While walking to shul with a friend many years ago, I heard what would stick in my mind for all time. It was a “dad joke” of epic proportions. As his father was walking quickly, we began to fall behind. His father turned around and my friend said, “Go ahead, we’ll catch up.” To which his father replied, (are you ready?) “No ketch-up, you mustard come now.” It’s been close to forty years but I still remember that painfully bad pun, and I must admit I’ve used it myself.
I thought of that recently when I was trying to get some mustard out of a bottle. I’d turned it upside down, shaken it, and squeezed it tightly, mainly just eliciting some rude noises with a bit of the mustard. Acquiescing to my fate of having no more of the golden condiment, I prepped the bottle for recycling. It’s something done in the place where I live, and, being good citizens, we try to abide by the rules.
Now, to my knowledge, they don’t require you to wash the bottles or cans out, but since we keep a bin in the garage to hold the items until the weekly pickup, my wife likes them to be cleaned out. So, I immediately took the bottle to the sink, and unscrewed the cap. Imagine my surprise when I saw a large glob of mustard at the top of the bottle, now readily accessible!
It was almost like magic. Some incredible feat of saucery, you might say. I quickly took the bottle back to the table and shook the delightful paste onto my plate, before returning to the sink and filling the now empty bottle with enough water to swish and rinse it out.
What occurred to me at that moment is that often we’ve abandoned hope of something, thinking it’s gone forever, when it really isn’t the end. If we approach it from a different angle, as I did when I unscrewed the bottle and had a clear route to the mustard at the neck of the bottle, we may find that there is something there we almost missed.
In light of the timing, being Elul and only a short time before Rosh Hashana, it made me think about it on a larger scale. Each year we begin with resolutions and plans that this is going to be the year we make big changes, the year we turn our lives around or give them a boost in the right direction. Now that the year is almost over, we may look back at the hopes and dreams we had and realize that they didn’t materialize. We may feel the year is wasted. But don’t be so quick to give up.
There’s a pithy expression about deceleration syndrome which, though a bit dark, is actually very meaningful. It’s said about someone falling off a cliff or skyscraper. “It isn’t the fall that kills them; it’s the sudden stop.” If one fell 100 stories off a building, but somehow avoided hitting the pavement, they would be able to walk away from it.
Maybe they had a parachute, or there was a big airbag there like the Fire Department uses, or a giant cartoon catcher’s mitt, or whatever, but if they didn’t hit the ground with that speed and finality, they could be OK. If a paratrooper’s chute doesn’t open at the right time, but he fumbles with it and eventually gets it open, he may not have landed on his intended target, but he has saved his life and will live to jump another day.
I thought the mustard was empty, but there was still more to be gotten. The year may be close to its end, but it isn’t over yet. There’s still time to squeeze out some flavor and goodness. No matter how late in the game you get this realization, you can avoid hitting rock bottom.
And it doesn’t only apply to a year. It works in any situation. Imagine you’re davening Shemona Esrai. You start off with intent to focus on each word and appreciate the opportunity to converse with Hashem. But then you get distracted. Your mind wanders, you think of other things while your lips continue to say the words, and pretty soon you realize you’re halfway through and didn’t concentrate. Don’t give up! Continue from wherever you catch yourself and make the most of it.
And if you started to do that and then caught yourself daydreaming again? At least you caught yourself! Remember that you can keep trying until the end, and whatever you get is more than you’d have if you gave up before you reached the end.
So the next time you’re feeling blah, when you think you’ve wasted your time and your opportunities, remember that so much can happen in the final seconds of a game and things can turn around in a powerful way. Then take advantage of the last moments you can, and attack life, and its opportunities, with relish.
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