Time and Will (Ideas #104)

Every age group has the struggles and challenges that are particularly relevant for it. Being in my late 40’s, I am starting to realize what many have surely felt at this stage in life – that I have a limited amount of time to accomplish my goals. Choices become more weighty as the sense that I still have a lot of time gently dims. Of course, such a feeling may be even more acute for those further down the path in life, but mid-life is when many first feel this.

At such a time, one is prone to reevaluating whether one’s activities are truly making a valuable contribution. In the course of such thoughts, a religious person will want to have a sense of G-d’s perspective on his or her endeavors: I have confided to a few friends that I have two fears in this regard. Having chosen to follow my own independent path, I would be foolish not to fear that G-d will tell me that I had it wrong. But even scarier, perhaps because I believe it to be much more real, is the fear that I have gotten it all right. I envision being told that I was correct about all the major issues (we are all allowed our delusions):  about how to live one’s life, what the Jewish people should be doing in the modern era, how we should be transmitting our values, the function of evil in the world… – in which case, I will be asked, “Since you knew exactly what I wanted from you, why didn’t you do it?”

This is not to say that I don’t act on my beliefs, but am I really taking my beliefs as seriously as I should? On more than one occasion, I have used R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s image of a small child inside a house on fire, to illustrate the position of contemporary Judaism. But if I really believe this image and am not simply using it as a rhetorical flourish, why am I not turning the world upside down in response?

When I was younger, I used to scoff at the gap between people’s expressed convictions and their actions. Through the uncompromising and un-nuanced eyes of youth, I thought that people around me simply lacked will. I still believe that most people are much too indulgent with themselves, wallowing in much more mediocrity than can be excused. Nonetheless, I am now in a position to realize that Herzl’s famous words, “Wenn ihr wollt, ist es kein Maerchen,” which correctly translated mean, “If you (truly) want (something), it is no fairy tale,” are not always true. It is well known that at the First Zionist Congress, Herzl almost prophetically wrote that he created the Jewish State. What people often forget is that only a few years  later, at the age of 44, he died – the exhausted and embittered leader of a movement that could have easily fallen apart or, more likely, simply been ignored.

Even in our most modest goals, it is not only being weak-willed that prevents us from accomplishing that which we would like. Every avenue we pursue comes with considerable trade-offs. Our inability to do two things simultaneously limits us to being able to do only that which will fit into the amount of time given to us.  Every moment of our waking day represents a fork in the road, and for every move we make, there are countless others that we do not.

 From this angle, it should be clear that to make a strong commitment to a modest goal comes at a great cost. All the more so, making such a commitment to a major goal comes at a cost that most of us are not prepared to bear.  People who accomplished great things often had a disastrous family life, simply because they had no time for it. People who have wonderful families are often absorbed in trivialities and superficiality as a result of their focus.

The Torah prescribes a middle road for the vast majority of us, making reasonable demands on the masses and leaving the path of greatness to the few who are able and willing to pay its price. After all, single-mindedness is not for the fainthearted.

So at the end of the day, what is the real issue that confronts the vast majority of us who try to live balanced lives? Perhaps, it is that the impossibility of truly creating a personal legacy threatens to make us completely impotent. The realization of our personal limitations can too easily translate itself into a resigned acceptance that, since what we would really like to accomplish is beyond us, we need not even try.

Perhaps the rabbis were responding to this feeling by telling us that we are neither expected to finish “the job,” nor are we expected to desist from it. We are not asked to do so cynically. Jewish history bears witness to the fact that a great idea will just as often be accomplished by many individuals who did not devote their entire lives to the idea, yet who did devote part of their lives to it. Indeed, the legend of Herzl notwithstanding, the miraculous establishment and development of the modern State of Israel is the result of the work of thousands, if not more.

So I will not be daunted by the gap between the enormity of my goals and the limited resources at my disposal. I will continue to work on them, throwing a bucket of water at the fire here and there, knowing that I am not prepared to put out the fire by myself – but also knowing that there are others who are also throwing buckets at the fire. Two things will keep me throwing water: The knowledge that each bucket makes it more likely that the fire will be put out, and the knowledge that  engagement in combat is the only thing that may inspire me to find a new, more effective way of rescuing the beautiful child still trapped.