August 2nd, 2019

The portion of Matot begins with the laws of oaths and vows.

The Talmud regards breaking a vow as a grave dereliction. Human beings are the only creatures on earth with the power of speech, an expression of intelligent thought. Using speech to make a firm commitment only to go back on it is a terrible betrayal of this unique power, and, the Talmud believes, the sign of a degenerate person.

The Talmud contains a number of statements that convey this idea, but none of them is more chilling than the one quoted in tractate Shabbat (32b) in the name of Rabbi Judah, the rabbinic sage and scholar who edited the Mishnah which forms the foundation of the entire Talmud.

Due to the sin of unfulfilled vows, children die young, as it is stated: “Better is it that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay. Suffer not your mouth to bring your flesh into guilt, neither say you before the messenger that it was an error; wherefore should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5). And what is considered the work of a person’s hands? The answer must be that it is a person’s sons and daughters.

Not only does this punishment sound completely disproportionate, it also appears as if Rabbi Judah forced it into the meaning of the verses, which, on the face of it, do not seem to be saying that the consequence of breaking a vow is the death of one’s children.

Initially one might dismiss Rabbi Judah’s statement as an example of Talmudic hyperbole – a dramatic statement meant to convey the gravity of breaking a vow. But perhaps not. Perhaps there is another more prosaic explanation.

In the course of any person’s lifetime, there will be moments when they are inspired by a great speaker, or moved by a particular event, or indeed by any number of different positive experiences. At that moment they might be so enthused that they commit to making real changes in their lives.

But how long does any commitment last? Most resolutions barely last a couple of weeks. Change is never easy, and once the inspiration has worn off and life gets back to normal, the big promises disappear into the background and are eventually forgotten completely. Until, of course, the next inspirational moment, at which time the process will repeat itself.

So who is the real you? Is it the man or woman who is inspired to do better? Or is it the person who melts back into the daily grind, with the moment of inspiration merely a flash-in-the-pan, a kind of out-of-body experience, not real in any meaningful sense?

As in so many other such scenarios, “there are two types of people in this world.” And although in this situation both of them look exactly the same, there is a real testing ground that can act as a barometer of difference between them – their children.

Let me share something I saw quoted in the name of Augustine “Og” Mandino — author of the bestselling book The Greatest Salesman in the World which sold over 50 million copies across the world and was translated into numerous languages. An incredibly positive person, always upbeat, he summed up his philosophy in this one pithy statement:

“Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm you are doomed to a life of mediocrity but with it you can accomplish miracles.”

The triumph of enthusiasm is not necessary the result of each moment of enthusiasm, but the collective result of many such moments across society and across generations. The word enthusiasm is itself interesting – its origin is the combination of the Greek words en theos, which mean “with God”. 

Being enthusiastic is being in a state of communion “with God”, feeling that spirit of God within us and connecting to our inner self, to our purpose, to our vision, to our values – in short, to our soul in its most pristine state. And of course that connection doesn’t last – the dark weight of the material world blots out the bright light of enthusiasm, although while it shines it is infectious, even more “real” than the real day-to-day world.

If our children get a whiff of our enthusiasm and see what enthuses us, they too will be enthused, and that inspiration will outlast our own efforts. Indeed, it will outlast us through them.

This phenomenon of being a beacon of inspiration is known as the Heliotropic Effect – the tendency for living systems to move towards light and away from darkness, or more accurately, the tendency to move towards that which gives life and away from anything that endangers life. That is the reason why when you put a plant on the windowsill it will tilt towards the light coming through the window.

Our children are just like a plant on the windowsill. They tilt towards us when they get to see the light of enthusiasm we have for the lifegiving aspects of life, but only if they sense that we are really enthused by those lifegiving aspects.

No one knows us better than our children. If they sense that light in us, even if they know that we are not always able to live up to our own enthusiastic flashes of inspiration, they will absorb that light and energize their own lives with it. But if that light is not actually there, if our enthusiasm is nothing but a fake panacea, they will not be inspired and will, for want of a better word, die.

Charles Garfield is author of the widely acclaimed Peak Performance trilogy, Peak Performers, Team Management and Second to None, which focus on high performing individuals, teams and organizations, and which established him as one of America’s leading authorities on high achievement.

His 1987 book Peak Performers contains the wonderful story he called “The Tale of the Dancing Toll Taker”, and I present it to you here in full:

If you have ever gone through a tollbooth, you know that your relationship to the person in the booth is not the most intimate you’ll ever have. It’s one of life’s frequent non-encounters: you hand over some money; you might get change; you drive off. I have been through every one of the seventeen tollbooths on the Oakland – San Francisco Bay Bridge on thousands of occasions and never had an exchange worth remembering with anybody. 

Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the booths. I heard loud rock music. It sounded like a party or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the tollbooth. Inside it, the man was dancing. 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m having a party,” he said.

“What about the rest of these people?”  I looked over at other booths; nothing moving there.

“They’re not invited.”

I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: Find this guy again. There’s something in his eye that says there’s magic in his tollbooth. 

Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party. 

Again, I asked, “What are you doing?” 

He said, “I remember you from the last time.  I’m still dancing.  I’m having the same party.” 

I said, “Look, What about the rest of these people…” 

He said, “Stop.  What do those look like to you?”  He pointed down a row of tollbooths. 

“They look like…tollbooths.” 

Nooo imagination!” 

I said, “Okay, I give up.  What do they look like to you?” 

He said, “Vertical coffins.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“I can prove it. At eight-thirty every morning, live people get in. Then they die for eight hours. At four-thirty, like Lazarus from the dead, the re-emerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions.” 

I was amazed.  This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about his job. I could not help asking the next question: “Why is it different for you?  You’re having a good time.” 

He looked at me. 

“I knew you were going to ask that,” he said. “I’m going to be a dancer someday.” 

He pointed to the administration building. “My bosses are in there, and they’re paying for my training.” 

Sixteen people dead on the job and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation, figures out a way to live. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! 

He and I did have lunch later and he said, “I don’t understand why anybody would think my job is boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. I can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half of the western world vacations here… and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing.” 

What is the essential skill that, when seventeen human beings walk into their offices and sixteen of them get into vertical coffins, allows one of them to have a party? Mission. Purpose. 

Some people do the same jobs as everybody else but have an unusual sense of mission, enjoy it, and have the energy to achieve it at high levels. The dancing toll-taker had been given no special job, no change in the conditions that limited life for everyone else in the booths. Yet he had found a mission and thereby discovered the will and the way to use the conditions of his job to support his mission.

Two things stand out for me in this story. The first is the imagery of the toll-booths as coffins. Our lives, our environments, are coffins unless we bring them to life with real enthusiasm and inspiration.

The other thing that stands out for me is that Charles Garfield was so drawn to the dancing toll-taker that he ended up going through that toll booth again and again. The Heliotropic Effect worked its job on him, as it can work so powerfully on our children.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, drives the point home with great force and clarity.

If a commitment you make when you are inspired or seeking something greater is not genuine, and your “idealism” is just a form of momentary escape from a monotonous reality but not truly who you are as a person, then you cannot properly raise your children.  Your view of the world is upside-down, and your children will never move beyond the coffin-like life you have embraced. 

But if, on the other hand, those flashes of enthusiasm are the real you, your children will come alive through them, reflecting the light that shines from you and in you, perpetuating it in their own lives and beyond.

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