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THE ART OF BECOMING THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF
Parashat Aharei Mot/ Kedoshim
Parashat Acharei Mot, opens with the discussion of how Nadab and Avihu died while inappropriately entering the Mishkan, and how Aharon and all future Kohanim Gedolim are to serve on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies and remain alive. Acharei Mot is also the Torah portion read on Yom Kippur. The Be’er Heitev, mentions the Zohar and Arizal, that someone who cries with tears because of the loss and death of Aharon’s sons on Yom Kippur, is promised that G-D WILL FORGIVE ALL OF THEIR SINS, AND THEIR SONS WILL NOT DIE IN THEIR LIFETIME. (O”H 621a)
R Chaim Shmulevitz asks, how are we expected to cry for the loss of Aharon’s sons, no matter how great they were. Even for very close relatives, people eventually stop crying, ten years, 20 years, 50 years later. גזירה על המת שישתכח מן הלב )See Moed K. 19a) So how are we supposed to feel bad for the loss of Nadab and Avihu? Also, one can ask, how are we supposed to feel bad over the loss of the 24,000 students of R’ Akiva during the days of Sefirat HaOmer?
R. C. Shmulevitz brings the part of Talmud that brings shivers down my spine. When R’ Eliezer ben Hurkenus got sick, R’ Akiva and his friends came to visit him. (R’ Eliezer B. H. was originally R’ Akiva’s teacher and one of the greatest Rabbis ever. He was initially a student of R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai, a student of Hillel, but later became a Shamai school student. He argued with all the other Rabbis and proved them his halachic position by bringing G-d on his side by showing how nature will reverse as proof of his opinion. Still, R’ Yehoshua and the other Rabbis outnumbered R. Eliezer. Under the guidance of R’ Gamliel, head of the Rabbis of the day, R’ Akiva was sent to inform R’ Eliezer, in the gentlest way possible, that from that moment on, R’ Eliezer is to be excommunicated. See B. Metziah 59a-b). Now, as R’ Eliezer’s life was ending, he told the rabbis who came to visit him about the torturous deaths they would endure. R’ Akiva asked, “What type of death is waiting for me?” R’ Eliezer said in his Ruach Hakodesh, “Yours will be the worst death of all.” Rashi explains, “Because since your heart is the most open heart to learn Torah, and you could have learned so much more Torah from me.” And alas, R’ Akiva, at the age of 119, had one of the most brutal deaths of mankind, his flesh pulled off his body with metal rakes and weighed in the marketplace. (Sanhedrin 68a)
How could R’ Akiva be punished for not learning more Torah?!? Wasn’t R Akiva the greatest rabbi we ever had? Didn’t Moshe Rabbenu ask G-d that R’ Akiva is more appropriate to receive the Torah than himself? (See Menachot29b) Nonetheless, R’ Akiva is punished for not learning the Torah he could have learned from R’ Eliezer B. H. R’ Akiva was the conduit to pass the Oral Torah on to future generations. He was held accountable for not learning the Torah of R’ Eliezer, being the level he was on.
Even if you are a shepherd and the best shepherd you could be, maybe you can be a R’ Akiva? And even if you are a R’ Akiva, maybe there is more you could be? Even Shmuel the prophet, who was equal to Moshe and Aharon put together,( מֹ֮שֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן׀ בְּֽכֹהֲנָ֗יו וּ֭שְׁמוּאֵל בְּקֹרְאֵ֣י שְׁמ֑וֹ,) but Shmuel started off as an average, B, student, “not smart and not dumb.” (See Berachot 31b) To show that no matter how average and below you might be, you are held accountable to learn your best, to be your best, because you never know how great you can become.
This is how a person can cry and feel bad for the loss of the sons of Aharon, and for the loss of the 24,000 students. Nadab and Avihu, were in some ways, closer to G-d than Moshe and Aharon. (See Rashi Vayikra 10;3) Imagine if we would not have lost Nadab and Abihu, how much they could have impacted us until today, just like we are still affected by Moshe Rabbeinu till today! Crying over the loss of these great men is, in essence, crying over how great WE could have been. And if we regret and cry over not becoming the greatest we could be on Yom Kippur, G-d will forgive all of our sins, and our sons will learn the value of life!
All of the Oral Torah we have today is what we have from the remaining five students of R’ Akiva, R. Meir, R. Shimon Bar Yochai, R’ Yehuda Bar Ilay, and others. Imagine how much greater we could have been if the other 24,000 would have remained! We are not feeling bad about the people we lost. We are to feel bad for the people WE could have become.
Judaism teaches that there are two types of regret. דין וחשבון. Judgment and accounting. There is a regret over things that we’ve done wrong. דין. And there is regret for who we could have been. חשבון. Our Rabbis teach that the greatest rebuke at the end of days is that G-d shows each person how great they could have become. יוסף קטנן של שבטים היה ולא היו יכולים לעמוד בתוכחתו, הה”ד ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אותו כי נבהלו מפניו, לכשיבא הקדוש ברוך הוא ויוכיח כל אחד ואחד לפי מה שהוא, שנאמר (תהלים נ) אוכיחך ואערכה לעיניך על אחת כמה וכמה )Breshit R. Vayigash) When the brothers saw how great Yosef, who was the smallest of them, became, the Tribes could not answer that rebuke of how they did not reach how great they could have become.
Selfie Steps to becoming the best version of yourself:
- Get yourself the best education, read and learn the best sefarim and books, and surround yourself with the best Rabbis and mentors. Ignorance is bliss, only regarding materialistic pleasures. If you don’t know, you are not missing out. But when it comes to spirituality, personal development, and anything else important, ignorance is not bliss. As Chafetz Chaim teaches in the introduction to Mishna Berura 3, if you do not constantly learn the laws of Shabbat, you are most probably desecrating the Shabbat. If you do not constantly learn the laws of Lashon Hara, you are most probably speaking Lashon Hara. Coronavirus has taught us the hard way that ignorance creates diseases and pandemics. Ignorance destroys cities. Ignorance of nutritional facts of what you eat and what a healthy lifestyle is dependent on will shorten your life. Ignorance makes it impossible for you to retire or for you to help set up your children to succeed in life. Ignorance is NOT bliss. What you don’t know will not only hurt you. It will tragically affect your life. What you don’t know will leave your life empty. We are affected by whatever we know and more affected by what we don’t know.
- Leaders in personal development teach that we are affected by our dreams and pulled by our vision of the future. The best version of you, the you that lives a life that is full of inspiration and motivation, is the you that lives by design and not by default. The greatest you “happens” when you live according to your greatest imagination, most significant goals and values and thrive, and not just manage to survive. Imagination is the human resource that helps us build, invent, develop, cure, and anything else you can imagine. This is one explanation of what it means that man is created in G-d’s Image. G-d does not have an image, for He is limitless and endless. But He imagines and creates, סוף דבר במחשבה תחילה, and in that way, we are similar to Him. Most successful people usually have a “long-term perspective.” They think 5 – 10 years in advance, and they are not skimpy on their dreams; they live with their most significant purpose and are therefore ready to adapt to any change thrown at them, as they are magnetized to their goals. As King David tells us in Tehillim, וְֽהָיָ֗ה כְּעֵץ֘ שָׁת֪וּל עַֽל־פַּלְגֵ֫י מָ֥יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר פִּרְי֨וֹ׀ יִתֵּ֬ן בְּעִתּ֗וֹ וְעָלֵ֥הוּ לֹֽא־יִבּ֑וֹל וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֣ה יַצְלִֽיחַ: They are likened to an oak tree, with a firm foundation, they know where they are going, they know how to get there, and no storm or winter can take them down.
- Unfortunately, most people believe that becoming the greatest you can be, depends on hard work alone. This is far from the truth. It is true that whatever we practice most in life, we will be the best in that thing. But if you don’t love what you are doing, you will become the best at what you hate. Most people live their lives with the rush, rush, rush, busy being busy, not being ruthlessly honest enough to ask themselves, “Busy doing what? Rushing for what purpose?” Most people get stuck in the wheel of life: Seek work to eat, seek to eat to have energy, and seek energy to work more, and around we go again.
- To become the best you can be, you need enough courage and optimism to live with the uncertainty that you will reach your “high steaks” goals. You need to be able to overcome the fears of “What if I can’t make it and fail? What if I waste my time?” Studies say that we should have dreams that we think we have only a 60% chance of success, not 100%. The fear that if I fail, everything I ever worked for will be for nothing is precisely the thing that you need to keep you motivated!