David Sedley
Rabbi, teacher, author, husband, father
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Parshat Matot — Late adopters

In the clash between traditionalists and innovators, those who adapt to the new reality are more likely to succeed -- just ask the silent film stars (Matot)
Lobby card for the American drama film Lily of the Dust (1924) with (l-r) Jeanette Daudet, Pola Negri, and Raymond Griffith. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Lobby card for the American drama film Lily of the Dust (1924) with (l-r) Jeanette Daudet, Pola Negri, and Raymond Griffith. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

There is a scene in “All Quiet on the Western Front” when Paul Baumer spends the night with a dying French soldier he stabbed, and tries in vain to revive him. After the soldier dies, Paul begs the dead body to speak and forgive him.

Paul was played by the Academy Award-nominated Lew Ayres, who went on to play Dr Kildare in a career spanning 65 years.

The dying French soldier is uncredited in the movie, but was played by Raymond Griffith, who had been a huge star of the silent movie era. It is ironic that Paul begs the soldier to speak, because it was Griffith’s inability to speak that killed his acting career once sound came to the movies.

Some silent movie stars, like Greta Garbo, Boris Karloff and Laurel and Hardy, made the transition to the talkies smoothly and found even greater success. But a large number of actors and actresses found themselves out of work when sound came to Hollywood.

Some of them were not good at speaking, some had voices that did not match their on-screen persona, some had accents that viewers or producers didn’t like. Some could not act without the director shouting directions to them throughout the scene. Others were let go in the general sweep-out that took place in the major studios at that time.

Griffith had a different problem — he was unable to speak above a hoarse whisper. He claimed that he had permanently lost his voice after letting out a particularly piercing scream while acting in a stage performance of “The Witching Hour.” But the reality was that, as a young boy, he had contracted respiratory diphtheria, and it had left his vocal cords damaged.

From about 1916 until 1927, Griffith starred in dozens of silent movies. He played serious roles with a touch of comedy, and comedic roles seriously. He became famous as the “Silk hat comedian,” often adding a cane and cape to his top hat and tails.

Most of his films have been lost, but you can see him in action in “Hands Up,” a Civil War comedy from 1926.

After the talkies came to Hollywood, Griffith was no longer able to have a leading role. He continued working as a script writer, associate producer, and a variety of other roles. But his days of fame were over, as times changed and a new reality came to the movies.

On November 25, 1957, Griffith died after choking on his food, while dining at the Masquers Club, the private social club for actors. He was 62 years old.

Failing to adapt to a changing world is a constant worry in the modern age, when technology changes so rapidly. Many of the biggest companies are no longer around because they could not keep up with the new reality. Kodak, Nokia, Xerox, Blockbuster Videos, Yahoo! and many others went under because they were eclipsed by new business models and technology.

In 1962, Professor Everett Rogers developed an idea known as the “Diffusion of Innovations” (in a book by the same name), which depicts a bell curve showing the stages of adaptation to new ideas and technology. From the innovators and early adopters to the early majority and late majority, right through to the laggards, the graph describes how society eventually takes up the new realities.

Graph showing Diffusion of Innovation. (CC BY, Pnautilus/ Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes being late to adopt can ruin companies and careers, but being a laggard can also have advantages.

People who don’t rush to buy the latest smartphone or Fitbit can benefit — as prices come down, reviews separate the good from the bad, and going down the dead end of products like Blu-Ray or MiniDiscs can sometimes be completed avoided.

I view the two tribes of Reuben and Gad in this week’s Torah reading as laggards, or traditionalists, who did not want to adopt the new reality of abandoning their leader Moses, entering the land of Israel and switching to an agrarian lifestyle. The Torah states (Numbers 32:1):

The children of Reuben and Gad had a very great amount of cattle; and they saw the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, and behold the place is a place for cattle.

Why did Reuben and Gad have more cattle than the other tribes? And where did they get them from?

Highland cattle herd with calves. (CC BY, SKITTZITILBY/ Wikimedia Commons)

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov suggests that when the Children of Israel were encamped in the desert for 40 years, the other tribes gradually moved out of cattle farming. Why did they need to worry about cows, when they had manna to eat? But the tribes of Reuben and Gad not only maintained their own herds, but acquired the herds of all the other tribes.

Perhaps they remembered that this was their traditional role. Hundreds of years earlier, when Jacob and his sons moved down to Egypt, Joseph brought his brothers to Pharaoh. He told them what to say to the ruler of Egypt (Genesis 46:34):

You shall say, ‘Your servants have been men of cattle from our youth until now, both us and our ancestors.’

So these two tribes spent the past 40 years remaining true to the traditions of their ancestors and keeping cattle.

Furthermore, in the previous chapter, God told Moses that he would die after the war with Midian (Numbers 31:2). As soon as the war was over, Reuben and Gad came to Moses asking to stay with him in the desert. If he was not going to enter Israel, they wanted to remain by his side.

They wanted to remain near to where Moses would be buried, in Nebo. Which is why, instead of immediately asking to stay, they merely listed the places that would be good for them (Numbers 32:3):

Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer, and Nimrah, and Heshbon, and Elealeh, and Sebam, and Nebo, and Beon.

As true traditionalists, they wanted to stay with Moses, rather than switch to Joshua’s new type of leadership.

Moses’s rules came directly from God. Several times the Torah relates a law Moses did not know, and how he turned to ask God.

But Joshua did not have that direct link to Heaven. The Talmud (Temura 16a) says:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Samuel: Three thousand laws were forgotten during the mourning for Moses. They said to Joshua, ‘Ask [God].’ He replied, ‘It is not in Heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12).

The tribes of Gad and Reuben did not want that kind of leadership.

Moses eventually accepted their request and let them stay with him on the far side of the Jordan, provided they first went with the rest of the Children of Israel to conquer the land. Moses also put half of the tribe of Menasseh with them, to act as a bridge between the traditionalists and those who adapted to the new life.

But it didn’t help. As soon as they had finished conquering the land with the other tribes, they immediately built an altar, which nearly led to civil war (Joshua 22:10 ff). And many years later, the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Menasseh were exiled from their land, many years before the other tribes (I Chronicles 5:26).

The clash between traditionalists and innovators appears again several times in history, perhaps most famously in the dispute between the traditionalist Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who turned to heaven for the answers, and Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, who reiterated that the Torah is not decided by God (Bava Metzia 59b).

[Rabbi Eliezer] replied, ‘If the law is like me let the Heavens prove it.’ A voice came out of heaven and said, ‘Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer when the law is like him in every place?’ Rabbi Joshua stood up on his feet and said, ‘It is not in Heaven.’

Eventually Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated for sticking firm to his divinely sanctioned opinion and not accepting Rabbi Joshua’s innovative ruling. And the Talmud adds that God Himself conceded that He had been defeated by His children.

So, while there is comfort and stability in traditionalism, and late adopters often benefit from being laggards, ultimately, those who succeed in Judaism, like in society in general, are those who eventually adapt to the new realities around them.

Though I wouldn’t complain if the silk top hat came back into fashion. Still seems so stylish.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. He currently teaches online at WebYeshiva. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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