Systemic Difficulties

In 1947, Winston Churchill delivered a speech on the floor of the British Parliament, explaining how his view of democracy differed from that of his opponents, the ruling Labor party. “Many forms of government have been tried,” he said, “and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

There is a lot of wisdom in Churchill’s words. In our philosophy of governance, it is the people who are supposed to be in power, not the government. But at the end of the day, the governing body needs to exist to prevent total anarchy; if every person were left to his own devices, it would be harder for everyone to get along. So this imperfect system must exist — not as a means of replacing personal rights and responsibility, but as a way of making it easier for the public as a whole.

This idea is true for just about everything that has a “system.” Often, when people face difficulties in their lives, they feel as though the system isn’t adequately addressing their situation. The knee-jerk reaction to these kinds of complaints is the bunker mentality — denying that there is any validity to the points being made. The truth is that they are 100 percent right: The system doesn’t preclude the issues they struggle with from happening. What they need to realize, however, is that the system doesn’t exist to replace personal responsibility and effort; it is a helpful framework that makes life easier on the “klal” and allows for the “yachid” to more efficiently operate within its structure. Deficiencies are always going to be present; that’s an unfortunate side-effect of having to make a system that works best for the broader public; the needs of the individual can’t be addressed within it. Not only that, but most people’s needs aren’t fully addressed, either. And for many people, these deficiencies are more pronounced than others, but they will always exist. Replacing the current “system” with another may address some issues, but other, newer, concerns will inevitably arise. It is the nature of the beast.

I had a conversation this past week with a chashuve Rav about an issue that arises as a result of the “system.” The Chazon Ish, he told me, compared it to a mittas Sedom — a bed from Sedom. Everyone can understand this allegory. In Sedom, guests were shown to a bed. If they were too short, they were stretched until they fit. If they were too large for the bed, they were cut down to size. For many people, the effect of the system is the same. But the Chazon Ish didn’t feel the system wasn’t still necessary. Au contraire; when the idea of opening a yeshivah without the framework of the “yeshivah system” in Bnei Brak was floated, the Chazon Ish strongly opposed it. He felt that opening a yeshivah without the need for uniformity and conformity, while it was possible in Slabodka, was only feasible under the leadership of the Alter. Clearly, despite his recognizing the downside of the “yeshivah system,” he still felt it was necessary.

The correct approach is to realize that “system” offers us what it does; yet, ultimately, as Rav Elazar ben Durdaya teaches us (Avodah Zarah 17a): “Ein hadavar taluy ela bi” — “It isn’t dependent on anything but myself.” Taking what the system has to offer is not enough. It isn’t even close to enough. It isn’t up to the system to do our work for us. Each person needs to work on himself, under the guidance of his Rebbe or Rav, if he really wants to be successful.

It is human nature, or, more accurately, atzas hayetzer, to always assign blame to things beyond our control. When tragedy strikes, we are always left to wonder why it is that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has brought this about. What lessons are we supposed to take from it? The usual suspects are inevitably blamed. But, as I have heard said, it is usually the people who are strong in area A, and weak in area B, who will talk about how “we” must work on A, and the people who are strong in area B and weak in area A who will blame the inverse.

I remember once, years ago, speaking with my rebbi, Harav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, shlita, as I was dealing with a personal (albeit minor) tragedy. I asked him what it was I was supposed to do; what was it that was wanted from me as a response to this? “Getting involved in why things happen is a distraction,” he told me. “It is what the Satan wants. Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants you to make a cheshbon hanefesh, and work on yourself. The same as he always does.”

It is easier to blame circumstances which are beyond our control, or the system, when things aren’t working out the way we wish. But the question we need to ask ourselves is whether that is constructive.