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Recently I finally went out into my yard to take care of a Leyland Cyprus that was rotting in places due to a fungal infection. I wrestled with its large and scratchy branches to remove the dead leaves and spray it, and I was angry with myself. I saw the tree browning and getting incrementally worse every day but let it go for weeks because I was just too busy, and the plant wasn’t complaining.
And as I cut away the bad parts of the bush to strengthen the good parts, I thought about incrementalism and about a chapter in Isaiah I had just studied the day before. The historical context is a prophetic prediction that Babylon and other empires would be overturned for their arrogance, believing they would always retain their strength and superiority. And in this critique, one verse stood out: “You did not take these things to heart. You gave no thought to the end of it.” When we are at a point of strength and self-assurance, we often don’t take into consideration the long-term consequences of decisions.
One leadership writer observes that when we are young, acts and consequences live in close proximity to each other. We put a hand on a hot stove, and we get burnt. We learn not to do it again. We do something good, and it has an immediate payback so we are incentivized to repeat our behaviors. As we age and life gets more complex, the distance between acts and consequences grows. We make professional decisions that others will have to tend to long after us. We make parenting mistakes and hurt friendships in ways that are not immediately evident. And as Isaiah says, because we did not take the entire matter to heart, we gave little thought to how things would end. Incrementalism in this scenario hurts us.
In Isaiah 47, incrementalism is moral in nature. The one in power is self-serving: “I am, and there is none but me” (47:8). The narcissistic impulse turns ugly “You were secure in your wickedness; you thought, ‘No one can see me...And you thought to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none but me’” (47:10). But this time, all of your strategies have already been spent and Isaiah warns that you will not be able to charm the problem away as you once did. “You are helpless despite all your art” (47:13).
Sadly, there are people in this world who are bent on wrongdoing. They seed gossip. They manipulate others and pay little attention to the harm they are sowing. They harvest self-protection and self-aggrandizement. They do not see the failed ending, only the promising beginning. And as a result, Isaiah tells us, “they cannot save themselves.”
This is very different than the approach of the famous Talmudic figure Honi who was traveling and saw a man planting a carob tree. “He said to him, ‘How long will it be until it bears fruit?’ He said, “As long as seventy years.’ He said, ‘Are you certain you will live seventy years?’ He said: ‘I found a world with carob trees; just as my fathers planted for me, so I plant for my children’”(BT Ta’anit 23a). This story illustrates incrementalism at its best. We plant knowing the results of the planting will not be ours to reap but understanding that we are stewards of an unseen future.
I hope my Leyland Cyprus will recover. I am disappointed in myself that I watched a problem, and it to got worse. Tackling its branches made me think of the moral implications. Bad outcomes are often the work of willful ignorance. Good outcomes are the result of careful planning for a future unseen. Incrementalism requires patience. So what do you have to take care of that you are ignoring? It will only get worse. Make it better. And Isaiah will smile at you.
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.
Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.