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
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
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