So Why Risk Exile?

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02 Jan 2019

Last week, I shared some of the fears that go along with writing for public consumption – such as the possibility of being misunderstood, maybe even with disastrous results – but in the interests of space, I left out an important element of the topic:

Why do it, if it’s so fraught with danger?

One answer is the same reason my husband took our daughter skiing last week and I didn’t. It’s the reason I don’t gamble but others do, the reason my husband went into medicine and not finance (not that he ever really considered finance), and the reason I went into chinuch and not psychology or law (both of which I did consider, briefly).

It’s the cost-benefit analysis behind everything we do, and the inner drive that tells us how to weigh those costs and benefits against each other. It’s the force that tells us some risks are worth taking – and it’s often subjective and highly personal.

I don’t want to ski – and honestly, don’t want my loved ones to ski – because I’m afraid. But the only reason my fear is so strong is that my desire to ski is basically nonexistent. I don’t see the appeal in attaching long bits of wood to my boots and sliding down a snow-covered mountain, so my decision is easy: stay home and drink hot chocolate! My husband, on the other hand, enjoys skiing. He indulged my lack of interest and stayed off the slopes for 15 years, but now that our oldest expressed her own interest, he wanted to take her. The statistics of injury don’t change based on who is considering them, but they have different weight because he wants to and I don’t. What makes him want to ski so much that it outweighs the risks involved? I have no idea. The risk doesn’t make sense to me, because I don’t see a benefit large enough to outweigh it – but my husband and daughter do. (Thank G-d, she survived the bunny slopes…)

Generally speaking, I’m not a risk-taker. We worked with a financial adviser for a while who would send periodic “risk tolerance” questionnaires to help decide where to invest our money. My answers tended towards the “hiding money under my mattress” end of the spectrum. (Yes, I know that’s not secure either – and note to would-be thieves, I don’t really do it – but it feels safer than actively handing money to a market that might never give it back!) I have no desire to gamble, because the benefit of keeping what I have secure outweighs the attraction of trying for more. Others, though, want the chance badly enough to accept the risks.

When we do anything in life, the benefits have to be worth the costs, and those calculations are different for everybody.

My husband likes to say he could never have gone into a profession that involved handling other people’s money. Too much responsibility, too much risk. “Their internal organs, however,” he laughs, “Those I have no problem handling!”

Are internal organs less precious than money? Of course not. Is it safer to risk making mistakes in medicine than in finance? Of course not. But something – the possible benefit to mankind, an interest in the science of medicine, an internal certainty of his own capabilities – pulled him towards medicine despite the risk, while nothing pulled him towards finance. Just like nothing pulls me to the slopes.

I, on the other hand, never felt a pull to medicine. When I was 17 and debating where to go to college and what to do with my life, I was intrigued by both psychology and law. But, much like my husband’s feelings about handling other people’s money – I couldn’t see myself taking responsibility for anyone’s psychological health or their freedoms. As I realized that nothing energized me like the thought of standing in front of a classroom, I was as aware of the irony as my husband is about his chosen field. “Their souls, however – I’ll take those on!”

Some people are drawn to finance, some to medicine, some to psychology or law, whatever. Every choice brings risks, and we accept those risks as a necessary cost of the calling we feel deep in our souls. We know that we can do this and we must do this, and we will just have to take whatever precautions we can and pray that we don’t mess up too much along the way – because of course, knowing that we can doesn’t mean we always will, with no mistakes at all.

So why do I take the risk of saying stuff to my students, to the world, even though I know I might be misunderstood and misunderstandings can have disastrous consequences?

I knew at 17 that I had no choice but to embrace the challenges and risks inherent in messing with people’s souls, because I knew I had a drive to teach Torah and that drive meant I would have to do it. In more recent years, I’ve developed a related drive to write. These are the risks I’m drawn to, so they’re the risks I’ll have to face.

And the other reason – related, of course – is that the risks actually go both ways.

The Gemara in Sotah (22a) criticizes both a scholar who is qualified to offer halachic rulings but doesn’t, and a scholar who isn’t qualified but does. I wish the Gemara would offer a little more guidance there: How do we know when we’re qualified? Are the risks higher if I speak up or if I stay quiet? Am I irresponsible if I do, or irresponsible if I don’t?

It can be helpful to get guidance from mentors or friends – certainly, in the Gemara’s actual case of qualifications to give halachic rulings, one needs a higher authority to proclaim one ready. But I think we can expand the basic idea beyond hora’ah, and recognize there is a piece that comes from within, that drive that tells each of us this is what I can do and what I must do.

Sometimes we see a problem in the world that needs addressing. Nobody can possibly speak up about every important issue. But “shtikah k’hoda’ah” – silence is like acquiescence. Those issues that nudge at me, because I know I have something worth saying and I feel the sentences forming – I cannot be silent. I have to do my best to say it well, but not saying it is not an option; the risks of messing it up are real, but they’re outweighed by the risks of staying silent.

Other times, I simply come across a Torah insight that begs to be shared, or a random thought calls to me like a puzzle to be assembled or a piece of clay to be sculpted. There’s an itch, a bug buzzing in my brain until the words pour out into my keyboard and I breathe a sigh of relief that it’s gone. I have things to say, and I have to say them.

There’s an excellent precedent for this approach. According to Rabbi Yonatan in Bereishit Rabbah,
G-d Himself told Moshe not to worry about people who would misunderstand the words “Let us make Man,” but to write it and let those who wish to err, err. G-d had a book to write, with ideas to convey, and He wouldn’t be stopped by concern for those who might misunderstand.

Can I say, then, that this type of risky behavior is simply an attempt to emulate G-d?

As a teacher and as a writer, I live with the fear that I will say or do something wrong and set someone’s soul on a course towards “exile” or worse, to borrow the wording referenced in last week’s essay. But it’s not the same kind of fear as that which keeps me from skiing. It’s the kind of fear that draws my husband and daughter to go skiing. It’s the thrill of a challenge I must face and conquer, despite the risks.

And when I face the risks and achieve something of benefit, the rush is better than any ski trail could possibly be.

Not that I plan on trying it to compare.

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.