January 6, 2000
Parashat Va-Era (Exodus 6:2-- 9:35)
"Don't wish for fish, fish for fish." These words of sage advice were taught to me by my Grandpa Manny. He was a man of action. He was filled with exuberance for life with a twinkle in his eye and a word of encouragement and inspiration for everyone.
Grandpa Manny was the one who would take me to buy a new suit each year in time for the High Holidays, or if there was a family simcha, like a wedding, that required such extraordinary attire. He always seemed a bit impatient with life, especially on the days when he would take me shopping. In fact, I am probably the only child in the world whose wardrobe was primarily determined by the vagaries of traffic lights! We would walk side by side through the streets of downtown Santa Monica and every time we came to a corner, Grandpa Manny would simply take the path of least resistance -- that is, follow the light.
We would come to a corner with Henshey's Department Store to the left and Campbell's Men's Store to the right, and the clothing store from which I would eventually purchase my all-important suit would be totally determined by whichever direction had a green light. Grandpa Manny simply couldn't stand still and wait at any corner. Instead, if he was going in one particular direction and the light turned red he would simply follow the green light the other direction to another adventure.
I always saw him as a great dispenser of wisdom. Not only did everyone know his famous "Don't wish for fish..." saying, but he had reduced his philosophy of life down to one word -- "Diversify!"
Now I am sure that the fact that he retired from the retail clothing business at a young age and spent the rest of his life managing his investments primarily in the stock market had something to do with the cultivation of this particular life philosophy. Even so, both of these moral aphorism have come in handy more times than I can count throughout my life.
Life is filled with people who talk a lot and do very little. How often even in our own lives do we procrastinate and find ourselves never quite getting done that which would move us toward our goals and dreams for the future? Every time I have gotten stuck at some place whether in my personal or professional life, I recall Grandpa Manny looking me in the eye and saying, "Don't wish for fish, fish for fish, Stevie," and I stop over planning, and thinking, and obsessing on what I might do or could do, and simply act.
I act as if my actions can really make a difference in bringing my goals closer to fruition and making my dreams come true. And every time I act on my dreams, miraculous things really do begin to happen in my life.
This "secret" to success is fundamental to every great motivator in history, including the one whose anguish, self-doubt and worry fill the pages of this week's Torah portion. Moses feels incredibly inadequate to fulfill the command from God to inspire the Israelites to go free from Egypt, and to stand before Pharaoh and demand that he let the Jewish people go free, telling God first that he has a speech impediment and second that not even the Israelite slaves listen to him, so why should the Pharaoh?
Yet, Moses is successful as the lawgiver and greatest liberator of all Jewish history precisely because he had the courage to have his fears and act anyway. "Don't wish for fish, fish for fish" said my Grandpa Manny, and to this day I can hardly think of any better advice on how to make a difference in the world.
Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.