Redefining Success for Shavuotby Rachel Eden May 3, 2017
Remember David Frankel? Sure you do. The one from grade school. The kid with the thick glasses who you saw at a recent reunion all grown up. What if I told you that little David became a tall and handsome cardiologist, graduating from Harvard Medical School? If you came across David now, would you be impressed, intrigued, intimidated? Certainly you’d acknowledge that he’s successful.
What if David’s story turned out a little differently? What if David had no fancy degree, big bank account, or stable family? You meet David after all these years to find out that he’s a high school dropout, flipping burgers to pay bills, and has no prospects in the near future. When you ask him about what he’s up to, he describes how he’s been hard at work repairing the damaged relationship he’s had with his father, taking care of his aging mother, and correcting bad habits like unhealthy eating and gossiping. Impressed? Intrigued? Intimidated? Unlikely.
Though we often greet one another with a glib “how are you?”, sometimes I opt for “how’s your life?”. While the former often solicits a superficial nod and smile, the latter catches people off guard and sometimes even allows them to answer honestly. They have to dig past the Facebook photos, resume, and any other enhanced self-promotional image they hope to project. What’s left? How do we judge our success? What does it mean to live a successful life?
Let’s peek into our Jewish community on a typical Shabbat afternoon. What will we find if we hover over the kiddush table at noon? Even in a wholesome community like ours, we will consistently find that success is defined by what we can see or measure. How are the Rosen children doing? Let’s look at their grades. How’s Saul Meyers? It depends on whether he’s working or between jobs. Poor Sarah Green. Still not married- and picky!
As it turns out, when we peel away at the trappings of what appear to be indicators of success, Judaism reveals four major categories of achievement. The first is wisdom. How do we define wisdom today? It’s tempting to judge another person’s (or our own) wisdom based on educational achievement but we don’t necessarily find the world’s greatest sages in Harvard or Princeton (Donald Trump went to Wharton, just saying). A much more accurate testament looks inward at mindset, attitude, and humility to determine if we choose to make learning a daily and lifelong goal. As Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person” (Talmud- Avot 4:1). When we perceive everything and everyone as teachers, we accumulate knowledge very quickly. Even after Albert Einstein earned his reputation for genius, he pursued the best and brightest in his field (he would frequently visit the home of Max Planck) for guidance and discussion.
The next area that may determine success is might. There is plenty of evidence in the world of sports to indicate that physical strength precedes fame and fortune. The average NBA player makes $5.15 million dollars annually, MLB players make $3.2 million, NFL players surprisingly only make $1.9 million according to Forbes. While our sympathies are with the poor football players, it’s clear that this country values physical acumen. Thankfully, Judaism calculates human strength a little differently. “Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who conquers his passions than a conqueror of a city” (Mishlei 16:32). To the degree that I refrain from speaking about another person out of anger, jealousy, or resentment, I am strong. This spiritual workout requires daily practice but the results are surely rewarding.
The next sphere of success is wealth. We often feel as Woody Allen so eloquently puts it, “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”. While, money is indeed an important currency that can buy us kosher food or a Jewish education, at what point do we treat money as the end goal? When faced with beautiful homes in nice Jewish neighborhoods, we may be tempted to purchase a house that we can’t afford to keep up appearances. “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot” (Talmud- Avot 4:1). A friend of mine visited Israel recently during a record heatwave. She went hiking in Masada, a place known for its intense heat with a few other women. She posted sweaty photos of the ladies full of smiles despite their discomfort with the hashtag: don’t blame, don’t complain. As we know, change starts with us. Imagine on the next family outing that we adopt this mantra and pass the opportunity to harp on the inevitable challenge in the road? We would see immediate results, feeling liberated, strong, and wealthy with all the blessings we do have. We would be rich.
Finally, we deem honored people as successful. Politicians, CEOs, and celebrities top the list of success stories because so many honor them from employees to constituents to fans. If only we could aspire to reach the Torah’s view of honored – “Who is honored? The one who honors others” (ibid). Who was the most honored person in Jewish history? While we could name any number of great Jewish leaders, one stands out the most in my mind. Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, the greatest prophet who ever lived, is also the man best known for his humility. What did Moshe do all day? He dedicated every spare moment he had to serving the Jewish people through prayer, counsel, and adjudication. Moshe was the ultimate servant leader. His leadership sprouted from his service to God and the Jewish nation. Any respected leader, any authentic person who others look to as a role model is in some form serving his or her audience. The more people we are busy serving, the more dependent people become on us. Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch Abraham, a very wealthy man busied himself hosting and serving guests even while he was in terrible pain from his circumcision. He was honored for the way he honored those around him.
Our inner world is the only realm that we can truly reign and the place we can impact the most significantly. Jay Shetty, motivational philosopher, says “somewhere along the line, our definition of success became blurred”. Shetty describes an assignment given to children by a primary school teacher where they had to answer what they wanted to be when they grow up. Many wrote astronaut, actor, singer, or scientist. One little boy, John, wrote ‘happy’. The teacher said, “John, I think you misunderstood the assignment”. John replied, “Miss, I think you misunderstood life”. Little John Lennon’s chutzpah reminds us adults that we need to redefine what success means to us.
Shetty continues, “Let’s not make success and happiness be about the size of our homes but about the size of our hearts. Let’s not make (success) about gratification but gratitude. We speak about being healthy and our well being but we act more like human doings than human beings. Instead of to-do lists, we need to-be lists. Instead of thinking about what you want to do, think about who you want to be.” Success appears to be an inside job. And our little friend from grade school, David Frankel? Does he end up the prestigious cardiologist or the high school dropout? As it turns out, it doesn’t matter.