On the airplane home from trip to Israel and Paris, I was looking for a movie I hadn’t yet seen. One choice was “Quartet,” a movie I had heard had good reviews. But instead, I found myself watching “Late Quartet, a different movie. Not the best way to choose a film, but as serendipity, or perhaps God’s gentle hand would have it, it turned out to be a good choice for the flight and gave me food for thought.
In “Late Quartet,” the story of members of a long-standing professional string quartet, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the second violinist, and is considered the best second violinist around. Early in the film, his girlfriend asks him, “Don’t you ever want to play the melody?” He insists that he is proud of his work, adding that the second violinist holds the group together. He is considered the best second violinist around. Yet she convinces him to ask to take the lead every once in a while. Should he be content with his role or risk disrupting the quartet by demanding the opportunity to be first violin?
I noticed a similar theme a few weeks later at a viewing of the documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” an uplifting film about rock and roll’s greatest back-up singers. Some of these great voices have tried to take the 20-foot leap forward to the front of the stage, to be lead singers, but few have succeeded. Others happily continue sharing their powerful talents in the number two position, behind the stars.
In both stories, the pull to be first is in tension with a life that is meaningful, though in the background. In each instance, we wonder: why not take our talents to the next level? Is there anything wrong with wanting to be Number One?
Is this a natural impulse or a product of our competitive cultural? After all, have you ever heard an American crowd chant “we’re number two”?
Sometimes, number two is a wonderful place to be, perhaps the best place to be.
Sometimes our purpose is to be the 2nd fiddle, the back-up singer. The best number two I can be.
In the Book of Genesis, time after time it’s the number two who receives the blessing. Not Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son, but Isaac. Not Esau, Isaac’s firstborn son, but Jacob. Not Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn but Joseph. Not even King David passes on his kingdom to his firstborn, but to Solomon, one of his younger sons. All of these biblical stories upend the cultural norm of the day, that firstborn sons received all the privileges and recognition. This is the first clue that the Jewish tradition does not put stock in being number one.
But I wonder, how did Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, and the rest of Solomon’s older brothers feel? In the Torah we hear Esau express deep and bitter grief over losing his birthright and his blessing. We know that losing out to someone else brings disappointment. Some of us may be entering this new year feeling we have done our best yet not been recognized for our work. We may have been “the other candidate” for a job. We may have tried our hardest to come in first place, only to be beaten in the finals.
Many of us come on Yom Kippur with disappointments.
Disappointment is a fair and honest reaction when our lives do not live up to our expectations. The ancient teacher Aesop described one response to disappointment in the fable the Fox and the Grapes.
Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked, 'Oh they were probably sour anyway.'
Fortunately, “sour grapes” is just one way to deal with failure, disappointment or frustration. The key to success is not being number one. The key is finding the blessing in the supposed curse.
One of the most important books I read this past year was How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. Tough has spent years learning about children and character and his book makes the case that our approach to success in education has been overly focused on cognitive skills, while overlooking the underlying components of personality and character that truly ensure success. Tough delves into the current research in psychology, economics and brain science, and weaves in personal interviews with young people of different backgrounds who exemplify the complex equation that equals success. Among the key character strengths Tough found were “an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification and the tendency to follow through on a plan.” That is, grit, resourcefulness and resilience. These are the skills that we should be helping our children to develop, since “noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college.” These are skills that are not innate; they need to be modeled, cultivated and nurtured. Not only are they skills to success in college, but they are the skills that can make us the best number two we can possibly be: grit, resourcefulness and resilience.
We Try Harder: Grit
When I was growing up my dad collected the buttons put out by Avis Rent-a-car. Their slogan was “we try harder.” He had buttons in a myriad of languages. I loved reading the different alphabets and pronouncing all the different languages. Nous faisons plus d’efforts. Anu mishtadlim yoter. We try harder. (You can find the buttons on ebay today)
That slogan was the brainchild of an advertising executive named Paula Green.
In 1962, Hertz was number one, and Avis was in a financial crisis. Paula Green articulated a philosophy that became the company manifesto. We are only #2, so “We try harder.” With those words, Avis workers from the CEO to the sales force to the mechanics developed a work ethic and service mentality that won over customers. While Avis remained number two, their profits shot up as clients recognized Avis for exceptional customer service. We try harder remained the company slogan for fifty years.
Trying harder does not always come naturally, but it is essential to success. Do you have that toughness, the “grit”?
Paul Tough describes grit as “a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” Or in other words, “Self discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal.”
Another great teacher, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, agrees with Paul Tough. Reb Nachman’s slogan was: mi sherotze ose, which literally means, one who desires, does. In other words, “We try harder.” But Reb Nachman gave a twist to those words, saying sometimes your rotze, your desire, has to get big enough so that you act on it. No matter who we are, we have to fall in love with our own goals. And then we will have the rotze, the desire, the grit, to try harder.
Finding our Purpose: Resourcefulness
Being number two may force us to try harder. It may also motivate us to consider and reconsider our purpose and then do whatever it takes to achieve it.
Jane McNally recently shared this story of purpose, which comes from the third Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam, who attracted many Hasidim to the Bobov sect in Brooklyn before his death in 2000.
Once a Hasid of the Rebbe came to see him, despondent. The Hasid worked as a school teacher, believing that was what the community expected that of him. But didn’t want to be a teacher. So he came to the rebbe, because he was at a loss. He didn’t know what to do with his life. The Bobover smiled and told him simply, “the world is a great big place. Find something you love and do it!”
He encouraged the Hasid to find his own rotze. So many others had told him what to do. For once, someone listened to this man’s heart, and affirmed his own inner stirrings! The Hasid loved antiques. One day he saw a small classified ad in the paper for appraisers. He answered the ad and eventually learned to be an appraiser. He loved the job because he brought to the work his photography skills and love of antiques. He discovered his purpose.All he needed was someone to give him permission to open his eyes to what he saw himself doing.
We find in Netivot Shalom, of Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, a passage that is often quoted at baby naming. It speaks to this same notion: “every individual is a small world unto himself…No person has ever been identical to another person since the creation of the world, and therefore each and every person has a special shlichut, a distinctive purpose for which she was sent…The beginning of all avodah, all service is discovering for what particular purpose one was sent to this world.”
We can’t look to others to set our goals for us, just as we don’t depend on them to run the race in our stead. It is up to us to be resourceful, to discover who we are and what we are called to be.
You Can’t Always Get What you Want: Resilience
When you get your first choice the rest is easy. What really matters is how you handle your second choice. Perhaps you have a rotze, a desire, a goal or a purpose, but you still feel thwarted in reaching it. As the Rolling Stones taught us long ago “You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometime you’ll find…. you get what you need.”
Getting our second choice can be an important time to reflect on our behavior, to learn from our mistakes and to look to the future. Even if we believe that we had no control in the outcome, we can learn something from every loss.
This is an essential practice for us to model and teach our children. It’s called resilience.
Our Yom Kippur liturgy offers a striking poetic image of resilience in a piyut that we will chant in little while: Ki Hinei Kachomer, we are like clay in the hands of a potter. We can be shaped, formed, changed by the slightest touch or the heaviest hand. Like silver in the hands of the silversmith, we can be melted, bent, turned, with grace or with clumsiness. Like fabric in the hand of the embroiderer. We can be stretched, cut, folded, embellished, with love or in anger.
As the Talmud explains,
“The School of R. Ishmael taught: It can be deduced from glassware: if glassware, which, though made by the breath of human beings, can yet be repaired when broken; then how much more so a person, created by the breath of the Holy One, Ha Kadosh baruch Hu.” (Sanhedrin 91a).
It is only when we harden to life that we become fragile. As the potter’s wheel of life turns, we adjust and adapt. To be like clay is to develop resilience.
Groundhog Day: second chances
One of my favorite movies of all time is “Groundhog Day.” I could watch it over and over again (in fact watching it once is like seeing it over and over again). In case you’ve never seen it, Bill Murray starts out as a complete jerk, a selfish, boorish weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to report on Groundhog Day. But at the end of the day, he gets stuck in town in a snowstorm. When he wakes up in his hotel room the next morning, he has gone back in time to the day before, to Groundhog Day. There he remains in a perpetual loop, always waking up to “I Got You Babe.” However, he does not remain the same. By reliving each day, working hard at learning French, mastering the piano, and, most important, learning about the people around him, he grows into a caring, sincere, and thoughtful human being.
Bill Murray gets a second chance, over and over again. Second chances is what the yamim nora’im, the Days of Awe are all about. We call it teshuvah. Rambam teaches that true teshuvah is achieved when you are in the same situation as before and choose to behave differently. When I was learning to play piano, my mother used to tell me “practice makes perfect.” Though I know that I’m far from “perfect,” whether playing piano or anything else I do, I have become a true believer in the value of practice. We go back to the same scene and try again until we make change.
In Jewish tradition, second chances are built into the universe, an essential aspect of our spiritual make-up. The rabbis teach:
Before the world was created all that existed was God. Then God decided to create the world, and carved it out, but it did not stand up. This can be compared to a king who wants to build a palace: without a foundation in the ground, the king could not begin building. Similarly, God carved out the world, but it did not stand…until God created teshuvah. Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer, Ch. 3
Teshuvah is the foundation that enables us to try again and again and again and eventually to transform our lives. We will make mistakes. That’s a given. We will be disappointed with the results of our hard work. We will not always get it right. We can’t stop time like Bill Murray, reliving Groundhog Day over and over. We will never be perfect. Yet we do get more than one chance.
But if perfection is not the goal—what is?
Being proud to be the very best number 2 there is, or number 6 or number 723. Being proud, because you have worked hard, looked for second chances, and been satisfied with the unique purpose of your life, whether you are second fiddle or the back-up singer.
The poet Rilke wrote words in “Letters to a Young Poet” that can be our guides as we enter into Yom Kippur and ponder the purpose of our lives:
“You carry within you the possibility of creating and forming an especially blessed and pure way of living. Train yourself for that—but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.
“Those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.”
One final story, probably very familiar to many, but one I could not leave out, about the modest Rabbi Zusya. As Rabbi Zusya he lay dying, his students came to his bedside and found him crying.
“Why are you crying?” they asked.
He answered, “All my life, I have tried to be like Moses. But I have come to realize that when I stand before Ribono shel Olam, God will not ask me, why were you not like Moses? God will ask, why were you not like Zusya?”
Today we contemplate the purpose of our lives. We cannot help but consider, how will I be judged when it’s all over and done? Am I trying to be like Moses? Am I trying to be like Zusya? Or am I simply trying to be the very best I can be: the best rabbi or the best doctor or social worker or organizer or teacher or journalist or lawyer or receptionist or advocate, the best parent or child or sibling or grandparent, the best friend or lover or citizen you can be?
God does not expect you to be the best in the world, just the very best you can be, right here, right now. Every day, in every encounter, in every moment.
May we all be blessed to discover our rotze, our heart’s desire. May it be big enough so that we do not succumb to despair, and so we have the grit, the resourcefulness and the resilience to become the very best we can be. Ken yehi ratzon.