|This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi’s Akiva Grunblatt, Yissachar Frand, Yossi Bilus, Asher Hurtzberg, Dr. Abba Goldman|
We all have dreams that for the most part never materialize. I always wanted to be a chazzan, however I can never hit the high note without scaring the cat. But what is incredibly frustrating is that many times, forgetting the crazy unreachable dreams, there are very realistic, albeit hard to earn, dreams which require capabilities we possess! We just aren’t recognized for them, or they never truly come out to fruition.
For example, when I was growing up there was a Rabbi who lived not far who happened to be a man of tremendous talent. He was a great orator, charismatic and very personable. Both he and his wife were considered good looking and good qualities didn’t drop one iota with his children either. They were all successful and all married into good families. The Rabbi and his wife had seen their fabulous grandchildren. A “picture perfect” Rabbi along with a “package deal” that any congregation would want. However he was a Rabbi of a very small shul, on the outskirts of the neighborhood, where there were scarce Jews. There were approximately ten to fifteen old men on a Shabbat morning; the shul was dying out. I never understood why he wasn’t grabbed and showcased on the big stage. He was certainly respected in the community. Why didn’t he command a big pulpit position?
In fact, years later when there was an opening in one of the big major shuls in the neighborhood he wasn’t even given a chance to interview! When asked by many why he wasn’t considered, the choosing committee responded that “He was too old for the position.” WHAT!! How can they pass up on this all-around talent? Do you know what kind of respect he would bring to the Judaism? What kind of great potential was wasted? It could have been glorious!!
This week we read about the aftermath of the most tragic event in the Torah: the death of the two eldest sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu. They offered a sacrifice with ‘strange fire’ before G-d, disobeying his instructions, and were immediately consumed by G-d’s fire. Two rising stars cut down in their prime, at the height of one of history’s greatest celebrations. The fall from glory, for Nadav and Avihu and the entire Jewish nation was swift, stunning, and it could be said that Klal Yisroel never recovered fully recovered from it. They were the heirs to Moshe and Aharon, the two leaders of the Israelites.
It seems like their story is a reoccurring frustrating nightmare of unrecognized gift like “our neighborhood Rabbi”. In this week’s parsha, it is unanimously agreed that Nadav and Avihu had high potential and talent and their gifts were not yet not achieved, buried in the “what if” and “if only”.
Rabbi Akiva Grunblatt relates a story of Frank Lautenberg who became a Senator later in his life after striking it millions working in sales building the payroll company “ADP”. Lautenberg developed a computerized system making payrolls for other companies. Interestingly, a few years earlier someone else developed the same idea, however it just never took off. It basically was ignored. Two people develop the same idea, one ends up taking out the garbage after a long hard day at the office, and the other is a millionaire. One’s potential is recognized, one’s is not.
Why does life seem so unfair?
In order to have a better idea of why such talented people are not recognized or their potential is cut short for whatever reason, we have to first define potential and categorize what it really is, and why it exists. To do so, we must see how the Torah approaches potential.
We can shed some light from the Torah when it introduces Moshe for the first time in parshat Shemot. There, when discussing the birth of Moshe, the pasuk [Shemos 2:1] ambiguously says: “A man went from the House of Levi and took Levi’s daughter.” Surely it would have been more logical to tell us about Moshe Rabbeinu’s father when initially mentioning his birth? Why does the Torah omit the full identity of the parents when first narrating Moshe’s birth, and wait until the next parsha of Vaera to mention it then?
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that when two people bring a child into the world – at that early stage in the child’s life – the parents really have no great “claim to fame.” At that stage, we do not know who the baby is or what the baby will become. At that point, the baby is only “a bundle of raw potential” (b’koach, not b’po-al). Therefore, giving accolades and honors to the parents of Moshe Rabbeinu at the stage of his birth would be premature. He was only a baby!
However, later on in Parshat Vaera, we already know who Moshe Rabbeinu is. This is a person who could have remained comfortably in the house of Pharaoh, but he grew up and went out amongst his brethren and saw their suffering. Moshe Rabbeinu stuck up for the oppressed Jew. Moshe Rabbeinu had to flee for his life and go to Midian. Moshe Rabbeinu stood up for the oppressed daughters of Yisro at the well. This is only a fraction of what he will yet accomplish. But he is now 80 years old; he has already demonstrated his character.
Now the pasuk can inform us that he is the product of Amram and Yocheved. Here the parents can now proclaim: “See the child that we have raised.” They can now stand up and take credit. Let the world know who Moshe Rabbeinu’s father was. Let the world know who is mother was. Moshe Rabbeinu is more than just raw potential. The potential has been realized.
Even at birth, though Moshe’s potential is not realized, we see that the Torah still is careful and goes to many different steps for it to be nurtured and protected. Jewish law states that a Jewish baby cannot be breast fed by a non-Jewish woman. The question is asked why?
We have learned in the famous Midrash: this little boy Moshe one day, will talk to G-d. It’s deemed inappropriate for him to drink milk from a non-Jew. The answer makes sense for Moshe who saw the back of G-d, the only human to ever witness G-d in any form and survive; however that law applies to all Jewish babies. Why does this law apply to all?
The answer is that we all have the potential to talk to G-d, we all have the potential to see G-d, to make a tremendous spiritual impact and therefore we are just as obligated not to drink only from a Jewish mother.
Therefore, there seems to be a clear distinction between potential achieved and potential not achieved. However, caution has to be maintained for we all have the ability to reach the levels of the highest regard. It seems like we leave the door open for potential.
Nevertheless, if it doesn’t happen, then it wasn’t meant to be. People have to take into account that the potential that you have is not the potential that you see. Everyone is sent down to this world with a purpose, and that purpose is your real potential. This can be better illustrated by the following true story.
There was a student who was valedictorian, the highest honor one can receive graduating, at his high school commencement ceremony. He gave a speech, thanking one classmate, in particular, who he credited for himself standing at the podium.
He began to describe the ninth grade and how terrorized he was. He was the butt of all jokes and the class, grade, school were relentless in trying to make his life miserable. They succeeded in abandoning any self-esteem left in this poor boy’s body … One day, he decided “That’s it”. He was going to take his life.
On the very day which he designated for his desperate act, he wanted to ease the anguish that his parent will feel. He decided that he will unload his locker, saving the added burden so they won’t have to do it. As he was leaving school, with piled books on his shoulder, a boy approached him and asked “Can I help you?” They struck a conversation which led to friendship as the boy talked him out of doing the desperate act. “I am at this podium alive today because of this boy and the words “Can I help you?”
Aside from the tremendous lesson that this story teaches us about the innate potential that everyone has, there is something else to consider. The valedictorian almost didn’t live up to his potential, but in the end, he did. Why? Because of the boy who said “Can I help you?” Perhaps that boy’s task in life was to say those magic words “Can I help you?” and save him from suicide. It didn’t matter what he grew up to be or what his talents are. That was his purpose. While you have to take an active seat in life, and try the bet you can, you must keep everything in the proper perspective, which is the knowledge that you never knows the reason you came to this world.
Doctor Goldman Psychologist at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim asks “How does one know what his true calling in this world is? Take a situation that a neighborhood’s Rabbi’s wife is ill and he has to spend more time at home and therefore would not be able to devote the time required for a large congregation. Maybe taking care of his wife is his true calling in life. This is what he came to this world for. This is the test he has to pass. The talent as a Rabbi is perhaps an obstacle, a challenge, a temptation not to achieve his true task in life. Seeing his wife’s well-being is the primary goal. It’s a kindness that he may not have achieved in the previous life.” Though this seems counter-intuitive, the good Doctor is following our holy mystical Torah. We are here in this world to fix our previous mistakes from a different reincarnation. Although one doesn’t know what he has to fix, it could be something as insignificant as saying “Can I help you?”
The good Doctor continues and gives an example “We are like soldiers taking orders from the General. The General has an overview on how to win the war. If one is placed in reserves then he has to stand idle until he is called upon. The General is the one who calls the shots. He may or may not be called to battle. One can be a lawyer with no work or a chazzan without an opportunity. However it doesn’t matter he is still a soldier and doing his duty in reserves, talent and all. G-d runs the world. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have. You do your best and the rest is up to Him. We each have our assignment weather it’s the Rabbi or the one that payroll computer invention was passed up.”
Dr. Goldman mention that Rav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l use to like poetry and would always be moved by the poet, John Milton. Milton lost his sight at his later age and could not continue his work. He would be quoted as saying “G-d put me in the reserves, and that is how I am supposed to live”. One just has to look at history, whether it’s the Holocaust, pogroms or any terrorist act against us and see how much potential has perished. I know someone who is still single and he’s not a spring chicken. He lost his mother at a young age. I have often said if his mother was alive she would have made sure her son would marry. With his mother alive there is more of a chance; there is more of a potential for marriage.
However, this is not what the General laid out on the battle field. Our job is to be a soldier. We have to live up to the potential we were given, but always retain the knowledge that there is a specific task we were meant to fulfill, which may not be what we want. We, as Jews, have an obligation to be G-d’s soldiers.