I love quotations – how a single phrase can encapsulate a penetrating insight or a piece of inspirational life wisdom.
Here’s my personal list of top 10 quotes. Each one has transformed my life in a significant way.
I’m sure you have some great ones, too. Please share your personal favorites in the comments box below.
1. “The righteous person falls seven times and gets up.”
King Solomon, Proverbs 24:16
Failure is tough. It hurts. But it’s not the worst thing in the world. King Solomon defines the righteous person not as someone who never makes a mistake, but rather as one who keeps trying again and again. Failure has the incomparable ability to toughen you up for the next, bigger challenge.
My teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l, launched many educational start-ups before finally hitting on the right formula with Aish HaTorah. Curiously, he always seemed proud of those failures. He understood that falling seven times – and overcoming those failures – is precisely the way to become great. I call it the Failure-Success Paradox.
Failure is not something to be feared. It’s part and parcel of the road to greatness. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
2. "The real excitement would be to see Niagara Falls flowing the other way."
Oscar Wilde (paraphrased)
In the time of Moses, the Jewish people were sustained by "manna," a bread-like substance that fell each day from the sky (Exodus 16:15). Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler asks: Which is the greater miracle – bread coming from the earth, or bread from Heaven? Instinctively, we would say "bread from Heaven" is an amazing miracle. But objectively speaking, "bread from Heaven" is really just a simple showering down. "Bread from the earth," however, demands a confluence of factors including proper soil, nutrients, sunlight, rain, temperature, etc.
We say "bread from Heaven" is more of a miracle because it’s so uncommon. But if we’d never before been exposed to the idea of a tiny seed being thrown into the ground, decaying, and then growing into grain, we’d immediately say: "That's a miracle!"
The difference between what we call "nature" and what we call a "miracle" is a matter of frequency.
This Oscar Wilde quote reminds me of my job years ago as a tour guide in Niagara Falls. It was a daily challenge for me to match the degree of enthusiasm displayed by the tourists seeing the magnificent Falls for the first time. Till today this quote reminds me not to take the wonders of creation for granted. Do I appreciate the miracle of trees breathing carbon dioxide, so that we can breathe oxygen? The attractive smell and color of an orange, with it's protective coating? The simplicity of thirst-quenching, life-sustaining water? The miracle of a baby’s birth?
3. “If you don't know what you're willing to die for, then you don't know what you're living for.”
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah
This quote gets to the core of everything. If I don't have meaning in my life, then all the physical enjoyments and beautiful vacations are just playing games.
Every human being has a deep intrinsic need for meaning. That’s why you’ll find so many “causes” in the world – save the whales, poverty relief, cancer research. Yet all causes are not created equal, and we need to be cautious not to get sidetracked into an activity that, while meaningful, falls short of the ultimate.
The Kony 2012 campaign illustrates this. At first it struck a huge chord, with nearly 100 million people viewing the film in a matter of days. A month later, however, when people were asked to translate that awareness into public action, the campaign flopped. However meaningful and important this cause is, it seems that when faced with the prospect of devoting their time and energy, people evaluated whether this was – as they say in the Marines – “the hill I want to die on.”
That very question – “What am I willing to die for?” – unlocks the secret of what is truly most important. (My personal answer: God, family and the Jewish people.) And if something is worth dying for, then it is certainly worth living for. Until we've answered that question, we haven't really begun to live.
4. “If you can’t explain it, you don't fully understand it.”
Vilna Gaon, commentary to Proverbs 22:18
I teach a class three times a week and, truth be told, my main motivation is to master the material. In order to teach, I have to know it backward and forward, to be able to present it from different angles, and to field any questions that may arise. Teaching is a great way to prevent what I call “fake-out” – that lazy, seductive voice inside us that says: “Mediocre is good enough.”
Teaching comes with many bonuses. Of course, there’s the deep satisfaction of seeing a student move along the path from confusion to clarity. For a teacher, that moment of “understanding” is a priceless thrill.
There’s another bonus as well: I invariably come away from my class knowing the material better than I did going in. That’s because the students’ questions sharpen my understanding, forcing me to examine new facets and construct sound paradigms. As the great Rebbe Yehuda said: "Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students." (Talmud – Taanit 7a)
5. "In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles."
David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel, Interview on CBS, October 5, 1956
How is it possible that Israel has survived against such impossible odds? In 1948, with no planes and only three tanks, a rag-tag Israeli militia of Holocaust survivors and kibbutz farmers miraculously staved off annihilation at the hands of seven attacking armies. The Jewish people went on to achieve the unimaginable by ingathering the exiles, reviving an ancient language, making the desert bloom, and building one of the most stable hi-tech economies in the world. This was all done in the face of economic embargo, diplomatic isolation, relentless war and terror attacks.
Today, as Iran races toward nuclear weapons, Israel is in the midst of another existential threat. If Iran gets the bomb, life in Israel could be untenable; stopping Iran won’t be much easier. On one hand, daily life goes on as usual – shopping, school, paying the bills. At the same time, the pressure is enormous. Just as in June 1967 when millions of Arab troops amassed on Israel’s borders, today too the rabbinate is readying tens of thousands of graves.
By all traditional socio-historic measures, the likelihood of Israel’s survival – surrounded by Arab nations with 640 times the land mass and 350 million more people – is slim. But in this land, which “the eyes of God are always upon it” (Deut. 11:12), the regular rules don’t apply. In Israel, even the realists believe in miracles.
6. “Killing time is suicide on the installment plan.”
Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Have you ever been on a job interview where they ask: “What do you really hate?” That’s a tough question to answer successfully. Here’s my answer: “I hate waste.” Wasted resources, wasted effort, and worst of all, wasted time.
Time is incredibly precious in that it can never be replenished. Once it's lost, it's gone. (Reaching age 50 has made this reality all the more profound.)
I refer to this quotation on the occasions I find myself drifting into what I call “web-waste.” You know, clicking here and there in an endless chain of exploration. That’s when it’s time to stop and check: Am I engaged in purposeful activity? (Reviewing your browser history is a great way to measure just how much time gets wasted.)
I once heard Rabbi Chaim P. Scheinberg explain: With most jewelry, the valuable item is set in the middle, surrounded by material of secondary value (e.g. a diamond ring). The exception is a wristwatch, where an expensive gold setting is used to house a few springs and dials. That’s because in truth, time is the most precious commodity of all.
7. “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
Mark Twain, Harpers Magazine, 1899
The Jewish people are truly incredible. Jewish Nobel prize-winners 100-fold in proportion to our numbers. Jewish leaders worldwide in business, the arts, politics and science. And when in human history has a tiny country accomplished as much in 64 years as Israel has?
We sometimes lose sight of this, amidst our infighting and all the criticism being hurled at Israel and at Jews in general. What is driving all that negativity? There are many answers (see Aish.com’s excellent online seminar, “Why the Jews?”), but when the unfair criticism takes aim, our challenge is to keep our chins high and know where justice lies.
This reminds me of the story of two Jews walking down the street, when a skinhead drives by and shouts: "Dirty Jews!" One of the Jews shrugs his shoulders, considers taking a shower, and quietly bemoans the fact that the skinhead is intolerant and hateful. The other Jew, meanwhile, turns bright red with anger and runs down the street shaking his fist at the car.
What's the difference between them? One is focused on the incredible, eternal benefits of being part of the greatest story in human history. He earns great satisfaction from his practice of Judaism – the beauty of Shabbat, community, and connection to God. So he can handle some negativity because it’s clearly outweighed by the positive value. But for the Jew who lacks Jewish pride, the response to anti-Semitism is just frustration and anger.
8. “All that is thought should not be said. All that is said should not be written. All that is written should not be published. All that is published should not be read.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk
Life seems to be an endless flow of information. Foursquare tells me exactly where my “friends” ate lunch today; Facebook shows me photos of who they ate it with; and Yelp tells me whether or not they liked it. It can sometimes feel like a mad cycle of garbage in, garbage out. Whatever happened to privacy, modesty, discretion?
That’s where a bit of “free will” comes in. Just because the tools are there to share, share, share, doesn’t mean we have to partake. We have to know where to stop. Otherwise, it’s a big black hole. And as I always say, the world needs less information… and more inspiration.
(See this quote in a cool infographic.)
9. "The difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline."
Napoleon Hill (attributed)
This one really speaks to me. I tend to have big dreams, but getting myself to sit down and actually conquer them is the real challenge. Insert the element of a deadline and – presto! – I am suddenly motivated, focused and super-charged.
Sure, things tend to get pushed off till the last minute, and I wind up staying up till all hours of the night (when I hear the birds chirping, I know I’ve crossed the line). But the upside is that things actually get done. The book gets published, the video gets made, and this article gets written. All at the last minute… thanks to a deadline.
10. “The merits of the believer, even if he reaches the utmost degree in improving his soul in devotion to God, and even if he would approach the level of an angel in good character… would still not compare to the merits of the one who teaches people the good path [of Torah] and brings them to the service of God.”
Rabbeinu Bachya, Duties of the Heart (11th century)
For me, this is a grand slam home run. Rabbeinu Bachya is spelling out in no uncertain terms that – beyond even reaching the level of character perfection – the single greatest human endeavor is to help bring people closer to God.
Western society is in crisis. Economic hardship, dysfunctional relationships, spiritual malaise. We’ve lost our moorings. Part of the problem is that God has gotten negative PR lately, with religious extremists advancing untenable – even violent – positions. But it’s time to reclaim God as our loving, caring Father in Heaven who watches over us and demands us to always act in accordance with what will bring God the best PR.
Fostering this spiritual connection is at the root of the human experience. Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, said that of the thousands of patients he’s treated in psychoanalysis, he never met one person over the age of 35 whose psychological problem was not directly traceable to a lack of belief in God.
Everyone is encouraged to help in this PR battle. The spiritual health of individuals and society is at stake.