One of the hallmarks of a strong society is its ability to smoothly effect change. New leaders and policies, crises and confrontations are all dealt with in an orderly fashion without the threat of violence. New ideas are incorporated within the existing structure. It is a process of evolution as opposed to revolution.
Many people find change, any change, disconcerting and prefer the status quo no matter the repercussions. The generation that was redeemed from Egypt and received the Torah could not properly handle the manifold changes in their life. The transition from a band of slaves who had all their decisions made on their behalf, to a nation guided by a Torah in which man must choose how to act, was too difficult for them. For many, being a slave, being free from thinking, was to be preferred over making the difficult choices that life affords. Thus while the Torah enumerates the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the land of Israel the people themselves "started saying to one another; 'let's appoint a leader and go back to Egypt" (14:4). Though change was clearly for the better the Jewish people wanted no part of it.
The Jewish people failed to realize that life is not static and change is therefore a given and must not immobilize us. It is our value system which must not change. Provided that system is solid we can seize on change to our spiritual advantage. Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a desert. A desert is a place where in order to survive one must be able to adapt to a hostile environment.
The world has undergone enormous changes in the past two hundred years and is currently changing so fast, that often technology, much of which did not even exist as little as five years ago, is obsolete soon after you purchase it. Many felt that our Torah could no longer meet the challenges of a changed world and either ignored or tampered with core elements of our faith. They failed to understand - and perhaps Torah authorities were unfortunately unable to demonstrate - that the values inherent in our Torah can and must be applied to the ever changing world.
This is no better illustrated than in the famous story regarding Moshe's receiving of the Torah. The Talmud (Menachot 29b)relates that Moshe was "transported" to the beit midrash of R. Akiva where he politely sat at the back of the room listening in on the discussion. Unfortunately he could not participate as he could not follow the discussion. He was understandably quite upset. What happened to the eternal Torah? Did R. Akiva distort the Torah of Moshe Rabbbeinu? Moshe, though unable to understand was pacified when R. Akiva proclaimed the source for the matter under discussion was halacha leMoshe miSinai , given by G-d to Moshe at Sinai. The Torah of Moshe did not, could not, change. However the conditions to which it had to be applied were vastly different. Torah must be applied by one who understands the world in which it must operate. This is why traditionally it was the communal Rabbi, who lived with the common people on a daily basis, who was the halachic decisor and not the Rosh Yeshiva who could afford the luxury of living in an idealized but unrealistic world.
The challenge facing us today is to apply the eternal message of Torah to an ever changing world in a manner that will be relevant to modern man. Instead of fearing change we must harness it for our advantage. Not only is this a pragmatic approach but it seems to be a religious obligation. We must use everything that has been created in the service of G-d. There is a well known story regarding the Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933) the saintly sage, who explained how the inventions of his day taught us religious meaning. The telephone teaches us that what we say here is heard over there and the train teaches us that if you come one moment late you must wait an extra day. I can only imagine what he would have said about the computer.
This week we celebrated the reunification of Jerusalem. After 2,000 years of exile the Jewish people have merited for the past forty-three years to have sovereignty over our most holy city. Jerusalem lies at the heart of the Jewish soul. Unfortunately there is much fighting to define what lies at the heart of Jerusalem. Should it be a modern capital or kept as the home of our ancient heritage? Of course the answer is both.
Modernity and tradition are not in conflict. Challenges yes but conflict no. It is our job to help resolve this apparent conflict so that change can be properly incorporated into Torah. The Mishna (Pirkei Avot 2:13) teaches that the most important quality one can have is a good heart. The heart receives blood and pumps out blood. Without it we are dead. So too spiritually we receive influences from the outside world. Our job is to take them in and pump them back out with the influence of Torah. If we do, then the Torah will go on breathing heartily for eternity. Shabbat Shalom!