“Anything you want to be,” is a phrase parents often say to their children. You don’t need to accept any limitations; they are all artificial. If you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want to be.
Sometimes children misunderstand and think that they can snap their fingers and become anything they want to be. When they enter the real world and see that it isn’t that easy, they think their parents misled them. But they didn’t. The children simply misunderstood. The parents were saying that if you put your mind to it, if you are determined and willing to work hard, if you are willing to never take no for an answer, you can be anything you want to be.
The First Jew
Indeed, this message is not only synonymous with Judaism, it is also the foundation of Judaism. G-d’s first words to Abraham were, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home to the land that I will show you.” The message was that if you want to be in a land of G-d’s choosing, a holy place where G-d is present, you can. Despite all the setbacks of your land, your birthplace, and your father’s home, you can go to the land that I will show you.
It is G-d’s vote of confidence in each of Abraham’s children—you and me. Notwithstanding our background, childhood, weaknesses, fears, insecurities, or education, we can be anything we want to be. Only we hold us back. Our belief that we can’t do more, our belief that we can’t shatter our ceiling, our unwillingness to invest the effort, only that holds us back.
They tell a story about an elephant born in a zoo. The zookeeper chained the elephant’s leg to a stake in the ground. The little elephant tried to pull his leg free, but the stake and chain held out. One day the elephant gave up trying and resigned himself to the sad reality that he was unable to break the chain.
Over time the elephant grew larger and stronger and could snap the chain, but he never did because he never tried. He continued to believe that the chain was stronger than him. We are like that elephant. Our beliefs are our ceiling. Break those beliefs, and you will shatter your ceiling.
Let’s return to that passage and examine it. G-d told Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home. Now, if Abraham was an adult living with his father, he would first need to leave his father’s home, then his birth region, and finally his land. Shouldn’t his orders have been reversed?
The order reveals a much deeper understanding of this passage. G-d wasn’t talking about Abraham’s physical land and birthplace, G-d was referring to something much more profound.
When a Jew decides to devote him or herself to G-d and to Torah, the first impediment is our earthliness. We are earthly beings more responsive to tactile pleasures than spiritual pleasures. Physical reality is more compelling to us than abstract ideas. Boisterous fun is more appealing than ecclesiastic rapture. Our first challenge is to leave our inner land—our earthliness—behind.
The next challenge to overcome is the traits and tendencies encoded into us at the time of our conception. The mystics say that our spiritual orientation is influenced by the thoughts our parents entertained when we were conceived. If they thought of themselves and their pleasure, we will need to battle inclinations toward self-absorption and hedonism. If they thought of each other and of the holiness of the child they were creating, we will be more inclined to selflessness and sanctity. We are the products of our parents’ imagination.
But we are not confined to these restraints. We can overcome them and shatter our ceiling. We can break away from the thoughts with which we were conceived and be anything we want to be.
Finally, we are the product of our environment. The home of our parents, the place where we grew up. If it was a caustic environment filled with bitter recrimination, angry outbursts, or hedonistic pursuits, that will influence our behavior. If it was a place of devotion, warmth, and holiness, we will emerge differently.
G-d’s message to Abraham was you are not confined by any of these limitations. You can break away from your own coarseness and earthliness. You can overcome the tendencies with which you were conceived. And you can escape the environment in which you were raised. You can find your way to me. You can be anything you want to be.
The order now makes sense. G-d told Abraham to go forth from his land—the pre-birth limitations of nature. His birthplace—the tendencies imposed upon him by his parents’ thoughts at conception. Finally, his father’s home—the influence of his childhood.
The message to us is that if we want to turn over a new leaf, we can do it no matter where we come from or what limitations we adopted when we were children. No matter what skills you have today, you can learn new skills and be anything you want to be. No matter what traits or tendencies you have today, you can break free and be anything you want to be. No matter how many times you were berated and told that you will never amount to anything, you can break free and be anything you want to be.
G-d never told Abraham to depart his land, his parents’ home, etc. G-d told him to go. This is curious because you go to your destination. You depart the place you are leaving from. Why didn’t G-d tell him to depart? What message was G-d sending?
G-d was telling us, that not only does our ceiling not limit us, it impels us. It gives us more incentive to succeed than we would otherwise have. Don’t think you would be better off if you were raised in the best possible home with the best possible parents. The person you are, the person with the steely determination necessary to overcome limitations, was forged in the limitations of your past.
The more we are held back, the more desperate we are to break out and succeed. It is like water pressure that builds against a dam. Over time, the pressure grows so strong that nothing can hold it back.
Don’t depart your limitations, don’t leave them behind. Hold onto them and cherish them because they give you the power to break away and become anything you want to be. Go forth to your destination always remembering what impels you. Go, go, and keep going until you become anything you want to be.