Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Giving It Your All and Then Some

Bamidbar

What do you do when you don’t see the results of your efforts, do you persist or do you give up?

Is it always a virtue to not give up? When might it be a sign of vanity, of not wanting to admit failure?

As with many similar questions of this nature, the answer is: it depends.

It depends on why you do what you do: do you do it in order to show off your personal greatness or because of your dedication to a cause greater than yourself?

One day Morris went to visit his friend in charge of evaluating the young men who were about to join the army of Israel. He invited him to witness an endurance test, and they watched a group of teenagers who went for a 5 mile run. After a while, running under the heat of a blazing sun, one of the boys fell to the ground, fainted. He was treated by the paramedics and taken off the track.

“There’s one guy you can send home,” Morris commented.

“You’re very wrong,” he replied. “On the contrary. He will probably be chosen to serve in an elite unit.”

“But he was the first to cave! What good is such a wimp in the IDF?” Morris insisted.

“It’s very simple. In our army what we value most is commitment. The boy demonstrated a level of commitment and unconditional persistence by giving his last drop of strength. As for the body’s endurance, we can increase that here through training.” 

We live today in a world in which the value of the individual, his or her rights and interests are paramount. And this is not entirely wrong from the point of view of the Talmud; every human being has an irreplaceable value. “No two people are alike,” our sages point out [1]. Every man and woman has a unique role and value. But does it begin and end there? And what about the value of community? How does one reconcile the value of independence with that of belonging and – therefore – dependence? 

In order to unravel this challenge, we must start by asking ourselves: does belonging to a community make me smaller or greater; does it weaken me or strengthen me?

Let’s see.

This week’s reading, Bamidbar [2], opens with the census that G-d sent Moses to take of the Jewish people in the desert. There were groups of data to be recorded: the names and the numbers of each family and tribe. One difference between a name and a number is that a name expressesd the individual’s distinct personal identity while the number ignores his individuality, emphasizing instead his similarity to others and his belonging to a group.

The Torah teaches us that both aspects are equally important and are in fact complementary. When individuality is expressed within the community, it’s significance can be much greater as he or she is part of something larger. By the same token, the community is strengthened by respecting the unique place and contribution of each individual. It is difficult to express this more eloquently than the way the great Mishnaic sage Hillel Hazaken did [3]: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” 

So, to answer the question we asked at the beginning as to what persistence represents —courage or cowardice— I would say that it depends on the cause. If you are insistent with something of personal value, it is quite possible that persistence without seeing results is an expression of pride and fear of admitting failure. On the other hand, if we are talking about a cause whose value goes beyond personal interests, perseverance in spite of every reason for discouragement is a sign of strength of character and nobility.

As I write these lines, a conflict I witnessed between a couple comes to mind. 

“Why do you spend so much time at work and never make time for me,” the woman demanded.

“I just prefer to dedicate myself to something I know how to achieve success in rather than trying over and over again something I always fail at…”, the gentleman clarified.

What do you think, dear reader? The husband who tries again and again to make his wife happy, and fails, if he does not give up and chooses to keep trying, is that praiseworthy or deplorable? Is he being noble or is he a wimp?

I think the answer is, once again: it depends. If he insists on trying again in his own way, it is an expression of his ego as well as a sign of dementia, according to the formula attributed to Einstein: “Madness is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”. If, however, he insists on trying again according to what his wife asks him, that is definitely a sign of nobility.

Come to think of it, perhaps this recipe is implicit in the Talmudic adage that clearly indicates the priorities in a marriage relationship: Love your wife as yourself and honor her more than yourself. [4]

So this week’s tool is: 

To dedicate oneself to tasks that yield successful results and not to rest on one’s laurels is praiseworthy, indeed, but it does not come close to the value of one who persists in fulfilling his responsibilities and commitments even when he does not (yet) see the fruits of his labor. 

  1. Sanhedrin 38a
  2. Numbers, 1:1 – 4:20
  3. Avot, 1:14
  4. Yevamot 62b, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut, 15:19
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments