December 26, 2002
A Letter to My Sons
Ten tips from Jewish tradition on facing life's challenges.
Dear Matt and Steve:
Thirty-five years ago, armed with a letter of introduction from one of your grandma's friends to the vice president of personnel at Time, Inc., I got my first job. As you guys begin your working lives, and I listen to your efforts, dreams and disappointments, my random-access brain has been retrieving words and phrases from our Jewish tradition.
Work is one of the strongest Jewish values. God provides the ultimate example: He worked a six-day week to create the universe. And when the Tabernacle was built, every person contributed according to his skills and talents. The Talmud reminds us that, "No labor, however humble, is dishonoring."
Unfortunately, I cannot give you a list of beneficial business contacts, but I can pass on something of greater value. My job at Time lasted only nine years, but these words of wisdom from the Five Books of Moses and other Jewish sources can help you weather challenges throughout your lives.
1) Show up for life: Remember that every time God called Abraham, Abraham answered, "Hineni -- I am here." Say "hineni" to your lives every day, even in the confusing, disappointing and frustrating times.
2) Get into action: Nothing happened at the Sea of Reeds until Nachshon stepped off the bank. It's not called footwork for nothing. The Children of Israel had to put one foot in front of the other to get from slavery to freedom. In other words, take the next indicated step.
3) Pause: If there seems to be 17 indicated steps, priorities will become clear if you pause. Acting rashly is never a good idea. Look what happened to Moses the one time he lost his cool and struck the rock twice at Meribah. His rashness kept him from leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.
4) Be patient:. Anything we do for the first time, even looking for a job, has a learning curve. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, "A person must be very patient, even with himself." I would modify that to say, especially with oneself.
5) Ask questions: While you're in that learning curve, don't be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help. In the Pirke Avot, Hillel warns "A bashful person will never learn." Asking questions is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.
6) Have confidence: "The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others," says a Chasidic maxim. Remember the 12 men sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan? Ten of them reported back with fear: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them, (i.e. the people already living in Canaan)." Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, had confidence that, with God's help, they would prevail. Ultimately it was they who led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.
7) Trust the process: Sometimes what we think is the worst thing that could happen turns out to have been a blessing. The story of Joseph is a wonderful example. Joseph reassures his worried brothers after Jacob dies, "Although you intended me harm [by selling him into slavery], God intended it for good so as to bring about the present result -- the survival of many people."
8) Seek Balance: Don't spend every waking moment looking for a job. The Pirke Avot says, "Without flour, there is no Torah; without Torah there is no flour. Only labor and learning together produce a purposeful life." And it's also OK to have a little fun. Kohelet wrote, "Eat your bread with gladness and drink your wine with joy."
9) Live consciously: Even if you are frustrated or disappointed, be aware of the miracles around you every day. God did not speak until Moses turned to look at the burning bush. Messages may come through small, daily marvels.
10) Know for whom you work: The Hebrew word avodah means both work and worship. Offer your efforts and your work to God. Proverbs says, "Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed."
There is a Chasidic saying, "Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength." My prayer for you, as you go through this sometimes-painful life experience, is that you will learn the way your heart draws you, and find work that allows you to be a blessing in the lives of others.
With much love,