A nineteenth century rabbi used to spend time each afternoon looking out of his window. Every day he saw a member of his synagogue rushing down the street. One day he stopped him and said, “Why are you always in a hurry?”
The man replied, “I’m running to make a living.” The rabbi answered, “How do you know your living is not running after you. Perhaps all you need to do is pause, and let it catch up.”
The rabbi’s insight applies not only to making a living. It teaches us how to make a life. It reminds us that we can become our own worst enemies.
Perfection is the enemy of the good
How often do we create a flawless vision of our future self: the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect world? Rarely do these visions ever match reality. They often have the opposite of their intended effect.
Rather than guide us, they handicap us. Rather than pull us toward the future, they trap us in the past. If we think only of tomorrow, we never discover hidden treasure within us today. When we avoid the challenges of today, we never become future person we are meant to be.
“Today,” the psalmist wrote 2000 years ago, “is the day God has chosen. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do so, we discover possibilities within ourselves that we never saw before.
What My Dad Learned in Prison
My dad taught me this lesson recently. A few years ago, the medical school where he works entered into an agreement with the Wisconsin state prison system. Coincidentally, a clinic he had been running was sold to a different hospital. The dean of the school asked if my dad could serve as a therapist at a medium security prison three times a week.
My dad was in his early sixties imagining a nice, easy retirement with my mom. I think working in a prison was the last thing he imagined doing. On his visit to decide whether he was going to do this or not, the prison’s warden told him not to shake hands with the prisoners or wear a tie, lest someone try to strangle him.
Yet, he accepted.
Through the prison work, he has found a whole new meaning in his career. He has faced situations and behaviors that opened new channels of empathy. He has struggled with the reality of evil and apathy. He has encountered people that have changed his perspective after 35 years of practice.
Quite often we find new meaning and strength where we least expect it. Quite often it lies waiting for us to discover. We simply have to look within ourselves.
Where the treasure is buried
One of my favorite stories in all of Jewish literature conveys this truth in dramatic fashion. It concerns a man named Reb Isaac of Krakow. Isaac had a dream one evening. He dreamed that a certain treasure was buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Eager to provide more for his family, he pooled his resources and traveled to Prague.
When he got there, he found that the bridge to be guarded day and night. He waited patiently. After a while, the guard began to have sympathy on him. He went up and asked Reb Isaac what he was doing here. Reb Isaac told him about the dream of buried treasure that brought him to this bridge.
The guard laughed. “You have faith in dreams, he said. That’s nonsense. If I believed in dreams, I would have gone to Cracow, because long ago I dreamt that under the stove of a man named Reb Isaac of Cracow, there lay buried a great treasure.”
Reb Isaac understood the message. He returned to Cracow that same day. When he got back to his home, he discovered the treasure that lay inside it.
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