Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

Reaching And Overreaching


Rabbi Berel Wein

We are accustomed to tell our children to reach for the stars. We live in an age when the accepted mantra is that everything is possible for everybody to achieve. To a certain extent this view is not limited to the physical, commercial or educational areas of life. It is part of our current world view in religious life as well. The pursuit of spiritual feelings and attainments is part of Jewish life as it always has been. However this striving may have a downside to it. By setting the bar too high for spiritual achievement, those (and they are probably the majority of us) who do not in their minds and hearts achieve the expected spiritual "high" become disappointed, frustrated and sometimes even depressed. There is a phrase used in competitive sports that one should always remain playing "within one’s limits - within one’s self." That translates to knowing what one can actually accomplish and making the most of it. Overreaching, throwing the ball faster than necessary, leads to defeat and loss. My years of being in the educational field have taught me that this is also true in that field as well. Setting unrealistic goals and demanding that students achieve them eventually leads to feelings of failure, inadequacy and possible abandonment of the pursuit of any goals by the student. In this area, as in most areas of life and its endeavors, less is oftentimes more. Again, the golden rule of Judaism - a sense of balance and proportion, moderation and realism - pertains.

So you will tell me: "But did not the Talmud teach us that one is to ask one’s self constantly, when will my behavior and actions match those of my forefathers?" There is even a text that reads "when will my actions match and reach those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?" Well, the likes of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will never again be seen amongst us. In fact, the greatness of the great Torah scholars of a century ago, their personalities and accomplishments, remain unmatched in our generations and with our leadership. The idea of the declination of the generations - yeridat hadorot - since Sinai is part of our tradition and world view. So what do the words of the Talmud about achieving the goals of our actions being equal to those of our forefathers actually mean? This question has vexed the scholars of Israel for many centuries. There were those who took these words literally and inevitably came up short in their attempts to achieve them. There were others who interpreted the words as being a message meant to instill humility within us. No matter how great our achievements may be in our eyes we are not allowed to be arrogant or fall into a state of hubris because of our seeming successes. For after all, we still have not achieved the goal of matching Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s achievements and accomplishments. And there is yet another interpretation that the words are not to be taken literally but rather are meant as a goal and a goad to inspire us to do better and to encourage further and constant spiritual growth in a person.

However we deal with these words of the Talmud, the bitter fact remains that overreaching is a recipe for disaster in all matters of life. The rabbis in another dictum of the Talmud stated: "Attempting to grab too much will lead to grabbing nothing. Grabbing a smaller amount will allow the grabbing to be successful." Part of the problems that plague individuals, couples, organizations and the nation generally can be attributed to unrealistic expectations and the disappointments that the failure of life to realize these unrealistic expectations always subsequently engender. People are disheartened by unanswered prayers, blessings that do not materialize, unfairness in life’s situations, the failure of God, so to speak, to respond favorably to our spiritual growth and efforts. Spiritual ecstasy is always at best a temporary euphoria. Reaching for constant "highs" usually leads to many accompanying "lows." We all need constant improvement in our praying, good deeds, observances of halacha and interpersonal relationships. But this improvement rarely occurs because of a sudden epiphany or a dramatic overreach. Rather it is a product of hard work, constancy and commitment. And of an honest appraisal of one’s self and one’s capabilities, of the ability, so to speak, to play within one’s self and to be controlled and realistic. The Jewish world today is flooded with fantasies and stories about a past that really didn’t exist as portrayed. This only increases the pressure to set the spiritual bar higher and higher with the resultant disappointments that are inevitable. We will be asked in the World to Come why we were not ourselves, not why we weren’t the likes of others of another time and place.
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