In a recent article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal one of the opinion writers for that esteemed newspaper wrote a thoughtful piece about his feelings as he embarked on the annual fast day of holiness. The main thrust of his article was that American society can and should do better. It should produce better candidates for the presidency, it should be a more robust society, it should be a more tolerant society – in short, it should be a better society.
This idea should not be restricted to the United States of America or to politics and government generally. It should apply to all of us. We can all do better. We can be better parents and teachers, citizens and workers, scholars and leaders. The greatest restriction to our lives is when we believe that we are not capable of doing better and are complacent and accepting of our current situation and efforts.
The Talmud challenges us to always ask of ourselves: “When will my actions and behavior come to the level of those of our patriarchs and matriarchs?” Now, all of us know that we are not Abraham and Sarah, but the challenge placed before us is to improve ourselves so that we come within hailing distance of the great people who brought monotheism to the world and founded the Jewish people. The Torah makes maximum demands upon us because it wants us to do better. We are encouraged to strive to reach our true potential and not wallow in the everyday excuses of life that so constrain us.
Every teacher has had the experience of the young student that openly tells him or her that he simply cannot deal with mathematics or physics or social studies or a foreign language. By so declaring, the student has put the teacher on notice that not much should be expected from that student during the course of the scholastic year.
Of course we all realize that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stating that it is beyond my ability to do something automatically guarantees that I will not accomplish that goal or master that subject. It also provides the one who has made that statement with a comfortable zone of excuses that removes any sense of failure or disappointment.
The rabbis of the Talmud placed the emphasis on effort rather than concentrating on the result. “According to the effort, so will be the reward.” For the effort invested instructs our desire to do better. There is a great phrase in Yiddish that describes the smug, self-satisfied, insufferably arrogant “pious” person: “A righteous person wrapped in a fur coat.” Snugly comfortable in his own self, he will never see room for improvement and growth.
He is not interested in doing better because he is convinced that he is doing just fine as he is now. And that is a terrible trap that denies human beings the ability to grow and develop the inherent greatness that lies within each and every one of us. The tragedy of life many times is the untapped potential that is never exploited.
It is interesting to note that the nature of human beings is to strive to do better. Simply look at all of the billionaires who are constantly searching for another deal or opportunity to make even more money even though they realize that they cannot live long enough to spend all of the money they have already accumulated. Perhaps even more than the money is the thrill of the hunt that drives them, the ability to do better at what they are good at.
So too is it with musical and theatrical artists, sports champions and almost all other people engaged in professions or the arts. The Torah does not disparage this drive of human nature. However, it does wish to channel it into spiritual and altruistic avenues as well. We can all do better in active kindness and charity and in our attitude towards others, especially when those others differ from us in appearance, dress and world outlook.
We can all do better in terms of devoting ourselves to study and knowledge, to erudition and scholastic achievement. This past month of Tishrei concentrated our minds and actions on essentially promising ourselves and our Creator that we can and will do better. We will believe in ourselves and in the justice of our cause and the holiness of our purpose. And we will strive to transmit that to others and to the world generally, with our words, actions, our behavior and influence.