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Parshas Eikev (5774)

Sink or Swim

A CEO throwing a party takes his executives on a tour of his opulent mansion. In the back of the property, the CEO has the largest swimming pool any of them has ever seen. The huge pool, however, is filled with hungry alligators. The CEO says to his executives, "I think an executive should be measured by courage. Courage is what made me CEO. So this is my challenge to each of you: if anyone has enough courage to dive into the pool, swim through those alligators, and make it to the other side, I will give that person anything they desire - my job, my money, my house, anything!" Everyone laughs at the outrageous offer and proceeds to follow the CEO on the tour of the estate. Suddenly, they hear a loud splash. Everyone turns around and sees the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) in the pool, swimming for his life. He dodges the alligators left and right and makes it to the edge of the pool with seconds to spare. He pulls himself out just as a huge alligator snaps at his shoes. The flabbergasted CEO approaches the CFO and says, "You are amazing. I've never seen anything like it in my life. You are brave beyond measure and anything I own is yours. Tell me what I can do for you." The CFO, panting for breath, looks up and says, "You can tell me who the heck pushed me into the pool!!"

Sometimes we submerge ourselves in our work a little too deeply … with potentially disastrous consequences.

How many times do we hear about people who dive headlong into their careers and who work crazy hours and extra weekends for many years – all for the ultimate goal of making more money or getting that lucrative promotion – and lose their spouses, relationships with their kids, health etc., in the process?

Or how about those people whose entire identity is so bound up with what they do - like the guy who when you meet him describes himself first and foremost as “an investment banker” or a “neurosurgeon” - to the extent that if and when they lose their job they fall apart.

Or maybe it’s the guy or girl who for many years neglects pursuing a marriage partner and starting a family or who misses out on lots of opportunities to grow and develop spiritually as a human being through learning and reflection – only to regret it later on when it’s almost too late - all because it conflicts with his/her career.

What, if anything, can we do to ensure that we maintain the proper balance between our careers – meaning that which we do during the week 9 to 5 to earn a livelihood, provide services for others, and keep ourselves from being bored – and our lives – meaning that which we are 24/7, what we believe in and what shapes the way we act towards others, how we define our purpose in life, etc.

I believe that the answer to this troubling enigma is rooted in the fundamental idea that forms much of the Torah’s teachings – that of mind over matter (or heart). For us to be able to successfully integrate the beauty and wisdom of the Torah into our lives, G-d asks us to consciously remind ourselves of that which we know clearly in our minds so that it will impact how we feel and act.

So, for example, the last of the Ten Commandments that we read in last week’s Torah portion forbids us to covet and desire that which belongs to our neighbor - which basically means that our emotions are being legislated by the Torah. This can only makes sense because implanted deep in our soul/psyche is the ability to use our intellectual clarity to rise above our emotions and control them for our own good. So that when we integrate into our lives the concept of Divine Providence and we realize that what’s meant for someone else will never become ours unless G-d so wills it, our jealousy weakens greatly and we can more easily come to emotional terms with the reality that this woman, job, car belongs to someone else and not us.

And it is no different when it comes to striking a proper balance in life between what we do and who we are. We need to first gain the intellectual clarity that life is much bigger – and our identity is much greater – than the work, however rewarding, that we do. Once we get clear about that – and the earlier in life, the better - we can then hope to properly integrate that ideal into our daily lives.

Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, in his wonderful book on the Daily Prayers titled Shemoneh Esrei, shares a beautiful insight into living with proper balance based on the words of our Sages:

The Talmud (in Kiddushin 29a) lists the various Jewish obligations that are incumbent upon a father to teach to his son. Primary among these obligations is the mitzvah to teach one’s child Torah, the source for which can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Eikev, where the Torah commands us: “You shall place these words of Mine [the Torah] upon your heart and upon your soul … You shall teach them to your children to discuss them …” (see Deuteronomy 11:18-19)

The Talmud further states that a parent must teach his child a means of earning an honest, respectable livelihood. According to another opinion, he must also teach his child how to swim.

The Sochatchover Rebbe explained that these last two responsibilities are intertwined. When a father trains his child to earn a livelihood, he must also warn him to apply to his career the fundamentals of swimming. The swimmer must know how to keep his body moving smoothly in the water while lifting his head above the surface to breathe.

Similarly, the father must caution his child: “Do your very best to succeed in your chosen field, but take care lest you become entirely submerged and sunk in your professional pursuits. Keep your head above your career and maintain scholarly and spiritual aspirations that point heavenward. Don’t allow the affairs of your body to drown your mind. Realize that you are far more than the work you do”

How's that for a "swimming lesson"? (-;

[Source: Shemoneh Esrei by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, Artscroll Mesorah Publications 1990]

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