June 16, 2005
The Way You Are
Parshat Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
Our teachers come in many forms and shapes. Many of mine have, over the years, appeared somewhat similar both in regard to gender and profession. The ones that never cease to surprise me, demanding of me to think beyond myself, are my younger students. Clearly, the younger -- the better.
Three years ago, while trying to introduce the notion of what it would mean to live our lives within the context of three concentric circles (now, forever, forever and ever) I asked my high school students: "What part of yourselves do you love now? What part of yourselves do you want to take with you till your last day? Assuming that for a moment you believe in reincarnation, what part of you would you like to bring back with you into your next life time?"
Some students had different answers to the three questions. For some there was something about themselves that they loved for now and the duration of their lives, but nonetheless would not like to "come back with it." Others gave the same answer for all three. Dina fell under this category.
It was the simplicity of her response that stunned me:
"I am mediocre and it is my mediocrity that gives me freedom to try anything and everything," she said. "I am not afraid of failure since you can only fail if your expectation is excellence."
Dina was free to live life to its fullest, there was nothing to hold her back from experiencing all that God has planted in this world.
In a world of expectations, demands and desires, I envied her freedom while questioning the source of fear that comes with aspirations of success and excellence.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains what may appear as a superfluous verse: "Aharon did so ... as God commanded Moshe" (Bamidbar 8:3). Who in their right mind would change the way he or she lit the candles of the menorah after being commanded to do so by God in a specific manner? Yet, Rashi says, "And Aharon did so -- to teach us that Aharon didn't change."
As if this needs to be said. What would Aharon change?
Or, as the 19th century Chasidic master, the Yismach Yisrael, understands Rashi, "Aharon himself didn't change." In this moment of greatness, being designated to perform a mitzvah that will last forever (the Midrash teaches us that we light Chanukah candles every year as the descendents of Aharon), he didn't change. The sense of grandeur didn't go to his head. You wouldn't be able to detect by looking at him how great this moment was for him. The greatness and richness of this moment didn't over take him, erasing all that came before it. The Yismach Yisrael is sensitive to a known fear -- the fear that success will erase who we were until that transformative moment. The fear that success will change our lives in such a manner that we will cease to recognize ourselves.
In the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, the Ishbitzer Rebbe addresses a similar emotion. The Torah teaches us: "All these blessings shall come over you and overtake you" (D'varim 28, 2). The redundancy of verse intrigues the Ishbitzer Rebbe -- why "come to you" and "overtake you"? He, too, senses the fear of success and explains that the promise of this verse is that the "you" won't change. The blessings won't change the core of your goodness. It will not corrupt the essence of your internal beauty.
A dear friend of mine once shared with me that they feared that the blessings of their life weren't really theirs. They had inherited a sum of money from a relative and with the money they spent a couple of years in Yerushalayim learning; years that ultimately transformed them. They questioned whether they would've made it to Yerushalayim without the inheritance, hence the gifts of their decision were not really theirs at all.
Holding on to the Yismach Yisrael and the Ishbitzer Rebbe I told them that they are indeed blessed with blessings that they are theirs.
The choice of what to do with the money reveals their inner self. Someone else may have gone off to India for five years, or traveled around the world or bought a new car for that matter. Their choice to go to Israel and learn was a reflection of their true self, and thus all the blessings and transformation in their life was a reflection of their inner essence.
The six branches of the menorah faced each other, while focused on the center light. The freedom of mediocrity mirrors the fear of excellence and transformation. Both sides/branches aligned with the light of the Divine in the center. They call us to not live in fear of mediocrity, to be free to excel and change, to wed these voices within ourselves under the canopy of God's light, to trust that we will not get lost along the way and to live our lives as the children of Aharon the high priest.
Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.