Winning the Gold
Inspired by Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By Braha Bender
“Rabbi Kelemen, I don’t understand. I’m here in seminary. I’m spending all day learning Torah, more than I ever have before. But the more I learn Torah, the worse I feel about myself. Isn’t that strange?”
Rabbi Kelemen and I were walking out of the yellow gates of Neve Yerushalayim. HaKablan Street was dark and quiet. It was about 9:15 PM.
That was when the rabbi told me something I would never forget. He said that he used to feel the same way.
I was flabbergasted.
Now, to understand why I was flabbergasted, you have to appreciate who I was talking to. Rabbi Kelemen is basically a movie star. His suits are always impeccable. His walk is confident, modest, and upbeat. His eyes sparkle and his teeth gleam. He could be the guy in a Colgate commercial. Besides, he’s a tzaddik, one of the most vibrant people alive. Kind. Sensitive. Wise. Happy.
In a nutshell? The last person on earth I would have suspected to struggle with low self-esteem.
But as I questioned further, the rabbi explained that the more you learn Torah, the more you believe in your own potential. Your dreams and visions of who you can become grow bigger and brighter. Torah raises the bar on your goals and aspirations. And the higher your expectations of yourself grow, the more deficient you may feel.
The moment you feel your self-image shrinking, he explained, that means that your aspirations for yourself have grown. And that is something to celebrate. Big dreams mean big possibilities. “So whenever I begin to feel bad, I feel good,” the rabbi grinned with his inimitable blue-eyed jollity. No need for plummeting self-esteem.
Spock put it this way: “If you eliminate the impossible, then whatever you are left with, however improbable, must be the truth.”
It just so happens to be accurate.
The rule is that G-d never demands the impossible, which means that whatever He requests of us, however difficult, is nonetheless possible. That high bar can be either threatening or liberating. It can make us feel defensive, depleted, deficient. Or it can make us feel exhilarated.
I don’t think the bar gets much higher than the commandment that opens up Parashas VaYikra: “When a person will sin unintentionally…” (Leviticus-VaYikra 4:2) The text goes on to describe the korban sh’gaga, an offering that must be brought as the culmination of the teshuva process when a person makes an unintentional mistake.
Sh’gaga looks like this: you’re standing there, hand an inch away from the light switch you just flipped, eyebrows arched and face puckered in lemony realization of what you did. You didn’t want to break Shabbos. You didn’t mean to break Shabbos. You care about Shabbos. You love Shabbos. And you just turned on the light.
You bite your lower lip and sigh.
This category of sin does not include being pushed against the light switch by another person, or tripping and falling on to the light switch, or being forced to turn the light on at gunpoint. That’s not sh’gaga, that’s ones, force. We are never accountable for mistakes we were forced into. We are accountable for mistakes committed thoughtlessly, forgetfully, carelessly.
Accountable for even unintentional mistakes? That’s a pretty high bar. After all, we’re only human. Thoughtlessness happens. Accidents happen. Mistakes happen. How can the Torah hold us accountable for being forgetful? I forget things all the time.
But that’s exactly where the bar swoops upward. According to Torah, thoughtlessness does not have to happen. Accidents do not have to happen. Mistakes do not have to happen. Sins do not have to happen. Forget forgetful. The Torah invites us to imagine a whole new world. A world where we don’t thoughtlessly hurt anyone’s feelings or forget our precious Shabbos.
Luckily, Torah also hands us a map showing us how to get there.
Living First Class
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, the Alei Shur, was one in a long chain of students and teachers going back to Sinai. That didn’t distinguish him. All authentic Torah scholars are members of the chain of mesora. What distinguished Rav Wolbe was that he was a ba’al mussar, literally a master of mussar, a secret tradition for powerhouse personal change.
Mussar is the aspect of Torah that focuses on the psychological nuts-and-bolts – how to get the Torah you know in your head to penetrate your heart and change the actions and habits of your body. When it came to reaching the high bar, Rav Wolbe knew all about it.
Rav Wolbe clarified a lot of things for our generation, but one of the things he emphasized most was that “preparation is everything”. This means, explain his closest students, that we are accountable not only for our moment-to-moment behaviors but for the context we create for our lives. Everything we choose – where we choose to live, the social circles we choose to spend time in, the amount of sleep we choose to get, whether we drink enough water to stay properly hydrated – determine whether or not we will be capable of meeting our obligations and reaching greatness.
For example, when we choose to blow off a few hours reading a novel instead of getting a good night’s sleep, we are more likely to lose our temper out of exhaustion the next day. Conversely, when we take good care of ourselves, we are able to take better care of others.
It turns out that “accidents” usually happen because we let them happen. We allow our lives to become an accident-prone environment rather than an environment that fosters excellence.
It makes sense that we are held accountable for sh’gagos. The real question is why are we willing to live like second-class citizens in a world of first-class potential.
The Ba’al Shem Tov, a master of a different secret Torah tradition, taught a fundamental truth about the human condition. He said that the moment of sin is only the bite of the snake. The greatest damage is done by the poison that spreads afterwards.
We think that the mistake itself is the problem, and we’re right, but on a deeper level, we’re wrong. The real problem is the person that mistake turns us into.
Mistakes without teshuva become the bitter complacency of a life without dreams.
We take care to avoid mistakes when we have dreams that are too important for those mistakes to get in the way of. We make sure to get enough sleep when we take our waking hours seriously. We eat and exercise properly when our health and energy levels are important to us, important because we have real goals that we need health and high energy to accomplish. When we take our goals and responsibilities seriously, we make all the necessary preparations to meet them.
Sure the bar is high. Torah sets the bar only as high as our incredible, G-dly potential. We don’t take our Torah obligations seriously when we don’t take our lives seriously. We don’t take our lives seriously when we don’t take our own potential seriously. But that low self-esteem Rabbi Kelemen talked about? It’s poison, it’s lying, and it convinces us not to even bother to try.
The korban sh’gaga, and the whole mindset it is a part of, counteracts that poison. It tells us that we can reach the high bar. We can become people who live heroically. We can achieve the seemingly impossible because we are obligated to do so. G-d won’t let us be slouches without dreams, without aspirations.
If you were training for the Olympics, would you hold yourself accountable for unintentional mistakes? You wouldn’t even think in terms of “intentional” and “unintentional”! You would analyze, plan, refine, practice. You would do everything it takes. After all, you don’t win the gold by making excuses.
Your life is gold. Your potential is gold. You are gold. So get out there and make it happen.