Sunday, May 10, 2009

Here's to me - and to you, Jack!

In honor of Ancient Jack's birthday (which is celebrated with the newest Haveil Havalim here!)

Years ago - at least seven - a Shabbat guest gave us a bottle of champagne. At the time I was wrestling with a thorny communal issue, and my honored Rebbetzin and I decided that we would pop the bottle when that issue was resolved.

The issue was indeed resolved, but not cleanly; related problems developed, and so we waited on the champagne. Then those matters came to a close, but other entanglements made us feel it wasn't time yet. The bottle came out of the fridge, and sat in a corner. Eventually it moved to a cabinet.

New milestones neared, and the champagne returned to the refrigerator, but then crisis resolutions fell short of their promise and the champagne was again sidelined. Toilet training. New contract. Conflict mediation. A cure for a friend. And so on.

At some point, the bottle disappeared entirely from my mental horizon. When it came to mind last week, I wasn't even sure we had it. (The Rebbetzin, of course, knew exactly where it was stashed.)

But I’ve changed my mind; I think it's time to drink the champagne.

We have not reached some great moment; numerous obstacles remain before our current move will be complete, and even when those are surmounted we will only be at the beginning of another long climb. But I think we’ve been going about the champagne all wrong.

Sure, celebrating success is great, but that’s not when I need a high or an incentive. Success really is its own reward. I need the celebration, the positive feeling – whether from bubbly drinks or grape juice or a hot fudge sundae or whatever – when I’ve invested hard work and have not yet seen the results I want.

Pirkei Avot says, “If someone tells you he has worked hard without finding success, don’t believe him.” True enough – but only in the long term. The results don’t necessarily show up in the short term, and I need the reinforcement while I wait.

Some aspects of the Torah encourage us to be goal-oriented, and thereby push us to hold all celebration until we have achieved complete success. There is no full-throated laughter and joy while we lack a Beit haMikdash. An animal with a slight blemish is disqualified from use as a korban, a tefillah with slightly inadequate kavvanah (mental focus) is defective, an etrog with black spots is inferior to an etrog of perfect color, a good seder (period of learning) is one in which there is no bitul zman (wasting of time). The goal is 100% - so how can I celebrate when I am still far short?

But other elements of Torah point out the value of providing incentives along the way. As I noted in one of my favorite derashot here, Zecharyah summed up the malaise of his generation with the four words, “מי בז ליום קטנות,” “We degrade the day of small achievement.” The Jews of his day looked at their glorious past, at their memory of the majestic and miraculous first Beis haMikdash, at fire descending from heaven to the altar and the mysteriously spacious room in which they gathered on Yom Kippur, at the Aron holding Moshe’s Luchos, and they contrasted that with the small steps of their own day, at their strife with the Samaritans, at their own spiritual and economic poverty, and said, “We are in a Yom Ketanot, we are accomplishing nothing!”

And Zecharyah offered one solution: Stop seeing yourselves as terminally small; you are Bnei Yisrael, and you will have a Beis haMikdash, and a Kohen Gadol, and all of their associated splendor. Just visualize it. The solution to being בז ליום קטנות, the way to stop degrading the day of small things, is to break away from the everyday and think BIG, to think of BIG ideas and to develop BIG dreams.

With this post I add a second solution: Take a momentary break, drink the champagne, and celebrate the efforts which have brought you here.

So even though we have a ways to go, I think it’s time, one of these days, to break out the bottle. And while we’re at it, we’ll drink to Birthday Boy Jack, who may not have achieved all of his goals yet either, but who certainly deserves a l’chaim along the way.


  1. Thank you. One of these days we'll have to find a way to have a drink in person.

  2. Absolutely!

    One of the things I have learned, in dealing with bad cohen's health problems, is that it is ESSENTIAL to celebrate the small successes and efforts, since we never know when (or if) a bigger success will come.

  3. Jack-
    Sounds good to me. Before or after I move to the frozen north?

    Sorry to hear of the problems; I hope to hear of their positive resolution as well.

  4. RH, thanks. It's a permanent disability, so we take it day by day.

  5. Probably will have to be after, but who knows...

  6. לא עליך המלאכה לגמור -
    You might as well take credit for being involved. Enjoy the champaign!