Avi Tenenbaum
Avi Tenenbaum
Helping People Find Resilience To Navigate Tough Stuff

The Ex-Gangster Tortoise Torah Scholar

This is an article about setting realistic goals, developing resiliency, and getting a reality check. Particularly it is about what we can learn from a repenting gangster, a tortoise, and a handful of desperate people who achieved big goals when the odds were against them.

Have you been motivated to achieve an important goal but you failed repeatedly at attaining it? How does that work? Why can’t you just get your act together? Did your critics ever tell you that your failure must be because you didn’t care enough?

Each year on the Jewish calendar we celebrate the holiday of Simchas Torah. This is the day where we complete the public reading of the Torah and start reading the Torah all over again from the beginning, which literally starts with the words “in the beginning”. Last year at this time we set a goal to complete reading the entire Torah and here we are now, having accomplished our goal.

The Resilient Chumash man with a vision

As many Jews on earth prepare to celebrate the completion of reading the Torah over these past 12 months, my friend is celebrating the completion of his own personal Torah reading, which took him…7 years!

He found that he was trying over and over to study the weekly Torah portion with Rashi, to no avail. Sometimes he completed it, sometimes he didn’t. This went on for years. One day, an ex-gang member who was becoming more halacha-observant joined his yeshiva, and only one year or so later this man with a colorful past was celebrating the completion of a seder of Mishnayos.

My friend was stunned, and it begged the obvious question-how could an ex-gang member with no strong Torah background set a challenging Torah goal and accomplish it while he, the experienced yeshiva student with a pedigree yeshiva background, could not even complete what most people complete yearly-the study of Chumash with Rashi’s commentary?

Eager to discover the answer to the mystery, he asked the yeshiva student with the colorful past for his secret method. The young man simply told my friend “I studied one Mishna a day”.

So that was the magical answer-that he learned the bare minimum each day?

How did that help?

Desperate and inspired by his ex-gangster colleague, my friend decided to revise his goal for studying Chumash with Rashi, as follows: Instead of completing the entire Torah with Rashi’s commentary each year, he was going to read a single verse of Torah per day with Rashi until…however long that takes to finish.

Last week, 7 years later, he completed the entire Chumash with Rashi! Encore! Now he has a new goal of learning two verses a day with Rashi.

Here comes the fine print, pay close attention-my friend also told me there were dozens of times that he just didn’t feel well enough to learn that day. Sometimes he had no mental strength left to read a whole Rashi, so he decided he would read just one line. At even more despondent times he felt he could not even read a whole line, so he read just the header of the Rashi. At his most bleak moments in life over these last 7 years, when he barely even had the will to live or perform any mitzvot at all, he would read one single word of Rashi, and that was it. Hanging on by a thread. Clinging to a piece of the wrecked ship, hoping to stay afloat until rescue or drifting to Gilligan’s Island. Progress. Consistency. Resiliency.

So you see, finishing Chumash over 7 years is not only a tale of triumph in Torah study, but a way of approaching life itself. Life is full of challenges, but we can try our very best, never give up, learn new skills, and hang on by a thread over and over until things get easier, and we triumph. The 7 years Chumash story is a lesson for life, tell it over this Simchas Torah to the people who need to hear it most.

My friend’s struggle to accomplish a seemingly simple goal is a common one. So many motivated hard-working people try to attain their goals, yet they fail. Why do they fail if they are motivated? It is at least partially because we do not understand how behavior works, and that changing or maintaining a behavior takes a lot more than just willpower. It involves self-discovery, developing new perspectives and skills, becoming resilient, adjusting expectations, creating a healthy & honest self-perception, and more.

The Draconian Talmud story-How to Use Talmud to Kill Yourself and more

When I was a teenager I eagerly wanted to finish all of the Talmud. I started over and over so many times and repeatedly gave up due to burnout. I wanted to know everything, right now! My lack of patience stymied my efforts, and I approached my goal with anxiety.

After each burst of sheer willpower petered out, I would burn out and give up, and then I would use my newest failure as proof that my goal was impossible to accomplish. Like a judge in the courtroom, I would conclusively rule several decisions, like how I must be incompetent, Torah must not be for me, I don’t care enough about my goal, and so on. This went on for a few years. At this point in my life, I still did not yet learn the valuable lessons that repenting gagsters and tortoises had to teach me.

One time I remember being burned out and hunting across Jerusalem for a new exotic location to sit and learn. My shallow logic was that perhaps in a “new” physical environment I could start my goal once again to complete the Talmud, and this time it would hopefully “stick”. By the way, have you ever heard the iconic internet quote that “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results”?…

I settled down in a large Breslov yeshiva in the Meah Shearim neighborhood, full of Yiddish-speaking Chasidim. With all the willpower that I could muster, I learned 7 pages of Talmud in a row! Of course, I also felt like an anvil just fell onto my head from the highest floor of a skyscraper, as depicted in the old Sunday morning cartoons we watched as kids.

Aside from feeling mental fatigue from overworking my poor brain, I was once again feeling despair. If I need to nearly kill myself to learn 7 pages then how will I ever finish the remaining 2704? Also, it will take so long to finish and I’m already at the old age of 20, I cannot afford to wait any longer! This is an urgent matter!

I asked the Chasidic yeshiva students “who is the wisest Torah scholar in this room? I have a question to ask him”. They pointed me to a man named Rabbi Yehuda Leib Frank ob”m. I asked the Rabbi “how can it be that I studied 7 pages of Talmud but instead of feeling proud and content I feel despair?” Rabbi Frank empathically listened to me and gently took me over to a young Chasidic man with long blonde sidelocks. Rabbi Frank told the young Chasid my question and said “maybe you two can chat and figure out the answer together?” and he left us alone. I did not know this at the time but in the traditional Chasidic-Breslov tradition peers are encouraged to work out spiritual problems together.

My blonde study partner told me over the 9th story in Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s Book of tales, “Sipurei Maaseyos”. The story itself is fantastic and is titled “The Wise Man & the Simpleton”. The tale answered my question spot-on target, although I did not fully appreciate this at that time.

The story is basically about a wise young man who is never satisfied with what he has, whereas his childhood friend, who is a real simpleton, is always happy with his lot no matter what the circumstances. At the end of that story, the wise man’s life is a complete wreck, and he is bitter & depressed. Meanwhile, the wise man’s old friend, the simpleton, rises to power and becomes successful in all realms of life.

Rebbi Nachman was trying to teach us that changing the physical study hall that you try accomplishing your draconian anxiety-inspired goals inside of may not do much for you-but changing your perspective on things in life will make the difference.

Instead of driving off a cliff towards completing a self-defeating goal chock-full of unhealthy perspectives and impulses guiding it, maybe I can go back to square one and reexamine my mind, which is the very tool that I use to accomplish goals. I can open the hood of my mind, examine what is haywire, and repair it. Once that work is done, I can try to set a healthier goal, armed with my new inner-tools and realistic perspectives, and more likely reach my destination.

I once learned about Canadian “ice-truckers” who drive vital supplies onto dangerous ice roads in the most remote places of Canada. The way they were experts in traversing such icy dangerous roads was due to their supreme understanding of how their trucks worked, and how to maintain their equipment in the bitter cold. It’s a magnificent parable, think about that.

Aesop’s Tortoise

The idea that changing my perspective about learning, about myself, about goal setting, and about my relationship to time may lead me to different results was foreign to me, and it took a few more years before that completely sank in.

Over that time, I began to set my goals in a healthier way, making them more attainable, doable, and being more flexible. I began to understand that I was my own worst enemy and I started to see how my hyper-motivation to finish the Talmud as quick as possible was fueled by anxiety and poor self-perception. I also started to understand that studying too much in a single learning session would cause me to burn out and not learn the next day, highlighting the importance of balance and self-care.

One day, I dropped the goal of finishing the Talmud altogether in favor of a more attainable goal-finishing Shas Mishnayos. The plan worked! Next, I replicated my gentler, longer, and more balanced approach of goal setting to Tanach and finished that too, and so on. I learned that less is more. In fact, I am more positioned now to complete the entire Talmud than ever before.

Aesop, in his famous fable titled “The Hare and the Tortoise” finishes the story by concluding that “the race is not always to the swift“. The ancient story is a must-read for desperate men and women like me, who must overcome all the odds to accomplish seemingly simple things.

Gaining Perspective from Two Friends

Last night I was invited to a siyum celebration in honor of two friends of mine that completed the entire Talmud. One of them is a full-time Torah learner, and he completes the entire Talmud each year. The other friend is in sales for a company in the United States, and it took him 10 years.

It was striking to me-the very goal that I used to covet so badly was accomplished by two of my friends, and both in the same week. Further, it was interesting to contrast the fellow who completes Talmud yearly with the other friend for whom it took 10 years. I took this to mean that it doesn’t matter if completing the entire Talmud or Torah takes you one year or ten. What matters is that you use a system that works for you.

Each person has a different set of circumstances and must use self-knowledge to learn how they accomplish their goals effectively. How often do we fail because we have been socialized and bullied into doing things the way that “everybody does” and how we are “supposed to“?

I briefly interviewed the fellow who completed Talmud after 10 years, with no official deadline or penalty hanging over his head. How did he do it? What was his secret? He told me that the single most important thing that helped him was his attitude. On the one hand, he was relentless, being unforgiving in letting a day go by without learning a page of Talmud, yet on the other hand, he adopted a flexible healthy attitude towards how much time he demanded of himself to understand each construct, how to deal with a difficult passage, or which commentaries to use. He scaled his goal to fit his circumstances and limitations as best as possible, to “make it work” and “it worked”. He has the last laugh. I wonder, how many people who admonished him along the way for not doing it the “regular way” made it to the finish line?…

What “impossible” goals can you accomplish over the next ten years? Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that most people overestimate what they can do in one year but underestimate what they can do in ten years. I value his perspective on how most of us do not relate accurately to our time and strengths. We do not even try to embark on major goals because we don’t have a far-reaching vision and understanding of how it is possible. Conversely, we have such a poor understanding of what we can pull off right now that we misfire our energy over and over and conclude that our goal is impossible. Get real! Learn about your reality and the rest will follow.

Tim Grover, the trainer for Michael Jordan and other renowned sports players, said that some of the best sports players in modern history were not the best athletes but those with the best attitude. It was their attitude that helped them to overcome any obstacles along the way.

It seems, then, to be a universal law crossing the realms of business, sports, and Torah study that at least as important as what you do is how you go about doing it.

As we complete the Torah reading this Simchas Torah I am happy that we altogether accomplished the goal that we set out to achieve last year. I will also remind myself that the way I need to accomplish my goals in my personal learning or life needs to be adapted to fit my circumstances, personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

I need to set the pace to be just right for me. I need to adjust my expectations to fit my reality. I need to create a goal that is doable, simple, and repeatable. I need to have discipline and get up to do my goal every day, as best as I can. I need to prioritize it and make sure it gets done, no matter what. I also need to allow for my goal to be somewhat flexible, so that when extenuating circumstances arise that make my goal extra hard to attain, I can use my wiggle room to still do my goal for that day and stay consistent. I need to learn to lead my goals with joy. I need to develop resilience.

Spread the word: Accomplishing big goals isn’t that much about willpower, but about so much more.

Avi Tenenbaum is an expert in Disaster Behavioral Health and Psychological First Aid. His experience includes providing aid for people coping in the wake of large-scale disasters and war including the Second Lebanon War, Hurricane Harvey, The Pittsburg Tree-of-Life massacre, the Haifa 2016 Fires, Operation Cast-Lead, Sorotzkin Arson Fires, Meron Civil Disaster, and more. He can be reached at www.psychotraumaunit.com

About the Author
Avi Tenenbaum is an expert in Disaster Behavioral Health and Psychological First Aid. His experience includes providing aid for people coping in the wake of large-scale disasters and war including the Second Lebanon War, Hurricane Harvey, Pittsburg Tree-of-Life massacre, Haifa 2016 Fires, Operation Cast-Lead, Sorotzkin Arson Fires, Meron Civil Disaster, Operation Guardian of the Walls, and more. He can be reached at www.psychotraumaunit.com
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