Rabbi Herschel Welcher
Klal Perspectives, The Ben Torah Baal Habayis
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Measuring the Journey
Over the many years I have been privileged to serve as a rav, I have always derived much inspiration from the members of our community. However, much to my dismay, I discovered early on that many of the individuals whom I’d held in great regard did not appreciate the esteem that they rightly deserved. I came to learn that many men who achieved enormous success in addressing the multiple roles of husband, father, breadwinner and oved Hashem (servant of G-d) actually viewed themselves as far less than success stories. Ironically, often those with the most to be proud of were the most discouraged and frustrated, and the least appreciative of their own achievements.
I encountered businessmen who initially had aspirations of becoming a grand baal tzeddaka (philanthropist), only to find the challenges of financial success to be more imposing than anticipated – especially when paying careful attention to the numerous halachos of Choshen Mishpat (laws of financial responsibilities). And there was one professional whose career appeared quite successful to me, until but he quietly lamented the opportunities he lost due to the distractions of having a spouse who had developed special needs.
I also found frustrations and inadequacies manifest in religious areas. One fellow expressed dismay at having reached the age of fifty and still not having finished shas. He remembers his ambitious aspirations in learning when he left kollel decades earlier, but found that many of the hours he planned to spend in the bais hamedrash were used to help his nine kids with their homework and his wife then get those children to sleep, among many other things. Another had been confident that he would retire early to dedicate his time to learning and chesed, but discovered that no matter how modest, or even frugal, his lifestyle, the costs of tuition and other basic family expenses swept aside any hopes of accumulating the necessary savings. The list goes on. For some, it is frustration at home, for others in the workplace, and others in the bais hamedrash. But almost uniformly, baalei batim seem to find themselves falling short, and feeling the lesser for it.
And yet, from my perspective these men are giants. As they acknowledge, undertake and ultimately meet their responsibilities, their lives stand testament to their commitments and values. Torn among the many competing demands, they prioritize as best they can, reflecting in their choices the utmost love and respect for both their families and for Torah. So why do they feel so inadequate? Why the apparent disconnect? Why are they not seeing what is so obvious to their rabbi?
At the outset of each stage of life, a healthy person sets goals and frames aspirations. The more complex and sophisticated the design, the more deliberate the planning and the greater the psychological and emotional investment. The transition from adolescence to adulthood is one of the most profound of these opportunities. One imagines where life will head. What will my family look like? My marriage, my children? How far will I advance in my career or business? What role will I play in the community, or in society at large? How much Torah will I master, seforim (books) will I write, or talmidim (students) will I inspire? The list of possible goals and dreams abounds.
Life’s realities, however, are never as planned. They simply cannot be. Only after years of marriage does one begin to really understand one’s spouse, learn her needs, strengths, and limitations. If blessed, children arrive. They are cute and loving, but also needy, and often cranky. Time spent changing diapers and visiting the pediatrician was never really factored into the calculation, and neither were children with special needs. Nor does anyone contemplate an employer’s downsizing, an economic meltdown, or an impossible supervisor or customer. And so with the distractions and detours come adjusted aspirations. Sometimes, the stress and disappointments are so profound that merely coping becomes the primary, though occasionally elusive, objective. The years pass and the original dreams fade. And when coming upon a discolored old note in a drawer or a long forgotten acquaintance serves as a reminder of what had been hoped to be, the sad fleeting smile reflects an acknowledgment that, “well, how naive I was back then.”
This approach to self-evaluation is simply wrong and misguided, and yields tragic consequences. Life’s accomplishments are not accurately measured against early aspirations or initial dreams. Those goals were important, but solely as road signs, valuable resources to guide the immediate next steps, to set the initial direction. But they have little, if any, nexus to where the eventual and ultimate journey will lead. The circumstances of life are far from static. Life is not a sketch board on which drawings can remain untouched, nor is it a novel with a story line authored to completion before the first page is read. Life is dynamic and unpredictable. One may inclined to look back at his earlier days as a period of naiveté, with unrealistic dreams of lofty accomplishments. If anything, the only actual naiveté may have been in presuming that one’s initial goals were actually meant to serve as the eventual goal posts of success.
The measure of a man is not how far he walks, but how he navigates the obstacles along the way. No one can possibly anticipate the challenges that life will present. In fact, the most crucial challenge is often recognizing the unexpected and wonderful opportunities that come along. Sometimes, rachmana l’tzlan, the challenges are less welcome. But, in virtually every instance, the unexpected and unanticipated play a significant role in fashioning the direction of one’s life. They affect how time is spent and they dictate how one’s focus and attention must be allocated. For the truly responsible oved Hashem (servant of G-d), priorities must be recalibrated in concert with unfolding circumstances, with previously selected goals and priorities often diminished in relative importance, to be replaced by new goals essentially chosen by HKB”H (G-d). While completing one’s undertakings are certainly admirable achievements, the far greater achievement is recognizing when refocus and recalibration are necessary.
Megilas Esther concludes by attesting that Mordechai was “favored by the majority of his peers, pursuing the good of his people and concerned for the welfare of all his posterity.” (Esther 10:3). The Gemara is Masechta Megilah (Megilah 16B) explains that these words actually describe a challenge faced by Mordechai, implying that only the majority of Mordechai’s peers favored him, while others, who were also esteemed members of the Sanhedrin, were not pleased with him, at all. Rashi explains that this disapproval resulted from Mordechai’s exchanging full time Torah study in favor of protecting the safety of the Jewish people through political involvement. In fact, pesukim in Tanach reflect that Mordechai’s stature in the Sanhedrin was actually reduced following the events of the Megilah (see Ezra 2:2 and Nechemiah 7:7).
Having just recounted the enormous heroism and righteousness of Mordechai Hatzaddik, and his enormous contribution to Klal Yisroel, is it not quite strange that the Megilah would conclude the entire retelling of the Purim story by conveying Mordechai’s failing? Even if it was a message worthy of sharing, is it logical that a derogatory description would be the concluding description of Mordechai’s life?
I suggest that the Megilah is actually conveying the opposite message. After the battles that took place on the 14th and 15th of Adar, Mordechai understood the danger facing the Jewish community and appreciated that his undertaking a political role would be vital to ensuring the community’s safety. Mordechai also understood, however, that this undertaking would reduce his status in Torah and in the Sanhedrin, and that he would suffer the painful rebuke of many of his peers – peers who were of the greatest of the generation. And so the Megilah’s final description of Mordechai was not intended to be derogatory at all. In fact it was the highest of praise. Mordechai was being described as an oved Hashem who understood that one must alter one’s role, one’s focus and one’s achievements in concert with the circumstances presented by HKB”H. How others may view the choices, or how the choices may affect oneself, must be of secondary concern. This is the paradigm of success.
When highly functioning individuals confront unanticipated factors that mandate a reorientation in focus, they typically comprehend the significance of these new factors, and make the necessary changes to meet the new challenge. Far too often, though, they view their departure from their earlier goals as a failure in meeting their goals, and a deficiency in themselves and their achievements. They fail to appreciate the enormous success that is reflected in their ability to recalibrate responsibly and effectively. They misinterpret their enormous victory as a defeat, and perceive acts and choices that reflect greatness as signs of weakness or as deficiencies. For these highly successful individuals, this misreading results in unwarranted suffering , disappointment and frustration.
The most impressive individual is the one who recognizes the constantly shifting duties and responsibilities that life’s curve balls present. So many baalei batim whom I have been honored to know are extraordinary examples of such people. It is time for them to learn to be impressed with themselves, as well.