As I am about to retire after 35 years as senior rabbi of Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, I am inclined to consider the ceaseless flow of change.
Everything changes. The paths along which we come back are never the same as the paths by which we went out. Though the tides rise and fall, their flood time never washes the same beach.
Things change around us, slowly and incrementally, or abruptly and rapidly. Our bodies change in ways we desire, as when we grow and mature. And in ways we resist, as when the force of gravity makes its effects evident. We may adopt imaginative and desperate strategies to perpetuate youth, but we struggle against change, which will inexorably continue until the end.
Society changes perpetually, sometimes so quickly that the changes are not easy to accept. Behaviors that people would hide at all costs but a few decades ago are now proudly displayed and advocated. How swiftly and broadly have social stigmas been transformed into acceptable conduct!
As Helen Keller said, “The heresies of one age become the orthodoxies of the next.”
Change may provide relief or vexation; we may welcome it or be wary of it, respect it or resent it, be tranquil about it or troubled by it. Change can be liberating — as the day man landed on the moon — or horrifying — as on 9/11.
Some changes are for the best, like airline travel and the collapse of communism. Some are for the worst, like telemarketing and managed care, and the verdict is still out on some like genetic engineering, email and cell phones.
Often, the older we become, the more resistant we are to change. As Pearl Buck wrote, “You can tell your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come into contact with a new idea.” Every leader knows that the surest way to make enemies is to try to change something.
Change itself has changed, accelerating at a rate beyond any previous transformations. It seems that the more things change — upheavals of modernization, complexities of globalization, terrors of nuclearization — the more they stay insane.
But amid all this change, the human condition is unchanging. As ever, we are thrust without our will into a world not of our making, only to be expelled against our will from that world. In between, life is often, to quote Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” We are moved by the same forces and swayed by the same passions as the people who walked the earth in antiquity.
Is there anything in man’s record that demonstrates our moral advance over those who came before us? Are we less greedy, more peaceful, less selfish or more loving than our predecessors?
Have we outgrown the need for commandments against adultery or theft? Have we expunged coveting from our makeup? Have we exorcised evil or renounced savagery?
Are our appetites and desires uniformly noble? Does “justice well up as waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” today? Are the world’s battlefields any less populated or casualty lists any shorter? As Einstein said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.”
Technologies have generated the ability to contact one another with greater speed and facility, but what we say during those contacts is not always a testament to morality. People still act out of self-interest. Rivalry and competition mark our days.
The increase in the sophistication of man’s tools and the comfort of his life has not produced an increased sophistication of our ethical posture. We still under-appreciate the world, over-estimate ourselves, and devalue most other people. More chains of habit bind us than changes of habit liberate us.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “To have contemplated human life for 40 years is the same as to have contemplated it for 10,000 years. For what more wilt thou see?”
But this does not mean that we are irredeemable or irremediable. We can be more than we were: our horizons broader, our character deeper and our reach higher. The choice is ours.
While everything changes around us, shall we change ourselves?
MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.