There’s an anecdote in my wife’s family about how her uncle tried to give his father-in-law, her Zeidy Shmelka, directions to the Catskills that might avoid traffic. This was in the days before GPS when we couldn’t take it for granted that we could get off at any side road and eventually get back on track when a lovely little computer voice said, “Turn left.”
So, Uncle Moishy (her real uncle, not the singer) tried to explain the route options, but Zeidy would have none of it. A big-hearted Holocaust survivor who built a family in America through hard work and lots of shlepping (he sold beds and hi-risers and would often have to carry them up several flights of stairs in Brooklyn apartment houses), Zeidy liked to keep things simple. Throwing his hands up in the air, Zeidy said, “I only know one G-d in Heaven, and I only know one way to the country!”
Even if changing could have helped him, the thought of having to learn a new way that was unfamiliar was too daunting. He would rather sit in traffic and wait, than do something differently.
Well, one Friday, my wife told me she needed something by Sunday morning. It was maybe 20 or 25 minutes to Shabbos, and the store which had the item would not be open on Sunday. Ordering from Amazon would entail Shabbos delivery, which I wanted to avoid. I called the store and they had the item. As it is about 7 minutes from home, I quickly jumped into my car to go get it – l’kavod Shabbos.
The store was located in a small strip mall, and as I drove away from the door, item safely on the fromt seat next to me, I noticed a line of cars waiting for traffic to break so they could exit. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself. “I thought there was an ‘exit only’ further down the lot…” With nothing to lose, since I would have to wait for the other cars anyway, I drive down the four or five stores and, sure enough, there was an exit. Sitting there unassumingly, with nobody lined up to use it, I managed to zip out through it, easily merging into traffic, and making it home in time to head to shul for the beginning of Ashrei.
As I did, I thought about the fact that the people trying to exit were following the crowd, and taking the accepted route out of the shopping strip. I’m not sure whether they knew about the other exit, but even if they did, they may not have opted for it.
I reflected that so often in life we get set in our ways. We do things as we have always done them, even if it’s time for a change. We may treat our kids as we did when they were toddlers, even though they’re older and have different needs now. We may daven as we did when we were in grade school, and never aspire to better communication with Hashem.
We may do mitzvos as we’ve done them day after day and year after year, not realizing that we’re stuck in a rut and there’s a better way. It could be our approach to work, our approach to relationships, or anything else. We’re afraid to change things up and end up in unfamiliar territory, even if it might open up great new vistas for us. But guess what? There may be a better way.
Part of being human – and part of being a Jew, especially – is growing, changing, and learning all the time. I’ve often said that we don’t call a wise and knowledgeable person a ‘Chacham,’ but a ‘Talmid Chacham,’ because the wise person remains a student for life. He realizes that there’s always more to learn and understand. The ones who refuse to learn or consider that they might not know everything are not Talmidei Chachomim, and we should be wary before following them blindly. They may not be leading us down the best road.
If it would only cost a few extra minutes in the car, where you can still accomplish a lot, especially with the options for learning and listening to shiurim while traveling, that would be one thing. But sometimes we don’t realize that we’re getting ourselves stuck on a road where we won’t have the option to detour for a while. Like the time I got on the express lanes of a highway and didn’t realize there was an accident ahead. My daughter who was driving with her friend took the local lanes, and got home an hour before I did. When we become stuck on proceeding through life in a certain way because it’s what we’re familiar with, we can wind up missing so much.
My takeaway is that we should keep our eyes open for options all the time, and recognize that just because we know this road, and everyone else seems to be doing it the same way, doesn’t mean they, or we, are on the right track.
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