Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I love to travel. If I could I would be always either in the midst of traveling or preparing for my next trip. There is nothing quite as exciting as discovering a new place with different customs, language and culture. My favorite part about the traveling experience is not the items I add to my itinerary way in advance — the museums, historical sites, etc. — but rather the encounters that happen along the way from one destination to the next. The conversation with the local resident that gives me a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who reside there. The impromptu street performance that is more captivating than the concert that I purchased tickets for. Those are the moments that I yearn for and eagerly await.
It is thus no surprise that I have had a passport since I was a teenager. In fact, I have never let my passport expire before renewing it far in advance. Furthermore, my two young children also have their own passports. The idea of having a passport for me carries more meaning though than simply readiness to fulfill my love of traveling, although it does help make that much easier when the time arrives. It also expresses a deeply held Jewish sentiment that Jews should always be ready to adapt and to change. The sameness of our daily routines with the usual coffee stops, the same commuting routes and the same activities can allow us to think that because something happened yesterday, the same thing will happen tomorrow. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If there is one overarching lesson from all of Jewish history it is this: Always be ready for change.
There was a Jewish custom that has largely fallen out of practice. For quite a long time Jewish families used to keep a fully packed suitcase by the door ready for the arrival of the moshiach, the messiah. If one firmly believed that he could announce his arrival at any moment then one needed to be prepared at any moment to leave and make his or her way to the Land of Israel. Each moment contained the real potential for revolutionary radical transformation. Every second could be the second that the entire world changes. What kind of personality does such a way of living cultivate? What does a person who acts in such a way and believes in the possibility of total transformation every second of the day look like?
I believe that the sort of person who keeps a suitcase packed or a passport always at the ready is a person most primed to face the challenges facing humanity today. We live in a time where so much of what is challenging each and every one of us — societally, globally and individually — are not technical problems but adaptive problems. Technical problems are like a loose hinge on a door. You can see the loose hinge and all you need is the right tool to fix it and the problem is solved. An adaptive problem is knowing that hinges are no longer the solution but not knowing what will work. It requires shifting paradigms and new ways of thinking. There is often no ready made tool to fix an adaptive problem. You need to invent the tool first before you can even address the challenge.
Our world is a world of growing chasms between different people and different cultures that ironically simultaneously is experiencing more direct contact and closeness than ever before thanks to technological advances in communication. We know much more about each other than we ever did yet we have the hardest time bridging those differences and finding ways to co-exist on the same planet. We can find the same challenge on the individual level as well. More and more people report feelings of loneliness and isolation even as we have the means and tools to be ever-present in each other’s lives in ways we never were able to before. A thousand likes on Instagram pales in comparison to another person truly getting to know you and you getting to know them.
These are adaptive challenges. The sort of people who can address these challenges are the people who can see beyond the constructs that currently exist. They are the sort of people who can imagine different frameworks and different relational models. They can see beyond what is and be able to envision what could be. This way of seeing is a very Jewish way of seeing. It is the type of vision that is embodied in the always packed suitcase ready for radical change around every corner. It is the type of living that doesn’t assume what was yesterday must be what will happen tomorrow and the next day and onwards.
The world we live in with its constant change and new frontiers of societal and individual challenges asks us to look once again at the custom of the packed suitcase always at the ready and ask each other: Is your suitcase packed?