Rosh Hashana 5765-2004
Know Your Potential And Use It


There is a story they tell about the Rebbe of Kotzk.

He once confronted a young man who had come to his court, "Why have you come here?" he asked.

"I have come to find Hashem," the young man replied.

"Too bad, you wasted your time and money," the Rebbe said. "Hashem is everywhere. You could have found Him just as well had you remained at home."

"Then for what purpose should I have come?" the young man asked.

"To find yourself," the Rebbe answered, "To find yourself."

Part of finding yourself is realizing your potential and what you should be striving for in life.

I have often spoken about the sadness, frustration, and disappointment that I feel when I see people who don't realize their potential and how much they can accomplish in Torah and Mitzvos. Consequently, they never reach a fraction of their true greatness.

On Rosh Hashana, especially, we have to reflect on this point to a get true perspective of what we should be aiming for.

There are those who use their potential, but gear it toward the "success" that the secular world strives for. They either don't know, ignore, or don't evaluate properly the Torah understanding of Life.

And then there are those that just "chill out", "hang out", "get wasted" or "mellow out" etc. In reality, these are just terms that attempt to dignify what they are really doing. Nobody wants to admit that they are shirking their responsibility, refusing to face reality, and copping out on Life, which is precisely what they are doing. They want to somehow coast through life and its challenges by somehow escaping them and "sleeping" through Life.

Either way, this prevents people from reaching their "real" potential and attaining true happiness.

Imagine, if we would see someone burning or throwing hundred dollar bills out the window. [I admit that I would be the first one to run down and put them in my pocket]. If we cared at all about the fellow, how much it should hurt us to see him wasting or destroying what could be of great value to him and to others. Hopefully, we would try to explain to him the folly of his ways.

How much more so, when we see how people destroy their potential for Torah and Mitzvos, which is worth more than any amount of money.

In Neveh Zion, there is a tradition that on Shabbos, Festivals, and the High Holy days after praying, the boys make a procession and greet all the Rabbis. It is very beautiful and emotional. Sometimes, it even takes longer than the actual praying.

This past Rosh Hashana 5764-2003, I was especially moved by the bright young faces that radiated with the happiness and holiness of Rosh Hashana. As each boy passed by, we wished each other to be written and signed in the "Book of Life." It was then that I felt a mixed feeling of joy and sadness with tears welling up in my eyes.

I felt joy just looking at these fine prospects of future "Servants of Hashem," and realizing that I have the privilege of possibly helping them in some small way to realize their potential.

On the other hand, I had known many of these boys from before. I knew that they were not living up to even a fraction of what they could really do. It was then that tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered a very inspirational Gemoro in Berachos.

The Gemoro Berachos 5b relates a moving story about Rabbi Elozor and Rabbi Yochanan.

Rabbi Elozor was sick and Rabbi Yochonon went to visit him. When he saw that Rabbi Elozor's house was dark, Rabbi Yochanan lit up the house by revealing his arm [which shone from beauty]. At that point Rabbi Elozor started to cry and Rabbi Yochanan asked him, Why? Rabbi Elozor responded that he was crying because, "Such beauty is destined to deteriorate [decompose] in the ground [after death]." Rabbi Yochanan responded, "For this you should definitely [are right to] cry." The Gemoro concludes that at that point they both cried.
What I realized from this Gemoro was, that beauty that will eventually be destroyed, even by the natural process of death and burial in the earth [not through the deeds of its owner], is something to reflect and cry about.

It then struck me, how much more so, when beauty is literally buried in the earth by its very owner. When we don't reach our potential, we are taking our beauty and destroying it with our very own hands. "For this you should definitely cry."

` One of the biggest problems is, that we have a big misunderstanding of our potential. We don't realize what we should accomplish and how much we can accomplish. We see in front of us a huge mountain [Torah and Mitzvos] to climb and feel that we weren't given the potential to do it.

The truth is that, in a certain way, we're right. With our own potential alone, without help from Hashem, we would not be able to climb to the top of the mountain.

However, when we use our potential TO ITS FULLEST, then, even though we won't reach the top of the mountain, Hashem will take us by the arms and lift us to the top.

Of course, we have to be honest and not underestimate our FULL POTENTIAL. Just look at the "POTENTIAL" that we muster up when it comes to money or something else that interests us. How many times have we read about people (or done it ourselves) who would camp out all night in the street to be on line to get a ticket to a big concert or some big baseball or football game.

If we think that we don't have too much "POTENTIAL" for Torah and Mitzvos, think again! It may just be that we don't have too much "INTEREST" in Torah and Mitzvos and that's why we think it's a lack of "POTENTIAL." If we would only put more effort into learning the beauty and importance of Torah and Mitzvos, then we will really understand what our "FULL POTENTIAL" is. I am reminded of a beautiful story with Eliyahu Hanavy that shows that this is a very common mistake. In Tana Divey Eliyahu Zuta Chapter 14 , Eliyahu Hanavy relates:

"Once I was going from place to place and I met an ignorant man who knew neither Chumash or Mishna and he was scoffing at me with words. I said to him, 'My son, what will you answer your Father in Heaven on the Day of Jugement?'

He replied, 'Rebbi, I have what to answer Him. They didn't give me from Heaven understanding and knowledge to learn Chumash and Mishna.'

I then asked him, 'What is your profession?'

He replied, 'A fisherman.'

I countered, 'And who taught you to bring flax and weave it into nets, throw it into the sea, and catch the fish?'

He answered, 'Rebbi, for this they gave me understanding and knowledge from Heaven.'

Finally I said [with wonderment], 'And if for bringing flax to make nets to throw in the sea to catch fish-for this they gave you understanding and knowledge from Heaven- and for words of Torah, about which it is said, [Devarim 30:14] 'For it is very close to you this concept [Torah] in your mouth and in your heart to do it.' For that they didn't give you understanding and knowledge from Heaven?'

At that point the fisherman, [who realized how foolish he looked with his erroneous logic], began to cry and I told him,

'My son, don't feel bad because all the other people in the world give this excuse…[about not being given understanding and knowledge for Torah] and yet their own deeds [the understanding and knowledge of their own profession] refute this excuse.' "

This story should help us to realize that we won't have this excuse either.

Rather we should understand the truth.

The bottom line is, that Hashem is telling us, "You do yours [climb as far as you can climb] and I'll do Mine [take you the rest of the way].

There are many Rabbis who expound on this point and bring beautiful proofs to it from the Torah. I will mention a few.

In "Haoros," by one of my Rebbeim, Rav Zeidel Epstien, shlita, on Bamidbar- Mamar 2-p.6 he brings Rashi (Bamidbar 3:16) who explains how Moshe counted the Levites. Moshe was supposed to count the Levites from the age of one month. Moshe asked Hashem,

"How am I going to enter their tents to ascertain the number of their nursing babies (as this would be a breach of modesty)? Hashem said to him, 'You do yours, and I'll do mine.' Moshe went and stood by the door of the tent and the Divine Presence preceded him and a voice would come from the tent and say this and this many babies are in the tent…."
Rabbi Epstien asks the obvious question. If, anyway, the voice announced the number, then why did Hashem command Moshe to stand at the door of the tent? It seems to be for nothing!

He answers that there is a very important lesson that we can learn here about how Hashem acts with us.

"A person is obligated to do his, he must try, and cannot say, 'I can't.' It is upon you to do (what you can) and when you can't (do anymore) then Hashem will do his….and sometimes Hashem will help even above the laws of nature."

He also brings the Gemoro in Sotah 12b which says that when Pharoh's daughter, Bisya stretched out her hand to get Moshe from the river, (Shmos 2:5) a miracle occurred. Even though, Moshe was far away, and there was no way that her hand could reach it, she stuck out her hand anyway. Then a miracle occurred and her hand grew till it reached Moshe.

Here also the question arises, why did she stick out her hand when she saw that it was so far away? Did she actually think she would reach it?

Again we see that she believed that she to has make her best attempt [as feeble as it is] and to Hashem is the salvation. That's why this miracle occurred for her.

Rabbi Epstien warns us of the shrewdness of the Yetzer Haro-Evil Inclination.

He tries to convince us that we can't fight an angel…he persuades us to say that for us "there is already no chance…" and all kinds of things to get us to give up.

But we must know that there is no such situation as "you can't," and as long as you do what you are obligated to do, Hashem will help you.

He also brings the words of Rabbeinu Yonah in the beginning of the "Gates of Repentance." "…And it has been explained in the Torah that Hashem will help those that repent when it is not in their nature [capability] to do so. He will renew in them a spirit of purity to reach the level of Loving Him."

Rabbi Epstien concludes, "We have here a wondrous novel point in his words. That even if according to natural laws he really can't (repent), 'it is not in their nature [capability] to do so,' Hashem creates a special creation, a spirit of purity until he will reach the level of His Love."

In the sefer "Achas Shaalti," by Rabbi Yitzchok Zeev Josef, p.52, he uses this point to explain a perplexing Gemoro.

The Gemoro in Yuma 35b says:

"The Rabbis taught: A poor man, rich man, and the wicked man come to Judgement.

To the poor man they say, 'Why did you not learn Torah? ….Were you poorer than Hillel….(and yet he managed to learn)?'

To the rich man they say, 'Why did you not learn Torah?' If he says he was too busy with his property, they respond, 'Were you richer than Rabbi Elozor ben Charsom (who despite his wealth managed to learn)?'

To the wicked man they say, 'Why did you not learn Torah?' If he says I was handsome and preoccupied with my yetzer horo, they respond, 'Were you more handsome than Yosef (who withstood the wife of Potifar's seduction [Bereishis 39:7….)?(so too you should have conquered your yetzer horo).'

Thus poor people will be held accountable because of Hillel, the rich because of Rabbi Elozor ben Charsom, and the wicked because of Yosef."

Rabbi Josef brings the "Pri Hoaretz," from Rav Menachem Mendel of Vitepsk who asks the following question about Yoseph.

The Chazal say [see Rashi in Breishis 39:11 and Gemoro Sotah 36b] according to one view that Yoseph was actually ready to give in to the seduction, but he was saved by a miraculous vision of his father that he received at that moment.

So how can he hold accountable the wicked, he was only saved through the miracle of the vision [not his own strength] , and the wicked do not merit such miracles at the height of their desires?

Rabbi Josef then asks that in reality the whole Gemoro is baffling.

How are we to expect ordinary people to live up to the standards of these giants? Why do their exemplary actions obligate and set the standard for all people in all generations?

However, with the question of the "Pri Hoaretz" lies the key to understanding this Gemoro.

Had Yosef's salvation been through his own natural strength, it could be, he would not hold the wicked [who don't have Yosef's strength] accountable.

But now that we see that see that his salvation came through miraculous Divine help then he can hold them accountable.

Do you think that this special Divine help came for free? Did it come without Yosef first doing all he could to conquer his yetzer horo?

Of course not! The Gemoro (ibid.) relates how Yosef withstood all the seductions and punishments that the wife of Potiphar threatened him with.

He fought his yetzer horo with all of his might until he couldn't go further. That's why he merited this miraculous Divine help. [Later I saw that in the sefer "Tuvicho Yabiu", by Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstien, Vol.II p.286 he says the same point in the name of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter].

And the truth is that this the way it always works. The Gemoro Kiddushin 30b says that our yetzer horo is stronger than we are and if not for Divine Intervention we would not be able to conquer it.

It was not a special miracle for Yosef. This is the way Hashem acts with anyone who uses his potential to its fullest to conquer his yetzer horo and can't go further. He will also receive a miraculous Divine help.

Based on the Gemoro Kiddushin, it's logical to deduce that Hillel and Rabbi Elozor ben Charsom also had tests beyond their strength and only because they used their potential till their fullest they merited Divine Intervention.

Therefore, these giants can hold all of us accountable, despite the fact that our natural strengths don't come anywhere near theirs.

Since their level did not hinge on natural strengths rather on using whatever strength they did have to its fullest.

So too, it can be expected that we should use our strength, as meager as it is ,to its fullest and then we also merit Divine help.

In "Reb Chaim's Discourses," by Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, p.99, he points out that every time we do what is demanded of us, it is Hashem who brings the results. He says,

"A person is obligated to do that which is demanded of him, and it is for Hashem to bring results. It is incumbent on man to act not to accomplish. Any other approach is a declaration of, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me all this success (Devarim 8:17).' While this injunction literally applies to physical endeavors and accomplishment, it applies to the spiritual as well…
This idea finds expression in the prayer of R' Nechuniah ben Hakanah, 'I toil and am rewarded (Berachos 28b).' For it is for the toil itself that man is rewarded. To be more exact, the accomplishment and attainments are a part of the reward."

With this point he answers an apparent contradiction. It says in Pirkei Avos (4:1) "Who is strong? He who subdues his evil inclination."

On the other hand, it says in the Gemoro Sucah 52b, "Were it not for the assistance of the Holy One, [man] could not conquer [his evil inclination]" How then can Chazal attribute the subordination of the evil inclination to strength?

Rav Chaim answers, "The answer is that Hashem's assistance is commensurate to man's efforts. Man battles; Hashem conquers. If a man has succeeded in overcoming his evil inclination, it is indeed testimony to his strength."

I'm going to end off with a story that Rabbi Berel Wein tells from the "Apter Rov" Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel.

He once told his chassidim about a certain Jewish tavern owner that had many Gentile customers. The local priest was not too happy with this. He threatened his congregation that anyone frequenting the tavern would not receive confession.

The Jew was not phased and went out and bought a priest's uniform. He then offered that he would give confession to any of his customers who wanted.

Once a fellow came and confessed, "Father, I stole a rope." Whereupon the Jew prescribed that he give a ruble to the church.

"But Father, the rope was attached to an ox,"

"And what did you do with the ox?"

"I killed it and sold the meat."

"Then give another ruble to the church."

"But Father, the ox was attached to a wagon."

"And what did you do with the wagon?"

"I chopped it up and sold the wood."

"Well, that will cost you another ruble."

The Jew thought that he was finally finished with this guy, but he wasn't going. So the Jew said annoyingly, "Well, what do you want now?!

"But Father, there was a child on the wagon."

"And what did you do with the child?!"

"I murdered him!"

The Jew was furious and he said, "You murdered a child and you come to me to confess stealing a rope!"

The Apter Rov told his Chasidim, "We do the same thing. On Rosh Hashana we come and confess to stealing a rope, when in reality we've murdered a child-the next generation-the vision-the world that we are supposed to build. What happened to him? That's the question. That can't be bought for a few rubles."

May Hashem help us to reach our potential to its fullest and build ourselves as well as the future generations.

We should merit a Kesiva Vchasima Tova.

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