What the Torah wants from us is to take the next small step from wherever we are at that moment
Several years ago, the World Health Organization named stress “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” We feel crushed by life’s demands. For many, the solution is to suction all the obligations out of life. They think the only way to be happy and healthy is to have no responsibilities.
Of course, we don’t buy that nonsense. Hashem wants us to grow, not just exist. He gave us the mitzvos, and other life obligations, to build us and elevate us to greatness. But if we don’t know how to deal with the demands of Torah, and of life in general, the pressure those demands create threatens to drag us down.
At work, at school, at home — we’re always challenged to do more and do better than we feel capable of. Those demands make us nervous and unable to deal with the challenge. We need to find a way to take on challenges calmly and confidently. But how can we be confident when we feel we just can’t do it?
In parshas Chukas, Moshe Rabbeinu hit the rock with his staff, and it gave forth water. He reasoned that ordering the rock to produce water wouldn’t work, because it had no water to give. But Hashem wanted him to speak to the rock. Had Moshe spoken to the rock, it would have fulfilled his command without coercion. Moshe was right — the rock had no water. But if he were to command the rock, the water would come out of nowhere.
Seeing the rock comply with an impossible demand would teach Klal Yisrael an invaluable lesson. We often feel that we can’t live up to the demands of life. We’re sure that the demands and challenges Hashem gives us can’t be met with the kochos we have. We might be right. But accepting Hashem’s challenge will build us and produce new kochos within us. We’ll see that water can gush from even a bone-dry rock.
Hashem ultimately gives us the kochos to fulfill whatever He demands of us. So why do we often fall short, despite our best efforts? The reason is that we misconstrue what Hashem wants from us. We think we have to leap to the peak of a towering mountain, when really, we just need to take one small step.
Rav Yisrael Salanter taught that what the Torah wants from us is to take the next small step from wherever we are at that moment. He didn’t just mean that gradual growth is the path to success. Even a second-rate basketball coach can tell you that. His chiddush was that the next step is all Hashem demands of us. That’s our personal command from Hashem. Our whole aliyah is right before us, in the very next step.
We’re always stressed, because we misunderstand Hashem’s demand. We hear a demand to reach some lofty destination. Be a perfect parent. Be the best in our profession. Be a masmid, a lamdan, or a pillar of chesed. That’s not what Hashem demands of us. What He wants of us is very simple, and easy to achieve. He doesn’t ask us to be anything. He only asks us to take one small step forward.
Hashem wants us to grow and thrive. He doesn’t want us to be stressed. Nervous wrecks don’t grow; they wither. If we understand that the next step is all Hashem demands of us, there’s no reason to be stressed. The next small step isn’t that daunting. Knowing we’re so close gives us the confidence to try. It could be that our natural abilities are insufficient. But if we accept Hashem’s command, we, like the rock, will discover new kochos.
In one of the Dubno Maggid’s parables, a porter came to deliver a merchant’s packages from a ship. He knocked on the merchant’s door, panting and sweating. As soon as he saw the porter’s red face, the merchant said, “Sorry, but the packages you brought aren’t mine.”
“How do you know?” asked the porter in astonishment. “You haven’t even seen them!”
“Because,” explained the merchant, “I’m a jeweler, and my packages are light.”
Hashem’s demands from us are easy. They might look heavy, but once we accept them, we’ll see that they’re surprisingly light. Because what Hashem wants of us is just to take the next step, and the next step is always within reach.
That’s how a healthy person grows, without shirking responsibilities. We’re always stressed, because we think we need to achieve perfection now. If we think we’re supposed to reach a lofty goal right now, taking one small step seems totally inadequate. Even if we follow our life coach’s advice and make small goals, we won’t succeed, because we think we’re failing to fulfill the demand. But if we understand that all we have to do is take the next step, we can take it with confidence and a clear conscience.
People say that nowadays, we’re all made out of tissue paper. You can’t demand anything from people or you’ll break them. So, from a young age, we only work in areas where we’re talented, where things are easy and enjoyable to us. We don’t want to hear that we need to grow in Torah, tefillah, bein adam l’chaveiro, parenting… that’s too heavy for us. We just do what’s geshmak, and avoid the rest.
But that’s not Torah. Torah is full of demands. The highest level is metzuveh v’oseh, when we do mitzvos because we’re obligated. We run away from that. But if we understand that our obligation is just to take the next step, we won’t run away. We can’t do it all. But we can do the next step.
The next step will build us. We’ll find kochos, and even fulfillment, in things we’re not naturally inclined to do. No, people aren’t made out of tissue. We have the strength to deal with life’s challenges. Just we never trained ourselves to do so. If we accustom ourselves to taking a single step, we’ll be able to tackle all of life’s demands in a healthy and relaxed way. We’ll be able to do what’s required of us with energy and enjoyment.
Taking the next step is easy, but it’s an avodah. We have to know exactly where we’re holding. That requires honest introspection. We also need to appreciate how much we can grow through that single step. We have to resist the feeling that the step we’re taking is inadequate. It takes courage to declare to ourselves, “I’m only doing this, not more.”
That’s the Torah path to healthy growth. Let’s train ourselves to take on challenges with strength and confidence. Pick one area where you want to grow. Do your best to determine your current level and what the next small step is. Try to take it, and experience what it’s like to grow without anxiety. Then, stay put for a while. Only after you feel at home in your new level should you begin to contemplate a second step.
We’re not used to living like that. We usually try to beat the water out of ourselves with a stick. But if we listen to Hashem and take a single step, we’ll find ourselves giving sweet water with ease.
—Prepared for print by Rabbi Eran Feintuch
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 871)
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