There is an older gentleman at the gym I work out at. His name is Tony. He is there every day I am there… and probably days I am not. He is a military vet and works out hard… maybe harder than I do. And he struggles. You can see it in his body, which is not so young and strong anymore, and in his face, as he pushes himself.
But Tony always smiles… Tony is always happy… and when you ask him how he’s doing, Tony always responds with a few retorts. But my favorite is the one I’ve gotten from him over the last few days:
“I’m great! (Pause for dramatic or comedic effect…) But I’m improving.”
Taken on face value, this is funny… and perhaps even an oxymoron. How can one be great and yet still improving? Ahhh! This is really, truly what life is all about.
We are what we say we are… If we say we’re down and low, we’ll be down and low… If we say we are good, then we’ll just be good… That is our baseline… But… and this is a big but… If we say we are great, then we are great and will be great.
Don’t we all want more out of life? Don’t we all want to be super… fantastic… amazing? And how odd or sad is it, that when someone says they are spectacular, we way too often look at them like they are crazy.
A much better approach is to accept it… take joy in it… celebrate that another human being is spectacular… and then immediately ask: “How do I get there, too?”
Though we already know the answer… and it is usually quite simple… You PUT yourself there!
Positive thinking… Manifesting… Willing something so… whatever you want to call it… It is what we project out into the world and how people perceive us… but also how we feel about ourselves… and while not always easy, we can actually make ourselves be happy.
This is the very lesson of life and the very lesson of our upcoming holiday filled with lessons… Shavuos.
Like last year, my very first celebration of this amazing holiday, the debate continues… Shavuot or Shavuos… and according to Wikipedia, it is Shavu’oth for the Sephardi. Regardless of the pronunciation, it “marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel and it commemorates the anniversary of the day G-d gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai…”
It is the holiday where you stay up all night and learn! And not in the forced, cramming for an exam, pounding the caffeine way… Okay, there IS coffee… but in the joyous, filled with great happiness and excitement way!
For me, the significance of the holiday is just that… the JOY of learning and sharing… Where students become teachers, and teachers, students. We all share the gift of knowledge… and yes, a bit of cheesecake!
The pursuit of knowledge should and must never stop. As soon as we say “Oh yeah I got this…” or “I know all I need to know” is when we are sunk.
Yes, knowledge is power… but so is admitting that we do NOT know everything… that there is ALWAYS something new to learn and see and experience.
In his fantastic book Kabbalah 365, Gershon Winkler says on Day 48:
“No wisdom comes to us when we are filled with it. Wisdom only comes when we are void of it, when we have hollowed out a clear space in our selves, and created room for experience and for what experience teaches us.”
Rabbi David Aaron also defines LOVE that way… It is us opening a place in our hearts for another human being… not our idea of who they should be… or the notion of some far-out and impossible perfection… but opening a space for who they truly are… as is.
Questions… searching… an eternal quest.
Our own Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld says that sometimes an answer can stop a conversation dead in its tracks… but another question or more questions keep that very conversation going.
In his amazing and imperative work The 48 Ways, Rabbi Noah Weinberg (OBM) says that “Wisdom IS Questions.”
Well… Rabbi Weinberg says many amazing things… like how we should also “Listen With Our Ears” and not our positions… and how we must “Live With Joy”.
And to bring a bit of the secular into all of this, Don Miguel Ruiz says in his brilliant The Four Agreements (although technically this the updated, Fifth Agreement):
“We must be skeptical, but learn to listen.” In other words, do not take anything on face value… hear everything, listen to everything, but explore and learn it truly for yourself. A vital lesson for college students and campuses in particular these days…
So on Saturday night we will stay up into the wee hours… moving from location to location… make-shift classroom to make-shift classroom… and we learn… and open ourselves up to the infinite possibilities that life really is.
And let us all be like Tony… Let us all be great… amazing… spectacular… wonderful… each and every day… but let us also have the opportunity and desire and ability to improve upon that remarkable baseline… every single day!
“…Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.” (Hamlet)
“From the here until the hereafter
Our existence continues to be.
There is a beginning
Inside every ending.
Those forces of nature,
Those forces might save you.” (“Someone’s Daughter” by Matt Pond & Chris Hansen)
This post is for all of my teachers, including:
Rabbis Shlomo Seidenfeld, Avi Rabin, Shalom Denbo, the Rabbis at Chabad… Howard Witkin, Jason Katz… Pema Chodron, Peter Russell… Okey Chenoweth, my friends and family… and of course, my parents… And anyone else I have learned with online or in person. Thank you, all!