I Wish There Was A Way to Make Up For Lost Time
I have a confession to make. I am not the Talmid Chacham that I once dreamed of becoming. I have not (nearly) mastered the texts that I wanted to master. I have not completed the seforim I planned on completing. And from speaking to many chaverim, rabbonim, and chevra in the community, I don't believe I am alone in this guilt. If we're honest with ourselves, it doesn't feel so good – and this week in particular, it feels worse.
During the Yamim Noraim, we spend hours engaged in lofty pursuits – davening, learning, spending time with family and friends. Our lives were filled with mitzvos, while the pressures of the working world could be (somewhat) ignored.
But now the Chagim come to a close. The needs of our careers and occupations come back stronger than ever, and with it there is a sadness. For many of us who spent time in Yeshivos and seminaries, we once again begin to carry with us the weight of not having learned as much as we once dreamed.
At a some point in the past few years, the Seforim shelf that was once a point of pride (look at all my seforim!) becomes a point of shame (look at how much I haven't learned...) As the dust collects, there is an ironic and painful knowledge that some shelves have never needed to be cleaned for Pesach. And it seems likely that the big dreams of becoming talmidei chachamim worthy of the title seems further and further away. Time constraints and obligations increase as our self confidence wanes.
Of course, we all know that none of these feelings should hold us back from trying harder. None of this should convince us not to attend a shiur, set up a new chavrusa, or open a new Sefer. But the knowledge that we are missing not days or weeks, but perhaps years or more from our once-held goals, is deeply demotivating.
Truthfully, this is the challenge of Shabbos Bereishis – it is the oldest and most insidious Yetzer Hara.
The Torah describes how The Nachash comes to Chava and attempts to persuade her to eat from the Eitz HaDaas Tov V'Ra. Chava protests “If I even touch it, I will die!” But the Nachas retorts: לֹא מוֹת תְּמֻתוּן – “You will surely not die!”
Rashi comments from the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 19:3):
לא מות תמותון – דחפה עד שנגעה בו. אמר לה: כשם שאין מיתה בנגיעה, כך אין מיתה באכילה. He pushed her until she touched it. He then said to her, “Just as there is no death in touching it, so there is no death in eating it”.
The Yismach Moshe (בראשית ד״ה והנחש היה) writes that one of his talmidim challenged this Medrash: How is this a good argument?! Once Chava touched the fruit, she might not have died yet, but perhaps she would die later that day. How could the Nachash have convinced her that she should go ahead and eat from the fruit, and that she wouldn't die?! How could they possibly know?
He answers by explaining that the Nachash had a far shrewder argument: “Since touching and eating the fruit are the same, now that you've touched it, if you're going to die, then you're dead already. You might as well enjoy eating it – there is no reason to hold back now.”
This is the challenge that our Yetzer Hara poses to us all the time. “Since you've already failed, you might as well give up now.”
We hear, the voice of the Nachash echoing through the world around and reverberating inside of us: “I have already failed. Nothing that I do now will ever be able to make up for what I have or haven't done. Hashem might have forgiven my sins, but nothing can make up for the time I have lost.”
As the Yamim Noraim come to a close, we will face these arguments of the Yetzer Hara on a daily, if not hourly basis. The question is thus: How do we expose the fallacy of this argument? How do we win? How do we ignore the voice of “give up now.”
Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshischa would explain that it is this question that the Torah addresses first:
The Torah begins with בראשית to tell us that every moment is a beginning. In truth, if Hashem wasn't actively willing the world into existence right now, it would cease to be.
Shabbos Bereishis tells us that this moment is the beginning. I didn't start last year, or in Yeshiva or seminary. It starts now... and now... and now.
Ask any child – no matter what might have transpired in a previous academic year, the first day of school is important. No matter what might have happened in a relationship during dating and engagement, the wedding day is important. And so it is on the first day of a new job, the first moment holding a new baby, the first night in a new home. The first is always important.
For this reason, kids, ironically, take life very seriously. They are constantly experiencing “firsts”. But as we grow older, we become jaded, cynical and bored. We forget that “first” is anytime, anyplace, any moment of any day.
Imagine, for a moment that when the Nachas pushed Chava onto the tree, she stopped and thought “This is the first moment of my life – what should I do now?” The importance of the moment would prevent her from failing.
And the same is true of each and every moment in our lives. Taking pause to reflect on the importance of a moment is the surest way to live in a meaning way.
When Reb Leibele Eiger left his father’s house to become a chassid of the Kotzker Rebbe, the family was distraught. His grandfather, Rabbi Akiva Eiger was one of the giants of Lithuanian Jewry, internationally recognized for his brilliance and erudition. And by no means a chassid.
So it was one Yom Tov that Reb Leibele came home, and his family challenged him: What did you learn in Kotzk?
“I learned three things.” He replied. “First, I learned that a person is a person and an angel is an angel. One must always know their place.”
“Secondly, I learned that if a person wants, they can become even greater than an angel. There is no limit to what we can achieve.”
“Third, I learned how to read Chumash.” He then reached for the shelf and pulled out an old, well used volume and opened to Bereishis 1:1. He read out loud: בראשית ברא אלוקים. In the Beginning, God created. But in Kotzk we read it differently: בראשית ברא אלוקים – Hashem only makes beginnings. He is always making beginnings – the rest is up to us.
There is something deeply humbling in beginning the Torah again this Shabbos. It feels like a second chance (or perhaps a twenty-second chance). So as we embark on our year ahead, we daven that Hashem should give eyes to see the beginnings before us. He should help us to open that Sefer, to pick up the phone, to try again: in life, in love and in learning.