Posted on | August 16, 2006 | By Guest Contributor | 5 Comments
By Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer
The Midrash relates that a king who was a contemporary of Moses heard reports of how the Hebrew leader had faced off with Pharaoh, had won the freedom of his entire people, had worked miracles, and had revealed a lofty legal code. The king was intrigued, and decided to utilize physiognomy (a system that enables one to decipher character traits from facial features) to ascertain whether Moses’ reputation was fact or lore.
The king sent artists to the Sinai Desert to paint Moses’ portrait. After the artists returned from their long journey with the portrait in hand, the experts in physiognomy went to work analyzing Moses’ character. Their results were shocking. According to their proficient analysis, the character in the portrait was a robber, a murderer, and a deceitful person.
The king was enraged. Obviously, he inferred, the artists had painted the face of some vagabond they had encountered rather than making the long journey into the desert to find the great Moses. The artists, however, swore that they had rendered Moses and nobody else; they suggested that the fault lay with the experts in physiognomy. The king finally decided that there was only one way to settle his quandary: He would personally travel to the Sinai Desert and meet Moses.
When the king was granted an audience with Moses, with great hesitation he explained the purpose of his visit. Moses answered that indeed everything the experts in physiognomy had interpreted from the painting was so. These immoral traits were his congenital tendencies and dispositions. However, he had worked hard for many years to overcome those tendencies. He was capable of performing miracles and speaking “face to face” with God not because he was born perfect and righteous, but because he had mastered his own base traits through unremitting effort.
Roger Bannister was someone we can all learn from. Until May 6, 1954, it was considered impossible to run a mile in less than four minutes. On that day, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute record. Once he did it, others followed suit. Within the next year, Bannister’s own record was broken. Moses was, lehavdil, like the Roger Bannister of spirituality. He set the record that all of us can now emulate.
Sure, we have cravings, desires, and temptations that seem to be an innate part of us. The secret is that those temptations are there for us to overcome. In so doing, we achieve greatness.
A famous Hasidic master, Rebbe Zusia of Anopoli, declared: “When I die and go to heaven, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusia?’ So I will answer, ‘But I was Zusia.’ And I will be told, ‘Do you have any idea what the real Zusia was capable of? You were maybe a quarter of Zusia…maybe a half of Zusia.’”
Your potential is vast, even infinite, because it is rooted in your essential spiritual identity as “the image of God.” The real you may very well be someone you’ve dreamed of, but thought incapable of actualizing. Or, it may be someone you’ve never dreamed of – at least, not yet.
In Hebrew, the word for human being is made up of the same letters as the Hebrew word for “very”, meod. This is because the essence of being human is to achieve superlative status. A human being must never stagnate or become complacent. A human being must be a “very,” constantly striving to become better and greater. Being a human being means going beyond innate limitations. As Victorian poet Robert Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for.”
One of my favorite writers, the late Rav Aryeh Kaplan, was perhaps the greatest “spiritual marathoner” of recent times. Upon his death at 48, he had already published forty-eight books. Many of his other manuscripts have been published posthumously. Employing his dual brilliance as physicist and Torah scholar, Rav Aryeh was able to take the loftiest mystical subjects and make them comprehendible.
On the subject of actualizing one’s potential, he wrote:
We are living now in a time of breaking barriers. Everything that people always assumed to be impossible is becoming possible in our time. God may be teaching us a very important lesson with this: we are capable of doing things that we never thought possible. The paradigm of this is running a marathon race. If you ask anybody, “Can you run twenty six miles?” most people will give you an emphatic “No!” The truth is, however, that if we would spend enough time and really take it seriously, we could do it.
The point is that the average person is capable of training himself to do something that is presently completely beyond his capacity. Furthermore, this is not limited to physical accomplishments. It is also true on an intellectual and spiritual level. Many people say, “I can’t understand this; I will never be able to master this subject. This is too hard for me.” If a person would really work at it, however, he or she could do anything. … By becoming a spiritual marathoner, a person could accomplish things that he would not dream possible.1
The very first creation mentioned in Bereishis (the Book of Genesis) is light. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” The verse then says that light and darkness were separated. Light was to be called “day” and darkness “night.”
On the fourth day, the Torah tells us, the sun was created. Is this not an incredible conundrum? How can there be light without the sun? How can there be day and night without the earth’s rotation in relation to the sun?
The light created on the first day of creation was a sublime spiritual energy, not physical light. When God separated light and darkness, night and day, He separated spirit from matter. Spiritual energy animates all of existence.
This design, of spirit empowering the physical, was to serve as a template for humanity. Temptations and cravings seem insurmountable only when the spirit is not taken into account. With the spirit, anything can be accomplished. The spiritual force in man can create, ennoble, enable, persevere, conquer, and survive the worst onslaughts, the basest cravings, the greatest dangers, and the most brutal conditions.