Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Rabbi Mayer Twersky

Prescience and Prudence[1]

עשרה דברים שאל אלכסנדרוס מוקדון את זקני הנגב כו׳ אמר להם אידין מתקרי חכים אמרו ליה הרואה את הנולד
Alexander the Great posed ten questions to the Elders of the South ... He queried, "Who is considered wise?" They responded, "One who discerns the future." (Tamid 31b - 32a)

אמר להם צאו וראו איזוהי דרך ישרה שידבק בה האדם כו׳ רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד
Rabbi Yochanan son of Zakai said to his disciples, "Go out and determine the upright path to which a person should always adhere" ... Rabbi Shimon averred "one who discerns the future." (Avos 2:9)

In Maseches Tamid, הרואה את הנולד (one who discerns future implications, consequences and developments) is identified as the quintessential wise person (חכם). In Avos, this quality is said to define a path (דרך).

Rambam[2] responds to this difference by (subtly) explaining that ראיית הנולד is both an intellectual virtue which defines the quintessential sage as well as a moral virtue which charts a path for life. [דרך, path, connotes a moral virtue because the Torah's moral code is encapsulated within the mitzvah of והלכת בדרכיו, you shall walk in the "path" of G-d.[3]]

Let us בס״ד explain. An analytical bent allows one to recognize the logical implications and corollaries (נולד in a logically derivative sense) of what he sees. Thus, for instance, a sensitive, analytic mind recognizes that the cosmos attests to its Creator. שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה, "Lift your eyes upon high, and discern Who created these (astral bodies)" (Yeshayahu 40:26)[4]. That same sensitivity and analyticalness allow one to see within the present indications of the future. Thus, for example, Winston Churchill presciently recognized the dire consequences of German rearmament post World War I, and warned against its future catastrophic consequences which, in fact materialized.

Consideration of future consequences and repercussions is also a cardinal moral virtue. For purposes of illustration consider the following scenario. The hour is late at night, and a bookworm is spellbound by his latest literary expedition. The tome runs several hundred pages, which promises hours of reading delight. But said individual has to rise early for work the next morning. He places his bookmark, closes the book and goes to sleep. He thereby scores a moral victory by not losing himself in the present. The self-discipline of fully living the present moment informed by a consideration of the future represents a moral, rather than intellectual, virtue, discipline, and achievement.

At present, in New York, we are challenged to demonstrate both the intellectual and moral qualities of ראיית הנולד (anticipating the future). (This is equally true in many other places in the country and world, in some even more so.) Relative to many other areas, New York is well off. And yet the signs of the unfolding, dangerous wave are - at any rate, should be - unmistakable. The positivity rate continues to increase, the situation in neighboring states is even worse, the behaviors and businesses fueling the increase are not being (adequately) checked, etc. We must be רואה את הנולד, recognize the unfolding process. Both personally and communally we must adopt aggressive preventative measures. As individuals we must redouble our efforts. For instance, we should not be hosting visiting friends or non-nuclear family, avoiding all but the most essential contact, etc. Communally (at the very least) indoor minyanim must cease[5], etc. (This halachic determination follows expert consultation. Even if other physicians offer differing assessments, we are obligated to act stringently upon maximal medical concerns. See Orach Chayim 618:4.)

We could ignore the unmistakable indications of the gathering Covid storm and await actual proof. But the proof will come in the form of illness, hospitalization, suffering and even death, ר״ל. Thus the intellectual abdication of being רואה את הנולד will ר״ל exact a horrific price.

It is, of course, always a formidable challenge to accept restrictions and limitations (religious, social, economic, emotional, etc.) in the present because of concern for the future. Being רואה את הנולד demands intellectual sensitivity and acuity but also moral discipline and commitment. We are, however, capable of both. We can not settle for anything less because our lives hang in the balance.


[1] An adapted, at points abbreviated and at points elaborated, version of the Hebrew הרואה את הנולד, posted Nov. 18, 2020.

[2] Peirush Hamishnayos, Avos, ad loc.

[3] Shabbos 133b; Rambam, Hilchos Deos chapter 1.

[4] See also Rambam Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:5; Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3.

[5] Regarding the very complex issue of schools and Yeshivos whose population differs from those of shuls, and closure would, for many, disrupt, and even prevent, pursuit of livelihood, and which have no effective alternative, see the original Hebrew essay. Of course, a Rov may, after careful, soul-searching consideration, determine that, given his community's singular religious dynamic, Tefilah be-tzibur represents something even greater than itself. I.e., it serves as an indispensably vital religious-spiritual anchor. He may also determine after exhaustively exploring all possible (creative) options that under certain circumstances Tefilah be-tzibur is only possible indoors. These determinations may provide grounds for (somewhat) equating shuls and schools. (See the last of the short (Hebrew) responsa from .ער"ח אלול.) Even this communal calculus would not allow for high risk individuals to join. And, in general, it would not substitute for every individual making his own personal calculus as to the permissibility of his joining. Also, it should be emphasized that ר"ל at some point halachic considerations (even sans governmental prompting) might necessitate temporary closure of schools.

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