R’ Yehoshua ben Chananyah said: Once I was walking down the road and I saw a little boy sitting by a fork in the road, and I asked him, “Which is the road we take to the town?” He answered me, “This road is short and long, and this one is long and short.” (Eruvin 53b)
Two days ago, I was pretty stressed out. Professionally, I’m in the final and most difficult stretch of the biggest project of my life. So much depends on it, for me, for my team, for my family. It demands more hours and energy than I have. It is thrilling to be sure, but the stakes sometimes weigh me down.
Naturally, it was at just this period that I became the Accidental Talmudist, and now bear the added responsibility/privilege of sharing what I have learned during my voyage through Talmud - a voyage that still has three months to go. I still have my daily page to read, and I have only just caught up to the Daf Yomi schedule after falling 55 pages behind last summer, when the big project began.
Most importantly, I have in my house an eight-year old daughter, a seven-year old son, and my beloved wife Nina, each of whom deserves quality time with me.
And while all this is going on, I am counting the days from Passover to Shavuot, meditating on the 50 “Gates of Wisdom” in an effort to redeem myself from this year’s Pharaoh, carelessness, so I can free myself, G-d willing, from that defect in my character.
Two days ago, however, I felt like something’s gotta give, and it looked like it would be that meditative practice. I mean, heck, there just aren’t enough hours in the day!
And I went down the road which the boy described as “short and long.” When I approached the town, I discovered it was surrounded with gardens and orchards that blocked access to the town. (Eruvin 53b con’t)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, connects this Talmudic story about two roads to the Tanya - the foundation text of Chabad, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Rabbi Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe, begins his book:
For this thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deut 30:14)
The Torah is full of laws. It takes a year to read, and we reread it every year. The Talmud explores, specifies, amplifies, illustrates, and illuminates those laws in 72 thick volumes. It takes seven and a half years to read. That is a whole lot of information. Who can understand all of it, let alone observe it?
The Rebbe says we must endeavor to learn whatever we can, because G-d gave us the intellectual capacity to do it, and through this study we will come to comprehend our role in the Creation. Such an understanding will translate to our emotions, so that we will not give in to the urges of the Yetzer Hara, i.e. the evil inclination. And eventually, we will dedicate ourselves entirely to doing G-d’s will, and thereby unite with the Holy One. Such a person is entirely a blessing to his or her family, community, tribe, and indeed, the whole world.
Few get there. Yet all benefit themselves and their loved ones by trying. It is a long journey, with a true reward. This is the longer shorter way.
Sounds great. But isn’t it enough to be a good person, make an honest living, and follow the rules everyone else follows, without necessarily understanding all the deep meanings? Especially when you’re mortally busy?
No, says the Rebbe, that is the shorter longer way. Like R’ Yehoshua’s first inclination to to take the path straight to the town, it is misleadingly simple and doomed to frustration, anger and misery. We all have souls that recognize the difference between purpose and purposelessness. If one simply marches along without seeking meaning, he may win battle after battle, but the war will be lost.
I turned back and I said to the boy, “My son, did you not tell me that this road is short?” He said to me, “And did I not also tell you that it is long?” I kissed him on the head, and I said to him, “Praiseworthy are you O Israel, for all of you are very wise, from your old to your young!” (Eruvin 53b con’t)
The 50 Gates of Wisdom are a tool by which one comes to comprehend the self, defects therein, and the path toward refinement. In other words, wisdom is not a talent or gift. It is a practice.
When we count the Omer, we endeavor to leave the impurities of slavery in Egypt behind, and prepare ourselves for receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai. Each day brings a new meditation based on a combination of Sefirot, or the emanations of G-d through which He interacts with His creation. For a good primer, click here.
This year, I’m working on attention to detail. I’m a big picture guy, and sometimes I am careless - with work, with correspondence, with people. To paraphrase a Sicilian sage, a man cannot afford to be careless. But you can’t just say, “I will not be careless.” It won’t work. It’s like a New Year’s resolution. You say it, you mean it, then you wake up with a hangover, and life gets in the way.
To make a real change, I have to do the work. So I count the days, and take the steps away from Pharaoh Carelessness. Two days ago I counted 24 days, which is three weeks and three days. The week is dedicated to Netzach, or endurance. That day I inspected the Tiferet of Netzach, or the balance aspect of endurance. For me this means, how am I implementing attention to detail in my life so that it will endure, and how is balance part of that equation?
When I ask myself that type of question, I get very still and eventually a truth comes. In this case, I thought about scheduling. I have to make time for each of my activities. I can’t be in a reactive mode, rushing from one to the other, anxious about the latter while doing the former, or I’ll always be on my heels, thinking will be muddied and choices rushed. So it starts with a simple action: setting the alarm clock 30 minutes earlier. A practical outcome from an introspective process. G-d willing, this little step will help me become a better father, husband, director, man.
And I believe this process is a big part of why G-d gave us the Torah, and why our tribe has studied it for 3,000 years. As Moses said to all of us at Mt. Sinai:
I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day… Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” (Deut. 30:13)
No, the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.
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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.