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Jewish Thinking

The Torah Judges Man’s Efforts, Not His Achievements!

Published on Sunday January 17th, 2021

In the world of Torah, failing to succeed does not mean one is a total failure! Let’s see how this works…

Rami, a man in his sixties, still recalls his bitter experience as a young candidate preparing to join the Israeli Air Force. The offspring of an honorable salt-of-the-earth Israeli family and a brilliant student at a prestigious Tel Aviv high school, Rami grew up with a clear conviction he would serve in the best and most coveted IDF bodies: the Israeli Air Force. Rami succeeded at the initial exams and embarked on the long, tedious, but also prestigious pilot fighters’ course. This course requires a few years of investment and tenacious dedication. It is divided into various stages, each leading to an examination to finally select the best.

We will spare many of this story’s details. Suffice to say that Rami made progress in the different stages of the training course. Up until he had one last exam to take before becoming an Airforce pilot. Rami beamed with pride. He pictured himself as one of the few 'chosen''. In his eyes, this last exam was only a minor technical step. He could achieve it without flinching. He pictured himself receiving the applause of family and friends and walking the red carpet leading to his plane. But, to his chagrin and bitter disappointment, he failed his last exam. He failed the Air Force pilot’s course. Years of study, personal investment and exhausting efforts to excel came to nothing.  His morale was torn to pieces. Rami had to leave the air force and was enlisted as a tanker as part of his compulsory military service.

Even to date, Rami remembers this bitter failure.  Despite his numerous successes and achievements, he has never gotten over the fact that he missed something important.

Such are the rules of secular studies: if we drop out and fail to reach the end of the curriculum, we’re as good as someone who never even started.

This state of mind is manifest in a man who failed to complete a project or achieves a goal he had set. He believes all his efforts were ultimately useless. This state of mind is likely to spill over into the world of Torah and instil in the student a feeling that if he comes short of achieving something if he failed to reach a certain level, all his efforts and investment came to oblivion. However, it is both important and surprising to discover that unlike any other discipline, investment in Torah study does not work that way at all. You ought to know that even if you do not succeed, it does not make your failure! How? Why? After all, you have nothing to show for it. Do you want to know?

This is what a Mishna from Pirkei Avot (Teachings of the Fathers) says:

"He taught: It is not our responsibility to complete a task, but we are not free to withdraw from it."

When a person understands the commentators' explanations and the magnitude of the unfathomable depths of the Torah and its commandments, he may find himself in a situation never encountered before. Because whatever the actions and the efforts he applies, he will never reach completeness. But at no point is he allowed to say to himself: "That's it, I'm tired, I can rest on my laurels now".

He may hear about Rabbanim who has been studying Torah for 90 years or more, and who still apply effort because there is always room to make progress. He might question:  "What about me, when will I be able to complete my studies?"

This thought is indeed discouraging, but only to those who do not know how to assess progress in the world of Torah. If a person mistakenly believes that if he does not achieve perfection by finishing the entire Torah, he will never merit the future World nor the immense rewards awaiting those who observe the Mitzvot, then he really has something to brood about. Because indeed, he doesn’t stand a chance.  This miracle did not even happen to Avraham Avinu or Moshe Rabbeinu.

In the realm of Torah study, that's not how it works. We do not measure the "what" or the "how much", but only the "how".

If a student is involved in an effort to complete a project and tries to make progress to achieve his goal, it isn’t a tragedy if he ultimately does not reach the desired peak. "It is not your responsibility to finish the task": God gave no specific exams to pass when He commanded His mitzvot”. Thus a Torah student has a different goal. A goal that requires action and effort. He needs to keep going and surpass his limits. As the Tana (the Sage) continues in the Mishna, saying: "but you are not free to abandon the game" either. You must look for ways to get there, strive to improve and try to make progress. That's it and that's the goal.

The Ramchal, one of the greatest Kabbalists, writes in chapter one of his book of Messilat Yesharim: "The essence of a man in this world is to simply practice the Mitzvot,  work hard and endure trials and tribulations." Note that the Torah does not mention success, but stresses effort and improvement instead. That's the difference ...

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