|Unlocking Your Potential without Destroying It
[The following idea is from a classic 19th century Chassidic work called Mei HaShiloach (Living Waters) addressing one of life’s great challenges: On one hand we need to realize our significance and that we were created for a unique purpose but at the same time we should realize that our accomplishments ultimately come through opportunities gifted to us at birth.]Most of us are looking for ways to unlock our creative side. It’s the part of what is unique to us; no one else can make the impact or discovery that I can. Artists, musicians, surgeons, psychologists, and many others work for years learning and perfecting their talents before they can veer from the accepted path and create a new methodology or way to understand or accomplish a task. One unpleasant symptom of investing time into creative endeavors is arrogance. After devoting so much time and effort in my personal or professional development, I kind of feel entitled to bask in my own talents. How does one curb the ego that accompanies creative activities? One answer is found in this week’s Parsha. The people were tasked with building the Mishkan, temporary synagogue that would travel with them throughout their sojourn in the desert. How do you empower people to build the Mishkan, to be creative and use their talents as craftsmen and artisans but not become self-absorbed in the process? We find a clue in the beginning of this week’s Parsha, which opens with a gathering of the people (Vayakel).
Why was it important for Moses to gather the people? The answer presents a solution against the danger of human ego in the wake of human creativity. Here’s the thought: realize that you are not the only creative person out there—there are other people just as creative as you are. When you see them adapt their creativity to a Divine plan, it will be a catalyst for you to realize that there is something greater than you worth submitting to. “Respect the Water” is the name of a national drowning prevention campaign. When people understand that currents, waves, and other potential dangers of the ocean are real, they respect them and realize that they have absolutely no control over them. So, too, in the case of the Mishkan. Each person was brought to the realization that this was for G-d, something far beyond their grasp. He had liberated a nation of slaves and led them through the desert and now they were creating a structure for Him. Being cognizant of this helped them to have perspective on the best use of their ingenuity.
Creativity is a gift from G-d. There’s a reason people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did what they did; they had the creativity and competence to carry out their plans. We work as hard as we can to develop our ingrain talents but we must never forget that we were winners in the genetic lottery—how can one take credit for gifts they were born with?
Imagine someone weaving the cloth used for the Mishkan or doing some other necessary craft. It’s easy to say, I’m skilled and talented but a pivotal moment comes when they see other creative people bringing their work to be displayed or used in the Mishkan. The correct outlook is, I’ve done my part but so did these others, many of whom are as creative or even more so than I am. (It’s like the classic line the professor of law says on the first day of an elite law school: All of you were at the top of your class, so some of you won’t have that status any longer.)
Another means mentioned in the Parsha to help curb against the creative ego is the Sabbath. When it says six days you will do work, “will work” (t’aseh in Hebrew) it is written as a passive (rather than active) verb, suggesting that it is happening on its own (you are not doing much). Obviously, we take all necessary steps to accomplish a vision and the tasks involved but, in the end, many people with good plans and talent for executing them fail. Life happens; it could be a blizzard on opening day of a business and tens of thousands of dollars are lost. It could be sickness or the myriad of other occurrences that throw the proverbial monkey wrench in some of life’s best-made plans. The message is clear—we are not in control. If so, what can I take credit for; what authorship belongs to me?
Although G-d controls outcomes, the willingness to accept responsibility for your life belongs to you and should be a source of pride and encouragement. That means every time you commit to giving tzadukah or agreeing to help someone less fortunate than you or taking an action to any mitzvah, that commitment should be a wonderful source of pride in the choice made. Such thoughts will motivate us yet simultaneously curb the arrogance that might result if we don’t keep it in check. Good Shabbos (based on a lecture delivered by Rabbi Moshe Taragin)
Parshat HaChodesh 5781-2021Free to be You Two public service announcements: (1) Make sure to change your clock this Saturday night and (2) make sure you know that Saturday night is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month commemorating the Jews being freed from Egypt. Freedom is one of the most abused words in English. Some think that freedom means consenting adults can do whatever they want as long as they don’t harm others but that’s not freedom, it’s license. So, what exactly is freedom? Years ago, an article in Rolling Stone spoke about The Tyranny of Cool. It was written by a (presumed) cool guy in Manhattan. When he was looking to buy a dog, the main criterion was that passersby would remark, “wow, that’s a cool dog.” When he was in the market for a car, it was that those who saw him driving would remark, “wow, that’s a cool car.” Finally, he realized that even his friends had to pass the “cool” test; that’s when he came to the conclusion that he had become a slave to “cool.” This seemingly cool guy was free to do whatever he chose, but his choices indicated that he wasn’t really free because he couldn’t detach himself from his dependency on what others thought of him. Despite financial struggles, there are people who make bar mitzvahs and weddings beyond their means in order to compare favorably with others in their social circle. Once again, if someone feels compelled by the pressure of what others will say, are they really free? We make goals for ourselves concerning eating habits, working out, being more organized, and a myriad of other worthy projects but find we are unable to resist the temptations keeping us from achieving these goals. We can’t say no to the extra piece of cake or the feeling of comfort of being absorbed for hours on the couch even though we know it would be better to get up and work out. When our choices don’t reflect our goals or values it is a sign; we are not really free, just slaves to comfort, routine, laziness, and sometimes bad behavior. If we can’t make and keep goals, can we really consider ourselves free? The most accurate and relevant definition of freedom may well be that which the late Rabbi Noah Weinberg once said: Freedom is the ability to do what we really want to do (i.e. what’s best for us) and not what we feel like doing. It’s a lifelong struggle to attain and that’s what Passover is all about. For example, if you want to work out, but don’t feel like getting off the couch, your next action—or lack of—will determine whether you are free or not. Do you have the ability to do what you really want to or will you simply revert to your default and do what feels good at the moment? Here’s another example, it’s important to take the advice of friends but if we know it’s not best for us but do it because of peer pressure, then we are slaves to their approval. The basic idea is that when we are dependent on a person or thing, we are in bondage. When we let go of that need (to be dependent on the consent or admiration of others), our relationships are enhanced and we open the door for the best possible outcome. We reduce our frustration level and are free to make the best possible decisions and set boundaries—that’s real freedom, not just license to do whatever makes us feel good in the moment. Are you free to choose as a Jew or are you fearful of the ridicule you might endure by being seen doing a mitzvah or defending a traditional Jewish value in a conversation when others around you seem to be ridiculing it? Do you remain painfully silent when people around you bash Israel? Are you frightened to mention how meaningful lighting Shabbos candles is for you—it might even be the highlight of your week—or how going to a morning minyan and putting on tefillin has unexpectedly given you a feeling of fulfillment in a way you would have never imagined? Are you scared to mention you believe in G-d (and stick with the safe and non-committal “universe” or “mother nature”)? Freedom is the theme of Passover as well as the entire month of Nissan. Passover has much food, fun, and family but let’s not forget that its most important aspect is freedom. May this month be one of personal and collective freedom for us all. Good Shabbos.