Va-et’chanan: Masters of Nothing

 

Vaetchanan-image-POST-wrong-way-right-wayA few years ago, the author Malcolm Gladwell wrote a bestselling book called Outliers that profiled a few highly successful people and tried to analyze how they were able to achieve what they did.

What Gladwell concluded was that there was nothing magical about their success – no divine inspiration that enabled them to rise from nothing to the top of their field. What he found was that these highly successful people, these outliers, all shared some common elements that contributed to their success. One of the factors he identified was something he called “the 10,000-hour rule.” He called it “the magic number of greatness.”

According to Gladwell, if you devote 10,000 hours to learning a skill – any skill, be it bouncing a basketball, or playing the piano, or cooking, or arguing a case in a courtroom – by the time you reach 10,000 hours of practice, you’ll become highly proficient. That translates to 90 minutes of concerted effort each day for 20 years – or three hours a day for 10 years, if you have extra time to set aside. If you’re a very busy person, and have less time to devote to learning your skill, you’d be able to reach the 10,000-hour mark if you work at it for 45 minutes a day over 40 years. Now, that’s not a realistic possibility for every person, but it raises an interesting point that relates to our Torah portion.

At this point in our story – Va-et’chanan, in Deuteronomy – the Israelites have been wandering in the desert for 40 years and freedom is within view, on the other side of the river. They’ve had 40 years to learn God’s teachings and the importance of obeying them. Forty years to learn the skills necessary for living as a free people.

During that time, they’ve received some pretty clear indicators from God when they’ve strayed from the correct path, like the plague that befell the people after some Israelite men decided to carry on with Midianite women, to name just one example. They know that their own leader, Moses, won’t be entering the Promised Land as his punishment for disobeying God. In short, they’ve experienced God’s wrath. Let’s also remember that the only reason they were wandering the desert for 40 years at all is that God believed the first generation of Israelites wasn’t worthy of embracing freedom. You’d think they would’ve learned a few things by now, or at least learned to steer clear of the things they shouldn’t do.

But after 40 years, and ample opportunity to reach the 10,000-hour magic number of greatness, the Israelites have become masters of nothing. Of all the enemies they’ve encountered through their wanderings, the Israelites are their own worst enemy. The situation is so bleak that Moses pleads with God a second time to let him enter the land. He’s not asking for selfish reasons. He knows the mortal dangers that the Israelites will encounter once they cross the river, and their ability to lead hasn’t exactly inspired his confidence. There’s a midrash that has Moses pleading with God, “Let me go in as an animal, or even as a bird which can fly the length and breadth of the land.”

Moses knows the Israelites need protection. He wants to watch over them. God refuses his request, so Moses continues what he’s been doing throughout Deuteronomy. He repeats as a narrative everything the Israelites failed to learn over the course of 40 years, which in this Torah portion includes a slightly revised Ten Commandments. It’s not so different from a parent giving a recalcitrant kid the same piece of advice over and over again. You think that perhaps this time will be different. Maybe this time they’ll buckle down, focus, get serious and start doing what’s expected of them.

So we could reasonably ask ourselves: What kind of role models are the Israelites? They’ve had fewer distractions than the rest of us – no internet – and they’ve had plenty of feedback along the way. They’ve benefited from loads of repetition. Frankly, if they haven’t gotten it by now, when will they? Or, more accurately, will they ever get it?

We read the Book of Deuteronomy as we approach the High Holy Days — the time when we reflect on our own failings, and on those occasions when we might’ve unwisely ignored guidance or feedback. Maybe we’ve made the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe we’ll even do better next time. That’s all we can hope for — and that’s the same hope that Moses has for the Israelites.

Most of us have a way of performing as we should when we have to. We do our work, we pay our bills, and we meet our obligations to our community and each other. We rise to the trivial and significant challenges that life presents us. It would be nice to think that it’s self-motivation that informs our actions, and often that’s the case. But we’re not always motivated. No one is. We need deadlines. Sometimes we need something stronger, like fear, frustration or even desperation. We need to imagine what might happen if we don’t take action. We need to see that land waiting across the Jordan. After 40 years it’s right there, not just within the realm of possibility but almost within our reach. We need only to take that next step. And we ask ourselves: if not now, when?

As we move toward the Days of Awe, we’re reminded that change is within reach for all of us. This is an incredibly comforting thought and also a deeply empowering one. Think about it: We’re handed this opportunity each year to set new goals and embrace life’s possibilities. On a personal level, we’re replicating the Israelites’ journey. Their goal was freedom; we seek to liberate ourselves from our bad habits or past mistakes.

In spite of God’s protection, the Israelites knew that living as a free people would be fraught with peril and uncertainty. We’re well aware that the future is uncertain too — sometimes in a good way and, sadly, sometimes not. But we’re compelled to move forward. The High Holy Days demand it of us and – whether we like it or not — so does life. We just have to do our best and count our blessings.

May we all continue to appreciate our strengths, to accept a degree of uncertainty in our lives, and to maintain our faith in those possibilities that we cannot see.

Have a good week, and Shabbat Shalom.

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