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Slippery Slopes
by Simon Jacobson

Dear Reb Simon,

I am a professional skier. Alas, for every fall I have taken in skiing, my falls in real life have been far more plentiful and painful. Life can be very slippery, and I must tell you that your writings have helped me find hope. I was wondering if you can shed some light on how to navigate our way on the slippery slopes of life.

With the many slips and falls we witnessed in the figure skating competition during the recent Turin Olympics, I thought that perhaps your readers would find this topic timely.


What causes us to slip? Whether on ice or in a nervous moment, why do we lose our balance?

Scientists have posited various theories to explain the slipperiness of ice. In a recent article in Physics Today, Why is Ice Slippery? Robert M. Rosenberg, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Lawrence University, debunks the popular theory that pressure from an object—a skater pushing off, for example—melts the top layer of ice making it slippery.

Dr. Rosenberg explains that this assumption is false, because the pressure-melting effect is too small to account for the slippage that occurs even at much colder temperatures. The pressure-melting theory also fails to explain why someone wearing flat-bottom shoes, which has a greater surface area than ice skates and exerts even less pressure on the ice, can also slip on ice.

Two alternative explanations have arisen to take the pressure argument's place. One invokes friction: the rubbing of a skate blade or a shoe bottom over ice heats the ice and melts it, creating a slippery layer. The other, originally proposed by physicist Michael Faraday in 1850, holds that the surface of ice has an intrinsic liquid layer. Water molecules at the ice surface vibrate more than is usual for a solid, because there are no molecules above them to help hold them in place, and they thus remain an unfrozen liquid even at temperatures far below freezing. Scientists describe the surface as having liquid properties, but not fluid.

But both these theories have their own flaws. According to the friction theory, the question still remains why ice is slippery even when a person just stands on ice and generates no heat through friction. According to the latter liquid-layer theory, the layer is too thin to contribute much to slipperiness except near the melting temperature.

Allow me to submit an additional dimension. Perhaps the question should be asked the other way around: Why don’t we always slip on every surface? What causes us to remain steady on solid ground?

The answer is friction. When two bodies rub against each other they create a force that resists motion, thus preventing slipping or falling. But the condition for this is that the two bodies have to have something in common. If the surface is made of a substance that has no common denominator with our feet we will be unable to remain steady on the surface.

Take water for example. We cannot stand on water because water is not solid, and therefore cannot support a solid substance that is heavier than water. Thus, on water we don’t merely slip; we sink, because there is no friction at all between our solid feet and liquid water. Similarly, the other elements, like fire and air, which are gaseous in nature, are also unable to supply support for matter that is more substantial. Earth, by contrast, is a solid substance similar to our feet, and therefore can support our weight, and causes friction to keep us balanced.

Ice, which is frozen water, consists of two paradoxical qualities: On one hand it is a solid, which causes some friction. Thus, we don’t sink into ice, and with care we can walk on it. On the other hand, ice is essentially water, albeit not in liquid form but congealed, yet still water, an entity “foreign” to earth, and therefore causes a very low level of friction. (Indeed, ice is less dense than the liquid form, which is why ice floats on water). And if the ice gets too watery we will be unable to stand firm.

According to the mystics, land and water are not just two different, but two diametrically opposed entities. Land reflects “revealed” and conscious experience; water manifests the “hidden” and unconscious. At opposite ends of the spectrum, land and water represent the finite and the infinite. These two divergent “universes” have a tenuous relationship, and must be separated by an intrinsic boundary lest the water flood the land. We therefore cannot “walk” on water only on land.

The ultimate objective is to bridge land and water, the finite and the infinite, matter and spirit. [For this reason these two worlds were united once in history at the parting of the sea to empower us with this ability]. This unity, however, is achieved through a long process of refining the material, finite “land” and acclimating it to contain the infinite spirit of “water.”

Ice is an intermediary between water and land. It has something common both with water and land; it is both solid and liquid. We can walk on ice, yet the ice is slippery. The slipperiness is caused by the fact that two “worlds” – land and water – are rubbing against each other, with a bit of friction but not too much. Ice therefore helps bridge land with the hitherto inaccessible world of water. Yet care must be taken to not to slip on the ice.

The same is true psychologically. We can slip whenever we come in contact with an experience that is foreign to us. When you stay in one place – in your comfort zone – you will not slip. But neither will you move or grow. When you expose yourself to new ideas, to fresh options, there is always the risk of losing your footing.

The key is to have just the right balance between familiarity and movement. Not too much friction and not too little friction. If you move to fast into new territories, there may be too much risk of slippage or even drowning. If you move to slowly growth will be compromised.

So, life is a slippery slope. The secret to navigation is not just to walk on land, but to glide gracefully across the ice. Not just step by step, but to reach for the skies as you scale the mountain.

And above all, to remain connected above, so as not to fall on the slipper slope below.

Two young men once visited a small Russian town in mid-winter.  They tried to find the ritual bath (mikveh), and learned that it was at the foot of a steep hill.  But the slope leading down to the bath, they were told, grew so dangerously slippery in wintertime that no one used it -- no one, that is, except for one very special chassid who went daily.

The young men were skeptical, and decided to follow this man the next morning.  To their surprise, he was very old and feeble.  Surely, they thought, he cannot possibly make his way down the slope.  But he walked steadily down the icy hill as the young men, trying to follow, slipped and fell.  They watched in awe as he entered the bathhouse.

Afterwards, they respectfully asked the elderly man how he had made it down the hill.  “When one is connected above,’’ he said quietly, “he does not fall below.”



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