Back in June, my 20th college reunion took place. Next fall, my 25th high school reunion will be held. Finding myself sandwiched in between these two not so important but highly symbolic events, I can’t help but spend time reflecting upon my life – wondering have I done the most with the years that have come and gone? Am I as successful as I should be at this point in my life? Am I accomplished enough?
I know that these questions are shared by many facing life milestones like a school reunion, a big birthday or any other life transition. That’s because these transitions serve as life mirrors that we are forced to look into and determine if our reflection makes us proud…in the case of a reunion, proud enough to show the world of yesterday who and what we have become. As we stare at ourselves in life’s mirror, not only concerned about what our physical appearance says about us, but also what our personal and professional accomplishments say about us, life milestones force us to examine our reflection and ask, “is what I see a success?”
The experts say that many of the people who like to attend school reunions are those who are truly happy with their lives – content with who they are, what they are and where they are. As these people look at their reflection in their life mirror, what they see is 100% success.
Lots of us would love to see a successful reflection staring back at us as we gaze into our life mirror. But, since most of us are still trying to achieve success in so many aspects of our lives – what we see in our reflection are our flaws, inadequacies and the parts of us that are incomplete. In this day and age, in the competitive, cut throat society in which we live, success is fleeting at best. As so many of us evaluate our accomplishments by the accomplishments of others, we so often feel like we need to do better. Whether it be because we have not achieved the same title, status or income as someone else, we feel inferior. Our lack of a prestigious position, a published book or fancy address means, that we have not only not succeeded, but that we have failed. And if we have hit a bump in the road, are unemployed or underemployed, forget about it – we just want to hide until things get better. Having to gaze into that mirror of life and see all that we don’t have is painful (unless, of course it is something we don’t want to see like a wrinkly face or a beer gut).
Today, success is based upon what we have obtained – what we can show the world. A successful person needs proof – something to show the world that we have arrived! We’ve done good. Feeling successful – being content with where we are in life – this is not enough. When we look in life’s mirror, we need to SEE how good we are – how flawless we are – how powerful we are – how important we are. This is why last year Americans spent 10.4 billion dollars on plastic surgery. Success has become something that is demonstrated by our external appearance, by our material possessions, by the type of job we have, by how much money we make and, thus, how much stuff we can buy. Success is demonstrated by the name of the school you or your child go to, the grades you or your students make, the name of your law firm, how many sales you close and how many patients you see. Success is not measured by your character, determination or internal strength. These internal qualities, while certainly important, can’t be put on display for all the world to see and, therefore, can’t be used to show success. Today, success needs to be tangible.
This is epitomized by the Olympic Games which so many of us enjoyed this summer. Athletes like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, and Aly Raisman are now household names. Their incredible athletic accomplishments earned them gold medals – the highest symbol of success in the athletic world and beyond. Tangible proof that they are indeed successful. These gold medalists are now icons, epitomizing success.
As we stand at the threshold of a new year, urged by our tradition to look inwards and examine our accomplishments and failures with the hope of making the new year, 5773, a better year, our spiritual quest is similar to those of us contemplating attending a school reunion or celebrating another life milestone. As we stand before the open ark and sing Avinu Makeinu, seek forgiveness and work to become better people, what we are really being forced to do is look into our life mirror and evaluate our successes and failures. If we are honest with ourselves, I believe that most of us will have no trouble seeing our failures as we gaze into the mirror of life that stands before each of us today. But, when it comes to our successes, many of us will have a much harder time seeing them because success has become like the gold medal at the Olympics – the thing that proves that we have made it. We want to be the Michael Phelps of our professional life, the Gabby Douglas of parenting/grandparenting, the Ryan Lochte of friends, the Missy Franklin of students and the Aly Raisman of all the other areas of our life. We want to be the best. As in the Olympics, getting the silver or, worse, the bronze, means failure. And if we don’t medal, we are like John Orozco.
Who you ask?
John Orozco, the American gymnast who worked like crazy for years to earn the gold medal at last year’s Visa Championships in St Louis only to fail to medal at this year’s Olympic games. That is right, he failed to medal. He failed. He won’t make it onto a box of Wheeties or gain a high paying endorsement. He won’t be idolized by our kids. He won’t become a household name. He was not successful. He failed.
Given this view of success, it is no wonder that those of us who have yet to win a gold medal in our professional or personal lives have so much anxiety about attending a school reunion or feel so lacking as we take stock of our lives during these Days of Awe. We have lost sight of the true meaning of success. We have allowed the “gold medal” definition of success to diminish our accomplishments and undermine the pride we should have in ourselves. And this negativity undermines our physical, mental and spiritual health.
Today, the day we stand before the great mirror of Rosh HaShanah and get ready to stand before the even greater mirror of Yom Kippur, we owe it to ourselves to explore what it really means to be successful. To do this I invite you come with me on a little journey that takes us out of the world of Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas and into the world of Judaism, specifically into the world of the rabbis, who wrote centuries ago:
Who is wise? The one who learns from others.
Who is strong? The one who controls his emotions.
Who is rich? The one who is happy with his share.
Who is honored? The one who honors others.In addition to devoting yourself to study and good deeds, wisdom, strength, wealth and honor are four important ways in which the rabbis defined success:
A truly wise individual is successful not because he knows it all, but because he is still learning from others.
A truly strong individual is successful because she can control herself, not others.
A truly rich individual is successful because he is happy with what he has – and does not focus on what he could have.
Finally, a truly honored individual is successful when she does not seek honor, but seeks to honor others.
According to the rabbis, success is not defined by the medal you win, the degrees on your wall or the power you wield. Success is not defined by your knowledge, your external beauty, the material possessions you have or the honors you receive. No. The rabbis taught that success is being totally content with where and who you are and not with how others look at you. This is quite the opposite view of our modern understanding of success!
The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Rabbi Yosef became ill and passed away. Subsequently, he came back to life. His father asked him what he had seen in the afterlife. He answered, “I saw an upside down world. People whom we consider important are on the bottom, while people whom we consider unimportant are on the top.” His father responded, “My son, what you have seen is the clear world.”
Even in ancient times, the rabbis understanding of success was in stark contrast to mainstream society. For centuries, the world has defined a successful person as being an important, powerful, prestigious person who is above those people who control no one and live outside of the spotlight. And for centuries, through their teachings, the rabbis have been trying to turn this world upside down and define people whom most of us consider unimportant as true success stories.
The 19th century Chasidic sage, Rabbi Aaron Karlin taught: “G-d does not count the number of pages of Torah studied, but the hours spent studying the pages.” The successful Torah scholar, according to Rabbi Karlin, is not the one who finishes reading an entire chapter of Torah before his classmates, but the one who puts in the most time studying…even if this student does not finish the chapter and struggles to understand just one verse.
Rabbi Karlin drives home the fundamental Jewish belief that while we are not obligated to complete the work, we must never refrain from trying and trying hard. Judaism teaches us that it is the effort we put into something, be it understanding a chapter of Torah, mastering an athletic skill or winning a law case – that defines success. Hard work, often referred to by the rabbis as “toiling”, is what Judaism defines as success. The medal we win, the grade we receive, the praise we earn, the verdict of the jury we argue before, the huge deal we close, the hundreds of pages of Torah we have studied…while wonderful accomplishments – these do not define success. It is the effort we put into the process. Working hard for a goal is what defines success. Reaching the goal – that’s an added perk – but it is not needed to be successful. Meaning, you can fail to reach your goal and still be successful! The true Torah scholar is, according to Rabbi Karlin, not the one who completes the Torah – but the one who spends countless hours trying to understand just one page.
The story is told of the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Shimon, who spent a great deal of time explaining the purpose of dozens of seemingly unnecessary words in the Torah. His goal was to show how every word of Torah had a purpose. And so, for years, he studied Torah and argued that every word he read was there for a reason. In doing so, he led a meaningful life and was content.
One day, something shocking happened to Rabbi Shimon: he came across a word in the Torah that, no matter how hard he tried, had no purpose! He was forced to abandon his entire argument and declare that of all his previous explanations we’re wrong. There was indeed an unnecessary word in the Torah!
Now, Rabbi Shimon could have done as many people in his predicament would do — close his mind to the notion that he had made a mistake and remain loyal to the idea that there was no useless word in the Torah. Or he could have become depressed and said, “I wasted my time. I should never have started this project in the first place. I am a failure” But he didn’t behave in either way. He quickly changed his thinking and said instead, “Just as I received a reward for my tireless efforts to prove that there is no useless word in the Torah, so will I receive a reward for changing my mind.” Since Rabbi Shimon had spent years working hard to reach a worthy goal, even though he erred and did not reach this goal, he considered himself successful and was certain that his life of meaning and contentment would not be diminished by his change in thinking and his refocusing on a new goal.
According to Rabbi Shimon’s view of success, American Olympian John Orozco and all the other athletes who worked hard yet did not medal this summer are success stories. And really, can anyone of us deny this?
And if we can agree that John Orozco is a success, perhaps we can use his accomplishments to rethink our own success.
Instead of focusing on the goals you have not reached this year – that deal you didn’t close, that case you didn’t win, that student who couldn’t reach, that patient you couldn’t heal, that promotion you didn’t receive – instead of focusing on all of those “gold medals” you didn’t win and seeing your inability to reach your goals as a failure – refocus your attention on the effort you put into achieving your goals. If the effort – the toil, the blood sweat and tears were there, perhaps you will feel the rabbis patting you on the shoulder, supporting your success as you stand before life’s mirror this Rosh HaShanah.
As you stand there – looking at your reflection: instead of berating yourself for not knowing enough, perhaps the wisdom of the rabbis will lead you to discover success in your willingness to learn from others.
Instead of focusing on your lack of power in the office, let our tradition remind you that success is defined by the power we have over ourselves.
Instead of feeling like a failure as others are praised and recognized, take comfort in knowing that Judaism defines a successful individual as one who honors others.
And, most importantly, as you stand before your life mirror, instead of focusing on the fact that you don’t have that gold medal, that fancy car, that prestigious address or the myriads material possessions that society teaches us come with success, remember that success is what you put into reaching your goal. The sense of contentment and satisfaction you receive from working like crazy to reach goals you might never reach – these feelings, according to Judaism, are the true rewards of success.
There are many people out there who are, by today’s standards of success, extremely successful. They seem to have it all. More gold medals then they can count. Many of them have worked hard to obtain these medals. And many are happy but there are many who are miserable. With true success comes contentment. Those who have lots of things – but lack contentment – they are not success stories.
And then there are those who have gotten really lucky. They have gained their gold medals be it wealth, power and/or prestige without hard work. Perhaps they were born into a family with means or maybe they won the lottery. As success in Judaism is defined by our hard work, these lucky souls – are just that – lucky. They are not successful. Certainly, some of these lucky folks do use their resources to make the world a better place – and they work tirelessly for important causes – and because of this, we can say they are successful.
Today, as you look at your reflection in the mirror of life, I want you to remember that success cannot be defined by gold medals. Success is about the effort we put into life. Success is about the countless hours we spend working towards a goal – a goal we might never reach – but one we believe in with our whole heart and soul. Success is about falling down, picking ourselves up and moving forward. Success is about giving it your all, trying harder and never giving up. Success is really hard work. Success can mean failing and, then, finding a new way.
In conclusion, I share with you the words of Rabbi Alvin Fine – words that to me, define a successful life.
Birth is a beginning and Death a destination
And life is a journey; From childhood to maturity
And youth to age; From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing; From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps, to wisdom; From weakness to strength; Or strength to weakness – And, often back again;
From health to sickness; And back, we pray, to health again:
From offense to forgiveness; From loneliness to love;
From joy to gratitude; From pain to compassion, and grief to understanding
From fear to faith, From defeat to defeat to defeat –Until looking backward or ahead, We see that victory lies not at some high point along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage-by-stage, A sacred pilgrimage.
Birth is a beginning and Death a destination.
And life is a journey, A sacred Pilgrimage – To Life Everlasting.
Today, remind yourself that a successful life is measured not by material possessions but rather by the willingness to take the journey of life – up hills and steep mountains – down into dark valleys, through really crummy weather – to carry on even when our body says no and our spirit seems broken – and, with great effort, make it to next day, week, month, and year….Always striving to be a better person, often missing the mark, but never giving up. Success is hard work. And the reward is knowing that you gave it your all.
Here’s to an incredibly successful year! Shanah Tovah!!!