William Hamilton

Tough Tasks

“When was the last time you solved a really tough problem and what did you learn from it?” I like how Chloe Valdary formulates questions like this one. She notes how rare solving tough problems can be. Yet she expects you to have done so, and to have learned something important about yourself when you did. 

When projects fail, it’s common to blame those involved for their mistakes in implementation. But sometimes, the sheer difficulty of the task is also a factor. Yes, people do underperform. And finding fault is easy. But it seldom occurs to us that something as hard as forging a lasting peace between hostile enemies is rather rare. Of course those inflicting harm should be held accountable. But sometimes a more incremental goal would stand a better chance. 

As we descend into our People’s saddest date in the calendar this coming Thursday, remembering Tisha B’av destructions, I’m reminded of a Hasidic story that appreciates how monumental a task can be.

Once a King asked his wise son to take a boulder the size of a milestone and carry it up to the palace attic. When the son looked at the enormous size of the boulder, he realized there was no way he could possibly lift it. So he felt bad that he couldn’t honor his father’s request.

“Did you really think I expected you to carry this huge boulder?” exclaimed the King. “My hope was that you’d use your wisdom to realize that you could take a hammer and break it into small pieces, and then bring them up to the attic, one at a time.”

In such tales, the King represents God and the son represents us. Sometimes it’s a collective us, and sometimes it speaks more personally. 

A childhood mentor and lifelong friend, Avram Kraft, will be buried today surrounded by beloved family and friends. A few years ago he wrote in his tenderly wise book,“Study has been a salve for me in dark times and a driving force for me to better understand myself and my tradition” 

This Hebrew month is known as Menachem Av, which can connote consolation from elders and is a good time to consult Avot wisdom from our Sages (Pirke Avot). “Prepare yourself to study Torah, for it is not an effortless inheritance” (Avot 2:17). Important things don’t come easily. 

May each of us emerge from the somber days ahead preparing to meet mountainous tasks by breaking them down and taking them on as manageable parcels. In doing so, may we learn a lot about ourselves and help those around us do so in kind.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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