Establishing goals is crucial to any successful life. But setting the goals too high can, at times, be as big a mistake, as not setting them high enough. The tension between ambition and realism is inherent in life and has no full solution and certainly no general one.
As parents, one of our most important tasks is encouraging our children to set goals for themselves and learn how to work towards them. When our children are relatively young, and time still seems to stretch before them endlessly, it is often hard for them to focus on setting any goals at all. The temptation is to just go with the flow, and that is particularly so the more they live in a society where so many of the steps seem to be mapped out in advance.
"I want to be the gadol hador," incidentally, is not a goal because it is too vague and fails to address the many intermediate steps. In short, it provides no guidance for a systematic approach to growth towards gadlus b'Torah. "I want to complete Bava Metziah this year, with tests," by contrast, is concrete and defines an important accomplishment.
IF THE CHALLENGE OF THE YOUNG IS OFTEN ONE OF TOO LITTLE AMBITION, the challenge at a later stage of life may often be of setting too many or too high goals. The latter subject was recently addressed by Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Baltimore, in his eloquent and thoughtful Afterward to the last issue of Klal Perspectives, which addresses the challenges of the yeshiva-trained ba'al habayis.
Too many such ba'alebatim, Rabbi Hauer writes, find themselves suffering from guilt, stress, and exhaustion precisely because they strive so earnestly to live up to the many demands on their time and energy. Those demands start with the need to earn a living that will allow them to provide for their families and cover high tuition bills.
Then there are the social messages with which they are constantly bombarded. Among them: Your children require both quality and quantity time with you – each of them; Do not focus on your children to the exclusion of your spouse, who also requires attention and regular "date nights" out; Do not neglect your communal obligations to participate in various chesed projects. And finally, you must be have a fixed time for serious daily Torah learning, while fulfilling all the other obligations noted above.
The stress, Rabbi Hauer observes wisely, is a function not of the difficulty of any particular task, but rather from the perpetual sense of being pulled in so many directions and balancing so many competing obligations.
Constantly raising expectations produces diminishing returns for the investment of time and energy, and eventually leads to declining overall returns, due to the aforementioned guilt, stress and exhaustion that result from trying to do more than one is capable.
The solution, Rabbi Hauer argues, lies in the recognition that one simply can't to everything. He offers the moshol drawn from the Ramchal's Derech Hashem of a king who has many servants under his command to execute the governmental functions. Each servant has a different assignment, but together they accomplish all the needed tasks.
So too each of us has a different assignment in life. But unlike the king's servants, we don't receive explicit orders telling us what that assignment is. Rather we have to determine that role for ourselves through a chesbon hanefesh of our individual strengths and weaknesses, and an analysis of what we enjoy and what we do not. In addition, we have to regularly re-calibrate and decide what is absolutely crucial to be done today or in the near future and what is of a lower priority. Reuven's role cannot be determined by reference to Shimon, nor even by reference to Reuven's role last week.
The Portugese philosopher Ortega y Gasset observed, "The charm and insolence of youth is that they are nothing in actuality and everything in potentiality." They stand poised before a set of doors afraid to go through any of them because the choice to go through one door precludes going through the others. (Shidduchim often provide an example of the phenomenon.)
Trying to go through all the doors is no better than standing paralyzed before them. Each involves a refusal to make choices, and making choices is the one unavoidable fact of life. Either we make choices or they will be made for us; either we take the time to make informed choices or we will bear the consequences of ill-informed ones.
RECOGNITION OF ONE'S LIMITS is not the counsel of despair. Indeed it may be the key to fulfillment. A wide array of social science literature shows that people tend to be happier at 65 than at 35. That difference may in part be a function of the greater pressures that go with early parenthood.
But I suspect it also reflects a degree of acceptance that many, if not all, of one's youthful dreams will not be realized. In one's twenties and thirties ambition still burns bright, but along with those ambition goes doubts about whether one will ever achieve one's goals.
By 65, the doubts have been resolved one way or another. And hopefully, with age has also come the recognition that fulfillment is not dependent on becoming president or whatever other dream one entertained in his or her youth.
That does not mean that there is nothing left to achieve or that one should not continue to set goals. The literary critic Edmund Wilson set out to master Russian and Hebrew in his seventies and succeeded.
But it does mean recognizing that the striving is more important than reaching the goal, and that it is easier to sustain that striving when the goals are realistic.
Finding Common Ground
In recent weeks, ever since the entire Jewish community in Israel fell under the shadow of a nuclear Iran, we have been seeking to highlight ways to achieve greater Jewish unity. The ideal to which we should be striving is obvious: unity through teshuvah, just as in the days of Mordechai and Esther.
Nothing can or will replace that ultimate unity. But if increasing the feelings of closeness of Jews for one another is itself positive – as we have argued it is – what are some of the steps towards doing that, even before we reach the ultimate goal.
Looking for that which is admirable in our fellow Jews is one step that we have mentioned. Another was suggested to me by something I heard recently from a close friend of my wife and mine.
Our friend has suffered for the last thirteen or so years from chronic pain. As her husband recently explained to me, most people find a bout of sciatica to test the limits of what they think they can endure. She has had 13 straight years of pain at near that intensity.
Needless to say, she has explored every avenue that seemed to offer even the ray of hope. And that search recently took her to Chicago for a month of treatments, in a group setting, for those suffering from intense chronic pain at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC).
At the first meeting of the group, our friend surveyed the other people she would be working with over the next month. Her first reaction was that she had nothing in common with anyone else in the room. Here she was an Orthodox Jewish woman, an attorney, an award-winning documentary film producer, the grandmother of nearly twenty eineklach. What could she possible have in common with a single-mother, a tattooed truck driver, etc.?
But it turned out that they did. They were each members of the fraternity of chronic pain sufferers. And they shared with one another something that no person who is not a member of their fraternity can fully grasp.
At the end of her time in Chicago, our friend kissed a number of the other women in the group good-bye, with a genuine feeling that she would miss them. Her fear that they shared nothing in common was a distant memory.
So that's a second step towards drawing close to our fellow Jews: Try to find the points of commonality, among all the external differences. They exist: We just have to make the effort to find them.