The goals of life
As summer approaches, many of us look toward a well-deserved vacation. But, summer or not, we are constantly faced with decisions that we prioritize according to a reward value.
Judaism teaches us, however, not to be judgmental about opportunities to do a good deed, since we don’t know which will bring us the greatest reward. Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, traditionally studied during the summer months, teaches that sometimes the smallest mitzvah challenges can bring us the greatest rewards.
Rabbi Sholom Swadron, a charismatic rabbi whose stories have been told worldwide, once had an encounter with a student that illustrates this concept. Rabbi Swadron would befriend his students and listen to their concerns with genuine warmth. In response, most of them became devoted and attended his daily classes without fail.
At one class, Rabbi Swadron noticed the absence of a diligent student. The rabbi thought perhaps he was not feeling well. But when the boy failed to show up the following morning, and the next, he decided to pay the student a visit.
The student was visibly shocked to see his teacher. He thanked the rabbi and said he would return to school early the next week. The rabbi replied that he trusted the student’s judgment but felt that there was something more, and asked him to come clean.
Embarrassed, the student said he was in a soccer league playoff that week. Not familiar with the game, the rabbi asked the student to explain. This must be very important since he was missing class.
The student explained that there are two teams and the object of the game is for one team to kick the ball into the net of opposing team. The rabbi didn’t understand – anyone can kick a ball into a net. The student replied that there is a goalie.
How it is possible for anyone to kick the ball into the net with a goalie standing in front? the rabbi asked.
That’s the whole point, the student exclaimed. And when they succeed, they feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and the crowd gets up and cheers.
The rabbi offered this suggestion: why don’t the players wait until the goalie gets tired and goes home?
Sighing, the student explained that the challenge is to kick the ball into the net when the goalie is there, when it’s hard to do so. That’s what makes it exciting.
At this point, the rabbi jumped up and exclaimed: “Exactly! The real challenge is to come to class this week, when the ‘goalie,’ the yetzer hara [evil inclination] is doing his best to get in your way and stop you. If you manage to kick the ball into the net, you will score points and lead your team to victory. But if you put off coming to class until next week, when the ‘goalie’ is gone, when it is not a challenge for you, then you will have missed the whole point of the game! You will be kicking a ball into an empty net!”
The student showed up for class the next day.
We, too, are challenged by what we sometimes feel are unimportant issues. But this is precisely the time to overcome those feelings because ultimately that is when the rewards are the greatest. And that my friends, should be one of our goals in life.
Rabbi Meir Rosenberg is the executive director of Mizrachi Canada.