Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Lofty Ambitions

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Operation Inspiration

There’s a man trying to cross the street. As he steps off the curb, a car comes screeching around the corner and heads straight for him. The man moves faster, trying to hurry across the street, but the car changes lanes and is still coming at him. This time, the guy turns around to go back, but the car changes lanes again and is still coming at him!

By now, the car is so close, and the man so scared, that he just freezes and stops in the middle of the road, eyes opened wide. The car is almost upon him, but then swerves at the last possible moment and screeches to a halt right next him.

The driver rolls down the window. The driver is a squirrel. The squirrel looks at the man and says, “See, it’s not as easy as it looks, is it?”

This joke came to mind one beautiful day as I gazed up into the tall trees blowing gently in the breeze, dappled with the golden sunlight of a late summer morning. To my surprise, way up in the branches, perhaps eighty or a hundred feet high, a squirrel scampered along and perched, looking like the master of his domain.

I was frightened as I imagined being that high, and began to wonder if that squirrel was somehow better than I am, as he is able to climb to such great heights and I am not able to do so. It took barely a moment for me to answer my own question: ARE YOU NUTS????

Of course the squirrel wasn’t better than me because he could climb a tree. I’m a person with a mission on this world. I have faculties of thought and reason and temptation and choice. My job on Planet Earth doesn’t revolve around climbing trees.

There’s an internet meme with a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that he probably didn’t say, and it’s probably not such a truthful approach, but it’s catchy so I’ll include it here. The quote is, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will go through life thinking it’s stupid.”

Well, I don’t know if fish carry emotional baggage, I mean, where would they put it? They don’t have pockets. I doubt the fish would even know you’re judging it. But obviously, the message of the meme isn’t about fish, but about people. If you ask someone to do something they’re not cut out for, you will not get the best result.

That’s why I hire people to do handyman tasks around my home, but wouldn’t let many people I know write their own speeches. That’s dangerous! It’s important to know your strengths and your weaknesses so you can focus on who you are meant to be. That’s why, when I saw the squirrel, I wasn’t jealous. I thought, “Good for him. That’s what Hashem gave him to work with.” But I knew I wasn’t missing out.

Now if we extrapolate that a bit, if we see someone very successful, we can fight off envy by realizing that that’s what Hashem gave that person to work with, but I’m different. For him, the mansion and the fancy car are part of his task, but not for me.

Of course, when it comes to certain things, we should try to emulate others. If we see someone davening with real concentration, we should realize that we have the ability to do that too and try to apply ourselves. When we see someone who is fluent in Torah, we should be asking ourselves how to become like that, and not revert to a defensive position, incoherently mumbling about being a genius and fish and Einstein climbing trees. That IS what we’re meant for, and we should want to climb those heights.

However, we should not get discouraged if we try our hardest and things work out differently than we had hoped. Ultimately, we must realize that Hashem has roles for each of us. This will help us know how to relate to ourselves and to others as well, as the following anecdote teaches:

R’ Isser Zalman Meltzer z”l, the great Rosh Yeshiva and sage, was on his way to deliver a lecture in Yeshiva when he was stopped by a beggar asking for tzedaka. R’ Isser Zalman gave him a generous amount but the fellow complained that it wasn’t enough.

The rabbi gave him more, but the man still had the audacity to ask for more. Once again, R’ Isser Zalman gave him another coin. The student walking with R’ Isser Zalman was aghast at how the beggar treated the great man, and stunned at the sage’s response.

“Why are you shocked?” asked R’ Isser Zalman, when they had walked further. “Do you think I’m better than him because I’ve learned a lot of Torah and I give shiurim? The circumstances of life have led me to be a Rosh Yeshiva and him to be a beggar. I do not feel superior to him so I felt obligated to grant his request, regardless of how he made it.”

Though his role was to teach Torah, R’ Isser Zalman also practiced tzedakah and chesed, and cared about other people’s feelings. If we can remember this story and try to live that way, aiming to be who we were intended to be, we will be able to maintain our lofty ambitions while remaining grounded as well.

 

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