December 9, 2021 |


I heard a story in the name of the acclaimed Israeli psychologist Haim Ginott about a woman who won the teacher-of-the-year award. She was celebrated for her excellent pedagogy, her lesson plans and her students' test scores. A week after all the pomp and circumstance, she found two students outside her house scratching their initials into the freshly-poured cement of her driveway. In anger, she punched, kicked and drove them away from her house. Her principal confronted her the next day about her physical confrontation with the students. "After all", he said, " you are the teacher of the year. You must really love your students." To which she responded: "I love them in the abstract, but not in my concrete."

It is possible to take an idea - even one that you are passionate about - and abstract it to the degree that you no longer really care about it as much as you care about the idea of it. The theoretical pursuit of that goal becomes more important than the goal itself. Davening is a good example. I know people who are very efficient, disciplined and strict about the prayer service. Services must start on time, words must be pronounced correctly and all synagogue protocols must be observed. After all, prayer to the King of Kings, Blessed be He, is very important. However, sometimes this punctiliousness substitutes for the actual experience of prayer. Prayer - the encounter with God - is sacrificed to the idea of prayer.

Another example is "quality time". Parents are committed to spending quality family time with their children (as they should be), but sometimes more for the theory of it -- to check off the 'quality time' box on their to-do list - than for the experience. So, even if the children are cranky and no one's having a good time and you have to yell and scream at them, the ideal of family time trumps the concrete fact that the time was not really family or quality at all.

I have put a lot of thought into why this - and there are many other examples -- happens to so many of us and have come up with two possibilities:

a) We don't really like what we're doing. Ginott's teacher believed in lots of highfalutin ideals of education and I am sure they meant a lot to her, in principle. But, in reality, she only liked the idea of education. She only liked the idea of students, not the students themselves. When confronted with the real thing in an unguarded moment, she was immediately prepared to thrust it away.

b) We're being selfish. We tell ourselves that the reason we are teaching, or davening, or spending family time, is because we subscribe to these lofty ideals, and perhaps we do. But, in reality, we are doing them for ourselves only and not for the students, for God or for our families. It is because the exercise is MEANT to be about others, but we have made it about ourselves, that its meaning is abstracted and drained away.

This second reason may have been one of the reasons why Akavia the son of Mehaleilel began the third chapter of the tractate of Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with the following distilled piece of wisdom:

"Pay attention to three things and you will never come to sin: 1) from where you have come, 2) to where you are going and 3) before Whom you will ultimately give judgment and account. From where have you come? From an insignificant drop of semen. To where are you going? To a place of dirt, rot and maggots. Before Whom will you give judgment and account? Before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

One of the many intriguing aspects of this statement is that the three things do not all seem to fit together. The first two items of contemplation - our humble biological origins as a drop of semen and our undignified end as a corpse - clearly delineate the beginning and end of our lives. But the last one - our ultimate court case before God - comes in a future existence. Also, the first two items are portrayed negatively, as in 'you were nothing when you were born and you'll be nothing when you die', but the third may be positive: you will stand and give a reckoning before God Almighty. In other words, you are worthy to stand before the King. (I suppose it depends on whether you have a good accounting to give. I suspect we will all be very nervous.)

Both of these dissimilarities point to an emphasis on what we do during the course of our lives. Since we are only temporary beings and God is eternal, we have only the period of time between our birth and death to accomplish our goals in the world. Since we are physical beings, we have only our moral accomplishments to take with us to our court date with God; we can't take anything physical - even our own body - with us. In a very abstract sense, one who reminds him or herself of their mortality each day will not succumb to pride, because they know they will die like everyone else. They will stay motivated when they wake up each day, because they know how limited and special an opportunity one's short life is[1]. No time should be wasted. Finally, they will keep their eyes on the prize, because they know that God created them for a reason and that He wants them to take accountability for whether or not they fulfilled their purpose.

But all of these things are quite abstract. Just like one wishes to have 'quality time', one can wake up in the morning determined to "fulfill God's will for me." Just like one who wishes to daven (but does not) we can pay lip service to making every day count, to eschewing epehemeral pleasures, to living a purpose-driven life. But while we are contemplating our own mortality, we may still unthinkingly attack the two little boys who get in our way.

Perhaps, then, there is a third way of interpreting the Mishna. The first two items are self-referential. They are all about YOU. YOU were once nothing but a gleam in someone's eye and now you have become a full human being. You think you're all that and a bag of chips, but in another 20, or 50, years you will be gone. But it's not just about YOU.

The idea of giving judgment (for what you did) and an accounting (for what you did not) is to say that the value of your life transcends your life. It's valuable to God, to the people with whom you interacted, to your children. You give an accounting after your life of what you did not for your sake, but for a greater purpose. I admit that this idea is also quite abstract. It is not a concrete suggestion (ha ha) for how to stop going through the motions. But, if I am right, then the first step in the battle to avoid not only sin (as per Akavia) but also rote and meaningless activities is to stop thinking about only our own feeling sin those activities. Before beginning, consider what davening means not only to us, but to God and the people around us. Before beginning family time, consider what it means from the POV of your spouse and your children. Make a conscious effort to free ourselves from only our own perspective may ultimately - and surprisingly - make our activities more meaningful to us than when we only thought of ourselves. Shabbat shalom!

[1] A person who lives 70 years will experience approximately 25,500 sunrises. Subtracting infancy and childhood (I'm using 18 as a threshold of self-determination) yields about 18,500 opportunities in a lifetime.



Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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