When Does the Fun Start? – Observations for Elul (Ideas #111)

When my family goes on vacation, an inevitable question we have to face is whether we will allow the children to watch television. Since we choose not to have a television at home, the younger children look forward to watching cartoons and other such fare as part of the change of pace that comes with a vacation. This year, our family trip coincided with the Olympics and we decided to let our children watch some of the competitive events. For whatever reason (maybe because there was an Israeli medal contender), the main sport covered when we came home from our day’s activities was judo.


From my admittedly limited perspective of this sport, all I could discern was two contestants spending most of the match trying to position themselves in such a way as to throw their opponents for a fall. Of course, while this was going on, each contestant was also trying to prevent such positioning by their opponents. As a result, the actual action, if it happened it all, would usually be limited to a few seconds each match. While I’m sure that all this positioning is quite fascinating to the Judo aficionado, it left me bored enough to reflect upon the deeper meaning of all this.

I asked myself whether judo is not so different from life in general: Like the judo match, much of our lives seem rather uneventful. Also, as in athletic competition, we rarely know when the special moments that define our lives will actually occur. It may be weeks or months, or even years, that nothing unusual happens but, sure enough and often when we least expect them, things do happen. Inevitably, someone will present us with a chance to do something really significant. Moreover, these moments can be deceptively simple. So much so, that we are sometimes not even aware of them as they are happening. (I am always amazed when a former student tells me about an important teaching that I said five or ten years ago. It is usually something which I didn’t mean to be of any special importance and yet obviously made an impression well beyond my awareness.)

Until these special moments occur, however, we are easily distracted from the need to position ourselves to meet the inevitable challenges and opportunities that come our way. If the athlete is able to keep up his focus for the few minutes of his match, keeping one’s guard throughout our lives represents a much taller order.

Even more important than not losing our guard, however, is the need for proper preparation. Of course, proper preparation is no small feat.  Since most events cannot be predicted, they seem to defy meaningful preparation – at least, if we are thinking of preparation in conventional terms. To go back to sports, films of opponents are commonly reviewed to see what they have done in the past and to learn how to counter the same moves in the future. Of course, clever athletes know that they are able to prevent the effectiveness of their opponents’ preparation by simply surprising them with new moves. While there may be limits to this number of moves an athlete can devise, the variation of events with which we are faced in real life is almost unlimited.

As a result, true preparation means acquiring the versatility and flexibility to deal with different types of problems, issues and challenges as they come up.  It means developing the wisdom to expect the unexpected. To be prepared is to know that we must be alert to our surroundings and carefully evaluate what other people are actually communicating – understanding a question or statement is often much more about how and why it is said than what is said. The worst thing we can do is to try to pigeonhole what we see around us and to artificially assume that it is exactly the same as some previous event. We should certainly learn from similar events in our past, but we also have to constantly guard ourselves from the all too human tendency to overplay the similarities between the past and the present.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik z’l is known to have said that there is no holiness without preparation. I used to “translate” this to my younger students by saying that anything important is worth preparing for. The problem with life, however, is that we often will not know what is important until it is upon us. As such, we are left with the irony that the most important preparation is preparation for nothing in particular. 

As we enter the month of Elul, a month that serves as a preparation period for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, we should not get overly bogged down by particulars. Though we need to remind ourselves of past failures, we will not accomplish much if we only develop strategies to avoid those exact situations – in many cases, we may never encounter these specific challenges again. Rather, we need to find and master general strategies that permit us to excel, to be in complete control of ourselves and to seize the moment when it finally arrives.