My first Sabbath taught me an important lesson about training the palate to enjoy the sweet flavor of success.
I had been traveling through Israel on my way from Crete to Kenya, and I was looking to while away a few months volunteering on kibbutz, not attending yeshiva. But it was November, when agricultural work is scarce and kibbutzim don’t need volunteers. So when I happened upon an institution offering room and board, together with a degree of intellectual stimulation, it seemed a remarkable stroke of good fortune, one that would provide a cheap and pleasant distraction for a month or two or three. I miscalculated — by nine years.
It didn’t take me long to recognize the wisdom that permeated the walls of the study hall and to appreciate ancient traditions that guided the Torah community. Committing myself to a foreign way of life, however, was an entirely different matter. I had arrived not knowing aleph-beis, never having heard of Shavuos or Sukkos or Tisha B’av, never having seen a lulav or heard a shofar. Talmudic study was intriguing, the philosophy insightful, but I hadn’t come looking to upend my life or rethink my worldview, and I gave no serious consideration to doing either.
The turning point came about three weeks after my arrival. The rosh yeshiva stood before the assembly of students one afternoon and addressed us concerning I don’t remember what. But I do remember one idea from that talk, a simple concept that changed my life.
“There is an experiential dimension to Torah,” said Rav Nota Schiller, “such that a person can master the total knowledge of Torah and yet remain wholly unfamiliar with the essence of Torah because he has never practiced it.” The argument made perfect sense. And although I had no intention of committing my life to Torah, I did feel an ethical obligation to dismiss Torah observance for rational reasons rather than emotional ones. Therefore, in order to defend my eventual rejection of Torah Judaism as sincere, I would have to give the Torah every chance of proving itself; after that I could walk away from it without recriminations. And so I decided on the spot that I would keep the next Shabbos, not out of religious conviction but merely as a practical exercise in the observance of Torah Law.
I enjoyed the Friday night meal as I had on previous Shabbasos, but upon returning to my room I made a most unwelcome discovery: the overhead light had been left on. Today, laboring to meet the demands of three jobs and four children, I can fall asleep under just about any condition. But back then I was considerably less resilient, and a hundred watts streaming down onto my face would disrupt my sleep as effectively as Chinese water torture.
The solution should have been simple — turn off the light. I wasn’t shomer Shabbos; I wasn’t observant at all. But I had made a commitment to keep that Sabbath which meant refraining from creative work — including turning on or off a light. Of course, I hadn’t expected it to be this inconvenient, but I had made the commitment nevertheless. How, in good conscience, could I break my agreement with myself?
I tried to position myself so that the light was behind me, but nothing seemed to help. I lay on my bed, tossing and squirming, feeling like a fool. Why was I subjecting myself to this? What was extinguishing a light to me? And even to those rabbis who claimed to be the keepers of the word of God, how could the flicking of a switch possibly qualify as “work” that is prohibited to do on the Sabbath?
Eventually, after what may have been hours, I did drop off to sleep. I awoke on Shabbos morning feeling more tired than when I had gone to bed and feeling resentful toward this system of arcane, irrational laws that had deprived me of a good night’s sleep. But I woke up feeling something else as well: a profound sense of satisfaction at having followed through on my commitment. As I contemplated that peculiar night over the next days and weeks, I couldn’t remember ever having put myself out to such an extent for no reason other than to keep my word.
I never did get to see Kenya. Nor did I get to see Botswana, Nepal, Thailand, or Australia. What I got instead was a sense of the rewards of accomplishment, of struggling to master my impulses, to learn aleph-beis, to understand the Talmud, to lead the prayer services, to eventually become a rabbi myself and guide my own students in discovering the raw pleasure of struggle and reward.
Unfortunately, as a teacher, I come head-to-head every day with this generation’s aversion to struggle. It’s easy to understand why: today’s children have instant food, oven-ready and microwave safe; they have predigested information spoon-fed to them in the class room and on the internet; and they have multimedia entertainment that the mind absorbs with as little effort as a lifeless body sustained by intravenous drip. Many of them aren’t even expected to throw away their own trash or clean up their own messes.
So little is demanded of the young generation that they demand next-to-nothing from themselves. In school they are often expected to merely regurgitate information without thinking or processing, and the inflated grades they receive confirm their impression that mental effort is a waste of time and energy. They have rarely been called upon to challenge themselves or endure even a few moments of discomfort and, tragically, they have never tasted the sweet flavor of success.
In his book, My Child, My Disciple, Rabbi Noach Orlowek observes that the word “discipline” derives from the word “disciple”: only when parents and teachers demonstrate what it means to live according to standards and discipline will children acquire a commitment to living disciplined lives themselves. Many of us may remember a particular rabbi or teacher who inspired us to learn, to achieve, to struggle to become like him or her. Such mentors succeeded in motivating us because they communicated their confidence in our ability to meet their expectations. What’s more, they established credibility and earned our loyalty by living as examples of the kind of people they taught us we should be.
But high standards require hard work, and we only live up to our responsibilities as parents and teachers when we cultivate our children’s palates to savor the taste of a job well done. Movies and adventure novels might have us believe that glorious conquests lie waiting around every corner, but real life offers far more pedestrian challenges: the way we speak to and act toward other people, the respect with which we comport ourselves in synagogue, the effort we make to give charity or to return a lost object are all decisions that wait for us at every turn. And every one of these affords us a priceless opportunity to show our children through example how the most demanding obligations of a life lived with commitment and integrity yield the most precious rewards.
How could any of us, if we really think about it, ever weigh the importance of Shabbos against the inconvenience of a light in our eyes? But our children will face many more subtle temptations in seemingly harmless pleasures that will tickle their imaginations and beguile their hearts. By living as models of Jewish values, by teaching our children through example how to reject quick fixes and convenient rationalizations, we bequeath to them the only enduring pleasure this world has to offer: the satisfaction that comes from working hard and doing well. In this way we can hope to raise children in whom both we and God will take pride. What’s more, our children will take pride in themselves — from their own efforts, their own struggles, and their own success.