The popular definition of insanity, often attributed to Albert Einstein (although it’s highly unlikely he ever said it), “repeating the same act and expecting different results” conflicts with the common advice, “when, at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again”. When are we merely throwing good money after bad and when do we have just one more push to get over the hill?
Moreover, when do we know that we’ve truly met a challenge and are ready to move on? Perhaps a standard definition of successful tshuva can help clarify–when we find ourselves in a similar situation to those we’ve previously failed in, we make a different, better choice. We can finally step beyond the seemingly endless loop of failure and enter a new realm.
I imagine Moshe rolling his eyes, crying to himself, “There they go again…..” when, in Parshat Matot (Bamidbar 32), the leaders of Gad and Reuven approach Moshe with their proposal to remain on the east bank of the Jordan and settle there rather than in “Eretz Yisrael Proper”. After forty years delay, wandering in the most inhospitable desert, training a new generation of Jews who were uninfected by slavery, we’re on the verge of entering the land promised to our fathers. It’s practically impossible for Moshe to interpret their desire to live east of the Jordan as anything but a repeat of the disastrous reluctance of Israel, undercut by the fear and faithlessness of a previous generation’s leaders, to go up and inherit the land. He certainly cannot ignore the reality that had the Jewish people, with faith, trust and confidence in God, followed him into Eretz Yisrael at that time, he would not now be facing his own death, with his one greatest desire, to step foot in that holy land, unfilled.
It’s far from difficult to understand his reaction at the time, to remind these leaders of the treachery of their own fathers. Nonetheless, he completely misread their intention, mired in his own fear and disappointment. Having just conquered the Midianites, the nation that just missed destroying Yisrael by rotting our insides, the chiefs of Gad and Reuven are filled with confidence that if they follow God’s commandments only success will ensue. Rather than repeating their parents’ slave-tainted fear, they volunteer to be the vanguard of the Jewish People, leading them into Eretz Yisrael and remaining with them there until it has been fully settled and everyone else has received their inheritance. Not only that, but they also volunteer to be the vanguard to settle the evenutal borders promised by God (while this might seem highly politically incorrect in 2014, a much more accurate map of the Jewish Homeland is the original British Protectorate, before almost three-quarters of it was sliced off to reward the Hashemites as Trans-Jordan.) Once the core of the Holy Land is settled, they’re willing to live on the frontier, cut off from their brothers, removed from the site of the eventual Temple, preparing our not-yet-fulfilled future by developing an economy and founding cities.
The Torah presents us with a fractal-like way of understanding reality. The challenges that face Bnei Yisrael are mirrored not only in the great Kaballistic universe of forces and energies, but also in each of our daily lives. Challenges are inevitable and we’re likely to fail many of them. But they will return, in one form or another, until we do finally master them and move on to a higher reality (also filled with challenges until, eventually, bi’maheyra b’yameynu (soon, in our days) we’ve solved the ultimate challenge and have transformed ourselves and the world into its highest possible state).
Perhaps we will need to alter our strategy if one approach to a challenge repeatedly fails. On the other hand, perhaps all we need to do is to conquer our own fear, thus slaying the non-existent dragon we thought we faced, and take the next step with confidence.