are made of him. We tell him: now that you are more or less normal, all those things that a month ago were moving and exciting are no longer important. It’s high time for you to do significant things.
For a person accustomed to being spoiled and told only nice things, it is not easy to be told: Now that you are no longer dangerously ill, I can demand things from you. The former state of things was surely more comfortable. Indeed, many people wish to remain cripples, because then, whatever they do is not only correct, but beautiful. Every little thing wins compliments. Once they are on the road to recovery, however, they are told: Get out and work. Do something. Start being useful.
You too, now that you are healthier as individuals and as a community, must start to see your main problem as being not “how much have I done,” but “how much more I have to do, what work still awaits me.” Much more than the fact that I have crawled a few inches from my hole, what matters now is where I am headed. And surely both the personal development and the work that every one is required to do as teacher, guide, parent, or leader is tremendous.
We are all working against time, both as a people and as individuals. There are two reasons for this. The first is the demographic situation of the Jewish people in general, and of the Jews in Russia in particular. This situation is simply catastrophic. Formal data about the FSU indicate that for every 10 Jews who pass away, only one Jew is born. In other words: there is no need to send anyone to kill the Jews; we are eliminating ourselves. This phenomenon is partially the result of the fact that the remaining Jewish population is largely comprised of old, single people, and it also has to do with the general atmosphere in Russia. Whenever a child is born, it is as if a statement is made: “I believe in the future!” When people do not believe there is a future, children cease to be born. This is just the simple physical aspect of the issue.
The second reason is the issue of Jewish identity. Most of the people who belong to the Jewish people ethnically — even those whose last name is Shapiro, Rabinowitz or Zalmanson – belong only ethnically; as living people with a national or individual self-definition, they do not belong. It really does not matter if your grandfather was a rabbi or your great-grandfather was a tzaddik.
Someone once called this “the potato culture”; meaning that the best part is buried in the earth, whereas what’s above the surface isn’t worth much. When the best thing one can say about a nation is that its citizens are like potato leaves, then that nation is not a living thing.
Yet all is not lost, since one can see a broader, clearer picture from the outside. But at any rate, the conclusion is that in a situation like this, whoever is “inside,” at the core, must work 10 or 15 times harder in order to achieve something. In plague-stricken places, one who has recovered must take care of an entire city. In a city of the blind, a person with one eye is king.
This is a very heavy responsibility. In terms of Jewish life, the former Soviet Union is in about the same state as a plague city; if I am the only one who can still see, it means that all the others are my responsibility. So I must do much more work than I would, perhaps, have liked.
Each one of us must therefore take up his obligation, perhaps not well-defined, yet concrete for all that. As a slogan for this movement (and not a slogan of the Comsomol) I would use “One Step Forward.” This does not refer to Supreme Causes or to great needs. Rather, it says that every man, wherever he may be, must take one step forward. To use Mao Tze Tung’s aphorism: “Even a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”
Yes, each of us is at a different point, both geographically and on the chart of his or her own life. Truly, it doesn’t matter exactly where people are in terms of time and achievement, nor is the ratio between what they are capable of doing and what they have actually done all that important. Every person has a different personal graph, a whole different world map. What for one person is the past, for another is a still-distant future.
But one thing that people can do wherever they are – and they can do it in a consistent, ongoing, defined and focused way – is to take one step forward. Each person can move just a tiny bit, but still a tiny bit forward. The essence of all movement is that one does not remain in the same place. Whatever does not progress, regresses, and whatever does not ascend, descends. That which does not improve, deteriorates; and that which does not become more alive, becomes more dead.
The decision to make time and move one step forward is not the solution to all problems; it is merely a decision to move one step forward, and to keep moving. Wherever you may be, move just a little bit forward. There are people who will progress by learning a new thing; one who today knows only one letter but next week knows two, has taken one step forward. This is so much to ask – and yet, so little.
This is, in fact, the only way in which movement can be created. When we analyze the motion of a large wave, we see that it moves because almost every molecule in it takes a minute step forward. In this way, enough movement is created to wash over the world.
The assumption is that every man has not only a body, but also wings. And if we ask, what we should aspire to reach with these wings, we may use the Kotzker Rebbe’s reply: “What is man’s purpose in this world? To raise the skies.”