A few years back, my wife came upon me scuttling about on my hands and knees vigorously attacking the floorboards with toothpicks in an effort to remove the encrustation of a year. "When you were in Yale Law School, did you ever imagine yourself doing this?" she asked.
Though I happen to delight in this particular activity, I had to admit that cleaning floorboards had not been part of my career plan. My wife's question set off a sort of reverie, and I contemplated the enormous changes in my life.
Despite my share of prizes and honors in law school, today I lead my classmates in only two categories — least money earned since graduation and most children. I would not, however, trade the joy I have experienced since leaving the practice of law.
My professors included the finest legal minds in America. And yet, I admired individual traits, not the whole individual. Had I asked then what I found lacking, I could not have answered; I had never yet seen the quality that I sensed was missing. That would came years later when I was first privileged to be in the presence of a Torah scholar.
That elusive quality lacking in everyone I knew (most of all myself), I would now call integrity. I do not mean the usual dictionary definition. Rather, one whose quality can only come from the knowledge that all life, whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, is lived in front of God.
I had many friends in law school with whom I enjoyed discussing both ideas and trivia (often within such a short time that I now wonder whether the ideas were not just another form of trivia). Though they had emerged victorious in arguably America's most rigorous academic selection process, and many possessed truly formidable gifts, I never envied them or thought, "When will I reach their level?"
There is no time today to maintain the number of friendships of those years. Yet, I know many people, contemporaries and those much younger, of whom I am in awe, people whose very presence makes me acutely aware of my many failures.
And I am not talking about well-known scholars or tzadikim. The awe has nothing to do with superior minds (though many possess such minds). I have finally learned that God's gifts do not confer merit. They are just that - gifts - to be judged by what we do with them.
Two qualities stand out about these people: self-sacrifice and humility. For example, a former study partner from the Mirrer Yeshiva, two months from completing his master's degree in classics at Oxford, was advised by the greatest Torah leader of the generation to return to Oxford. But he could not. "My soul thirsts only for Torah," he explained.
At Harvard, he had garnered just about every prize one could receive. Yet after 16 years of learning day and night, he still humbled himself before his teachers and chased after them with the same eagerness he had shown as a rare beginner. Graduates of the world's elite universities, full of their own importance, were often sent to talk to him. They came away humbled. Not by his brilliance, but by his distance from all their obsessive self-ranking.
Sensing how little he thought of himself, they were ashamed to think so highly of themselves.
Several years ago a law school friend asked me what I now do for fun. (A partner in one of America's major law firms, he then found amusement in playing computer games in video arcades.) I explained to him that fun is by definition something out of the ordinary, a break from the humdrum of daily existence.
A life lived in pursuit of fun is of necessity but always one with a negative balance sheet. It is like waiting over and over again in a 40-minute line for a 30-second roller coaster ride.
Joy, on the other hand, exists at all times. Of course, there are moments when we are more acutely aware of this joy - walking to davening early in the morning as birds chirp and few people are on the street, when your children run toward you, throw their arms around your legs and yell "Abba Abba" - but it is always there, underlying everything we do.
Such joy only comes from a sense of connectedness to something beyond ourselves, from the knowledge that every moment of our lives is waiting for us to imbue it with purpose, from the feeling that we have joined ourselves to the historical chain of the Jewish people - from recognition that "the task is not yours complete, neither are you free to leave it off."
The reverie triggered by my wife's question is over. Any regrets about the path not taken? Well, there is a momentary twinge when reading about a friend appointed solicitor general of the United States, or that some fellow a few classes ahead is president. But it lasts no longer than it takes the next child to walk through the door.
And I bet Bill doesn't get to floorboards.