Building the Future Now
By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Every year, somewhere toward the middle of the summer, I get an early reminder that the High Holidays are not too far away. This reminder comes in the form of the opening section of Parashat Matot, which deals with the topic of nedarim – vows and pledges: “A person who takes a vow to Gd…shall not violate his word.” The subject of keeping vows, intriguingly, features prominently in the Yamim Nora’im(High Holiday) traditions. We perform hatarat nedarim, the formal annulment of vows, and the Yom Kippur prayer service begins with the solemn Kal Nidreh prayer, the communal annulment of outstanding vows and pledges. It appears that there is a vital theme underlying the rules of nedarim, a fundamental concept that is worthy of prominent mention during the holiest time of the year.
This suspicion, that the laws of nedarim involve more than meets the eye, is confirmed by a brief, perplexing Midrashic passage. Commenting on the aforementioned verse which speaks of the obligation to fulfill pledges, the Midrash writes, “This is what is meant when it says (Kohelet 9:12), ‘For a person knows not his time.’” Without elaborating, the Midrash associates the concept of vows with King Shelomo’s timeless exhortation to constantly remember that “a person knows not his time,” that we never know how much more time we will be given in this world. Somehow, the notion of nedarim conveys this message that our days here on earth are numbered, that we must treat each day as though it could be our last. As the Midrash so often does, it leaves it to the sages of the generation to decipher its words and unearth the depths of meaning and profundity, and the practical lesson that it seeks to convey.
Ups and Downs
Just as athletes go through slumps and hot streaks, lehavdil, in religion we similarly go through different phases. We all have our “ups” and “downs.” Believe it or not, even the saintliest sadikim go through their “slumps,” periods when they fall short of what they’re capable of achieving. Parenthetically, apropos to the season, we should mention that the “lows” often tend to occur during the summer months. For most of us, the mood in the summer is more relaxed and focused on recreation, which could easily lead to a lowering of standards and a downhill course of religious commitment.
For our purposes, though, the important point is that we must take advantage of the “highs” to ensure that they carry us through the “lows.” I hear all the time of people who feel inspired by a certain Torah article or series of lectures, or by a heartfelt conversation with a great rabbi, and decide that they’re going to change and live on a higher religious standard than they had until then. The “high” lasts for several days, or perhaps several weeks, during which the individual’s conduct is indeed noticeably different, but eventually it fades until the person returns to square one. This happens to smokers, too. Whether it’s the untimely death, Gd forbid, of a fellow smoker, a presentation by a health professional, or a frank conversation with the doctor, the smoker decides it’s time to quit, and is able to drastically reduce his smoking for a few days, perhaps a week. But often, the inspiration gradually wears off with time, and soon enough, the smoker is back to a pack a day.
Regarding spiritual matters, this is perfectly normal and natural. We cannot expect to remain on a high forever. The high will always be followed by a low. It’s human nature, plain and simple.
The question, then, becomes, what is the purpose of the “high”? If from the outset the inspiration is doomed not to last, then why should we bother? What’s the point of being moved and driven if this feeling is bound to fade and ultimately disappear almost entirely?
The solution to this problem is nedarim. Despite the fact that, for reasons which are beyond our discussion here, formal vows are discouraged nowadays, the general concept of nedarimremains very relevant, and is in fact a vital part of our efforts to grow in religious observance. A neder(vow) is how an ephemeral, abstract feeling of inspiration is concretized and given practical expression. Said more simply, it is the way we ensure that the effects of the “ups” stay with us during the “downs.” If a person walks away from a shiur(Torah lecture) feeling inspired in a general sense, that inspiration may have some short-term effect, but it will not last in the long-term – unless he can translate that fleeting inspiration into practical, concrete commitments. For example, if a person hears a lecture about the importance of Torah study, and leaves feeling inspired to be like the Gaon of Vilna, he won’t get very far. The more appropriate reaction is something along the lines of nedarim – such as committing oneself to a daily or weekly schedule of Torah learning. A neder is the concrete, practical application of a feeling of inspiration, and it is what helps ensure that it will have a lasting effect. People by nature like keeping their commitments and resolutions. As long as the inspiration is general and abstract, one will not be driven to sustain it. But once it is translated into concrete goals, we will be motivated to achieve them, and thus the effects have a good chance of enduring, even throughout the “down” that will inevitably follow the “up.”
Swinging the Bat
“This is what is meant when it says, ‘For a person knows not his time.’” The Midrash here urges us to capitalize on our moments of inspiration. We do not know how much longer we will be here, and we do not know how many more opportunities we will have to surge forward in our religious observance. The concept of nederis the concept of seizing the moment, of taking advantage of inspiration when we can by making concrete commitments.
The rabbis teach that feelings of inspiration are a gift from Gd. When we receive such a gift, we have to use it, and use it quickly before it fades. Who knows how many more such gifts we will receive during our lifetime? We cannot expect another opportunity to come around. Certainly we should not be making a formal neder, but we most definitely should direct our inspiration toward specific commitments, each person according to his level. For some it may be praying with a minyan (quorum of ten men or more) each day, for others it may be avoiding certain manners of speech and dress. But the key point is making a concrete, practical resolution that is realistic and doable.
We are now in the middle of baseball season, and the rule in baseball is “Three strikes, you’re out!” When it comes to religious observance, we do not know how many “strikes” we have before we’re “out.” So when we get a “good pitch,” we have to swing the bat, and swing it well. A hitter can afford to take a strike or two without swinging, but regarding Torah we do not have that luxury. If we are thrown a “strike” – in the form of an inspiring Torah lecture, for example – we must “swing,” we must take full advantage, with concrete commitments that we can stick to even long after that special feeling of inspiration is gone.
Two Roads Off the Bridge
We read in the book of Melachim I (19) of the designation of Elisha as a prophet. The nation’s prophet at the time was Eliyahu Hanavi, and he journeyed to Elisha’s farm to ask that he join him and become his student. When Eliyahu came, Elisha was plowing the fields. Eliyahu threw his cloak on Elisha, signifying his invitation to come “under his wings” and study to become a prophet. Elisha immediately dropped what he was doing and followed Eliyahu. It is told that Elisha also poured salt on his fields so they could not produce crops for some time – the purpose of which was to ensure that he would not change his mind and return to farming. Elisha became Eliyahu’s student and, ultimately, his successor, bringing about numerous miracles and serving as an important spiritual leader of the Jewish people.
Let us imagine for a moment that Elisha decided not to join Eliyahu, that he felt secure and content tending to his family’s fields and figured that he was better off continuing along his familiar path in life. He would have forfeited his career in prophecy and leadership. At that crucial moment, when Elisha was presented with a precious opportunity, he grabbed onto the opportunity and ran after Eliyahu. This simple episode has much to teach us about seizing opportunities. When opportunity knocks, and we open the door, we can accomplish great things. But we forfeit these achievements if we sit back idly and ignore the call.
Rav Haim Brim would give the analogy of crossing a bridge. Usually, after the bridge there are two or more roadways the driver can take. His decision at that moment will determine his direction for the next several miles, or even more. The driver must make the right choice of which highway to take, or else end up far from his destination. The same is true in life. We are given a few, precious moments of opportunity when we can choose our direction – toward spiritual greatness, or toward mediocrity, or worse. If we forfeit that opportunity, we might find ourselves stuck on the wrong road for a long time to come. We must make the right choice when we can.
The Class That Could Have Changed Everything
Centuries later, there was another man named Elisha, who was also blessed with an extraordinary mind and had the potential for greatness. Unlike Elisha the prophet, however, he, unfortunately, missed an important opportunity that could have avoided a tragic end.
Elisha ben Avuya was a leading Torah scholar, and was in fact the mentor of Rabbi Meir, who emerged as among the greatest of the Tanna’im. Unfortunately, however, Elisha ben Avuya became a heretic and abandoned the Torah. The Midrash tells us the story of how this happened. Once, as he was studying, he saw a man climb up a nearby tree and take a bird from its nest along with its eggs, in direct violation of the Biblical command to send away the mother bird when taking the eggs. The man descended from the tree peacefully and went along his way. On another occasion, Elisha was again studying near the tree and he saw a different man climb to collect eggs. This person abided by the Torah’s command to send away the mother bird. On his way down, the man tragically slipped, fell to the ground and died.
It was this pair of incidents that led Elisha to heresy. He knew that the Torah explicitly promises long life as the reward for fulfilling the missva of sending away the mother bird – “lema’an yitav lach veha’arachta yamim – in order that you will benefit and live a long life” (Devarim 22:7). And yet, Elisha saw with his very eyes that just the opposite happened – the man who violated this missva lived, and the one who fulfilled the missva died! At that moment, Elisha rejected the belief in Torah and became a heretic.
The Midrash concludes this account by noting that Elisha had not heard the explanation of this verse given by Rabbi Akiva during a public lecture. Rabbi Akiva said that when the Torah speaks of “benefit” and “long life” as the rewards for sending away the mother bird, it refers to the afterlife, to the eternal rewards of Olam Haba (the World to Come). The incidents that Elisha ben Avuya had witnessed thus posed no challenge whatsoever to our belief in the Torah, as the rewards it promised are the rewards in the afterlife, not long life in this world.
What a tragedy! Rabbi Akiva was delivering a public lecture, and Elisha, for whatever reason, chose not to attend. Perhaps he felt that as an accomplished scholar himself, he had nothing to gain from Rabbi Akiva’s class. Or maybe he simply did not want to interrupt his own course of study. Whatever the reason, the results were catastrophic. That fateful decision, not to attend Rabbi Akiva’s address, led to Elisha’s rejection of Torah. Had he heard Rabbi Akiva’s explanation of the pasuk (verse), he would not have been so disturbed by what he saw. This is a tragic case of a missed opportunity, of failing to “swing the bat,” resulting in the most disastrous “strikeout” imaginable.
Today, in our community, there are so many opportunities for learning and growth. Torah classes are delivered at virtually any hour during the day and evening, and anyone can access literally thousands of recorded shiurim, not to mention all the quality Torah books and materials available for every level. Who knows what kind of valuable, relevant and life-changing information we are forfeiting by not taking advantage of these opportunities? The one day we decide we will relax at home instead of going to a shiurcould very well be the day when vitally important and relevant material will be taught. The one day we decide to listen to the radio on the way to work instead of a Torah class could be the day we miss a shiurthat could have inspired us or conveyed pertinent halachic instructions that we need to know. The one opportunity we miss could end up being a lost opportunity to change our lives.
Obviously, nobody can attend every shiur. There are, thank Gd, far too many for one person to participate in them all. The point here is that we must each take advantage of the opportunities presented to us, each according to his schedule and capabilities. We are fortunate to live in a time where many “good pitches” are thrown our way each day, but even so, as King Shelomo warns, “For a person knows not his time.” There is no way of knowing for how much longer we will be granted these opportunities. We must “swing the bat” while we can, and take full advantage of the precious opportunities that we have, so that we will not “strike out” and forever regret letting the “perfect pitch” go right by.
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