Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

10 Cheshvan 5761 - November 8, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Torah Universe: The Training of the Shrew

by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

The water shrew is a tiny mammal, roughly resembling a mouse except that it possesses a shorter tail and a much longer snout. It spends much of its time in water, where it hunts for worms and other aquatic insects. So far, unremarkable. The unusual thing about the water shrew is the way in which it navigates.

All other creatures direct their movement using their senses. Birds use sight. Dogs use smell. Bats use sonar, a combination of squeaking and hearing. Sharks detect electromagnetic fields in the water. Moles feel their way along. There are approximately four thousand species of mammals, five thousand birds, three thousand reptiles, three thousand amphibians, millions upon millions of insect species, and they all navigate with one sense or another. The water shrew alone directs its movement with something else entirely: memory.

The first time that a water shrew travels from A to B, it does so with an inordinate amount of time and care. It is almost blind, but it has a highly developed sense of touch. Using its mobile and sensitive whiskers, it feels out every single nook and cranny of the route. After it has done this, and has memorized every single aspect of the route, it travels along the route by memory. It does not detect anew its path by way of sight or smell, but merely follows the route that is charted out in its mind. "It is very wonderful," writes zoologist Konrad Lorenz, "that the same result, namely a perfect orientation in space, can be brought about in two so widely divergent ways: by true observation, as we achieve it or, as the water-shrew does, by learning by heart every possible spatial contingency that may arise in a given territory."

There are advantages to this technique. Without needing to spend any time on receiving and assessing sensory information, the water shrew can speed along a route far quicker than it would be able to otherwise. Once the initial work of memorization has been done, it's certainly a timesaving way of getting around.

But the disadvantages are considerable. If an easier alternative to the route has become available, the shrew will not know to use it. A loop-shaped detour around an obstacle, that has become redundant because the obstacle has been removed, will take weeks and weeks to become even a tiny amount shorter. And not only has the shrew, by sticking to its planned route, ruled out positive modifications; it also runs the risk of terrible tragedy when the plan fails. If a barrier has been created along the route, the shrew will run headlong into it. There are reports of water-shrews that have broken their necks by blindly leaping into a pond that had been recently drained.

All things considered, then, while the water shrew saves itself some difficulties when traveling through life by following a mapped-out path, the losses ultimately outweigh these comforts. Far better is to navigate one's way through life, always prepared for whatever new situations may appear and to be able to cope with them.

These two approaches exist in the realm of Torah study. One can simply memorize a list of laws, and apply them as they occur. Far better, however, is to develop the tools for deriving the law in each new case that occurs. Rattling off a list of halachos won't help you know the halacha in a new situation. It is tools such as lomdus which enable one to formulate the halacha in new situations.

It is not only in the realm of Torah study that we see how the take-things-as- they-come approach is superior to the water-shrew's plan-things-out-in-advance- and-rely-on-it approach. In the broader realm of life, this point is also important.

Many of us have tendencies to try to plan every aspect of our lives in advance and "leave nothing to chance." We attempt to control our futures due to our fears that we won't be able to handle things if they do not turn out exactly as we wish.

In doing so, we suffer the same disadvantages as the water shrew. New and beneficial opportunities may arise, but we may be so locked into our map for life that we fail to take advantage of them. And when challenges or obstacles occur, we lack the readiness to deal with them. Not to mention the fact that the fear of things not turning out according to plan can be crippling.

The truth is that rarely, if ever, is life as smooth as the route on a map. We are incapable of determining our own destinies; only G-d can do that. "Like the clay in the hand of the potter, he expands it at will and contracts it at will -- so are we in Your hand, O preserver of kindness," we say in the Yom Kippur tefillos. Hashem determines our destiny; but that doesn't mean that there is nothing for us to do. "Everything is in the hands of Heaven, apart from the fear of Heaven." This is understood to mean that while Hashem alone determines our fate, we alone determine how we respond to our fate.

Bitachon is an essential tool for avoiding trying to live as a water- shrew. Trying to control our futures is a reflection of our feeling that if something were to go not according to plan, we would feel, "I can't handle it!" Yet with true bitochon, there is never a feeling of "I can't handle it," as every situation is specifically designed to be handled by us and for us to benefit from it. With true bitochon, a person is ready for whatever life throws at him, confident that he will always be able to handle it, and to do so in a way that will be beneficial.

There are always new hurdles to avoid, new opportunities to take advantage of, and new challenges to tackle. There may be a little bit of the water-shrew inside us, but we need to train the shrew to learn to tackle life as it comes, to be ready to rise up to every new situation and make the best of it. We cannot chart our destinies; but we can navigate them.

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