Beginnings often provoke questions about where we find ourselves in life. Even if you attach no spiritual significance to a new secular calendar year, you may still feel a tremor of time shifting as you cross over from the past year, say goodbye to missed opportunities, and welcome future challenges. This transition raises the question: who really holds the keys to unlock our latent future potential?
Sometimes our fears and insecurities turn us into prisoners of a less-than-satisfying present. We know that we hold the keys to unlock some hidden promise, but can’t figure out the special trick to use them. That’s why being a part of a diverse community is especially important today. If we only remain within our existing circles of friends, they may unintentionally reinforce our self-doubt and limit our ability to actualize more of our dreams. As good and caring as our close friends are, they dismiss our resolutions to change because they have heard them before and often don’t push us to move forward.
However, when you’re with a group of people who are different from you, and who also are interested in unlocking new opportunities, something counter-intuitive happens. While others cannot use your keys to open your future, their perspectives can awaken your capacity for the “special turn” when you finally hear a “click“ signaling that you have finally opened new doors to your future. The fresh insights and perspectives of new people who have a different background can inspire you to make a slight change in motion that unlocks your ability to become more of your actualized self, just as you can do for them.
A week ago, I participated in my second Pardes Institute Executive Learning Seminar (ELS) in Jerusalem. The topic was timely: “War and Peace: The Challenges of Sovereignty” and the teaching there, as always, was top notch. But an equally important consideration to my participation was the opportunity to learn with people whom I knew had different backgrounds but were connected to one another by their love for learning.
This was only my second experience in this Pardes ELS, but I knew from the first that there would likely be very few rabbis. Some of my rabbinical colleagues were curious about my program choice. Why not participate in a program with rabbis whose level of learning is comparable to yours? My response: “There are times when I enjoy learning with my colleagues because we sharpen one another’s intellectual abilities through textual sparring. But there are other times when I prefer to be with highly intelligent individuals who look at a text or an issue without my preconditioned responses or biases.” If I learn with a more homogeneous group of rabbis our similar backgrounds magnify our blind spots. But a more heterogeneous, diverse group of people with different lenses or sets of experience unlocks for me new meaning in old texts. They enable me to become my own locksmith and open up some hidden meaning that I knew was there but I just could not quite access –both in the texts and in my life.
In this week’s Torah reading, Va’era, Moses describes himself as a man of “impeded” or “clogged” speech (Exodus 6:12). The Hebrew meaning of this phrase, aral sefatayim, suggests that Moses felt some barrier was preventing his latent ability to speak with the fluency and eloquence needed to confront Pharaoh and to lead the Jewish people from Egypt to their return home. But Moses sounds like he is offering an excuse although he is up to the task. After all, Moses was 80 years old, had been a prince of Egypt, and had verbally protested injustices on several earlier occasions. In addition, decades after the exodus from Egypt, Moses is able to articulately describe to a new generation the challenges they will face in their transition back to their ancestral home.
Now imagine if a group of homogeneous people had met Moses at the beginning of his leadership tenure. He might have persuaded them that he really didn’t quite fit in because he lacked the fluency that members of this like-minded group possessed. And if a veteran leader of that more homogeneous group had dismissed him because of that, world history could have been very different! What do we learn from this? Precisely because he was an outsider, Moses could see what others could not: that slavery was abhorrent. His experience of having traveled in diverse circles of people during his life prior to the exodus enabled him to unlock and see a fundamental principle of human dignity that still stands today.
As 2019 begins, I have to own that I hold the keys to my future. But my experience at Pardes once again reminded me that it sometimes takes those who have different backgrounds that are different from mine to help me unlock the doors that I want to open.