When I was 11 years old, my parents, bucking generations of athletic ineptitude, sent me for tennis lessons. The instructor fired instructions at me: "Stand like this! Position your head like this! Hold the racket like this! Swing the racket like this!"
I tried as hard as I could (I really did!), but whenever the ball flew toward me, I could remember only one or two of the instructions. This was not sufficient to get the ball over the net and into the opposite court. I never became a tennis player.
A couple decades later, a book, The Inner Game of Tennis, became popular in the New Age world I inhabited. The author's premise was that a person doesn't learn tennis -- or any skill -- by heeding a battery of rules and guidelines, but rather by watching an expert tennis player play. The more one watches an expert, the more some subconscious mechanism in the brain internalizes all the correct movements. Later, on the court, without even thinking, one simply duplicates those expert movements.
Following in the footsteps of the great does not require wearing the same size shoe but only walking in the same direction.
Identifying experts in the art of living, observing them, and emulating them was a Jewish method of spiritual growth two millennia before The Inner Game of Tennis. The Talmud is replete with anecdotes from the lives of the sages so that later generations could model their behavior after them. The idea is not to mimic holy people, since God is not into carbon copies, but rather to recognize a clear ideal and to strive for it. Following in the footsteps of the great does not require wearing the same size shoe but only walking in the same direction.
For example, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, the greatest sage of his era, was so humble that he always greeted everyone he passed without waiting to be greeted first. Two thousand years later, whether we're walking through our condo's lobby or circulating during coffee break at a company seminar, we're supposed to remember Rabbi Yochanon's example. If we can't bring ourselves to greet everyone, we can at least smile at them. If we can't smile at everyone, we can at least smile at familiar faces.
We may not become Lindsay Davenport, but we can at least get the ball over the net.
THE PERSON YOU COULD HAVE BEEN
During "The Ten Days of Teshuva" starting with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, every Jew is supposed to reflect on who s/he was last year and contrast that image to the person s/he could have been: kinder, less judgmental, more patient, less self-centered, more generous, less lazy, more truthful, etc. The imperative to do teshuva, to repent, means: Become the person you could have been.
This is the method of teshuva endorsed by Maimonides. He says to visualize your ideal self, and then formulate specific steps for how to get from here to there.
You can use your down time (driving in the car, walking) to imagine challenging scenarios. Then visualize your ideal self acting heroically in those scenarios.
For example, let's say you left your home 45 minutes late for work due to an unavoidable circumstance: Your mother is in the initial stages of Alzheimer's and just as you were leaving for work, she phoned you on the cell phone you gave her and told you she was on a street corner somewhere and didn't know how to get home.
Now, having dealt with the crisis, you're on the train to work, late. You know that when you walk into the office, your obnoxious supervisor will hit you with some sarcastic jibe about your tardiness. And you know, from past experience, that you will retort with some equally venomous rejoinder. Then the supervisor will start screaming, and, unable to restrain your temper, even at the cost of your job, you'll scream back.
To implement this method, visualize your ideal self: calm, unflappable, in control of your temper, so secure in yourself that you don't have to prove anything to anybody. Now imagine your ideal self walking through the office door. Your supervisor hits you with some sarcastic jibe about your tardiness. You calmly state: "I'm sorry I'm late. A family emergency came up and I had to deal with it." The supervisor starts screaming. Composed on the inside as well as the outside, you silently glide over to your desk and start working.
The more you use your commuting time to replay this inner video, the more likely that when you walk into the office, you'll resemble your ideal self.
Even temporarily living on a higher level shows a person what he or she is capable of achieving.
The power of encountering your better self is embodied in the Talmudic recommendation to adopt a higher level of behavior during the "Ten Days of Teshuva" even if you know that you can't maintain that level all year.
While some would regard such behavior as hypocritical, the sages understood that even temporarily living on a higher level shows a person what s/he is capable of achieving. The ideal lingers even after the behavior has sagged. And the memory of the ideal percolating in one's subconscious can have a transformative effect.
HEROES AND FRIENDS
While many pundits lament the absence of contemporary heroes and role models, Judaism has always had, and still has, heroes. These are the tzaddikim, the holy men and women whose deeds can have a transforming effect on anyone who bothers to observe them and emulate them. Tales of the tzaddikim have been a staple of Jewish literature from time immemorial.
Emulating an ideal, however, includes two possibilities:
(a) Emulate the great actions of ordinary people.
(b) Emulate the ordinary actions of great people.
1. To do the first, focus on the best qualities of your friends and family members.
An "ordinary person" can, for example, evince heroic honesty or dedication to elderly parents. Ethics of the Fathers declares: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people."
Friends do not have to be famous tzaddikim for you to learn from their best traits:
- From my friend Pamela I learned that it's possible to love complete strangers.
- From my friend Hasya Batya I learned that it's possible to consistently put others first.
- From my friend Penny I learned that it's possible to give without looking for payback.
- From my friend Uriela I learned that it's possible to be both very smart and very humble.
- From my friend Sarah I learned that it's possible to live by trusting God.
- From my mother-in-law I learned that calling people "dear," even El Al operators on the phone, makes them feel beloved.
- From my husband I'm still learning that it's possible to think before reacting, and that the longer I think, the better the reaction will be.
2. To emulate the ordinary actions of great people, find yourself an authentic Jewish role model.
It could be someone present or past whom you've read about or your local rabbi or rebbetzin. (Aish.com is full of such role models, e.g. Rabbi Mordechai and Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, Rebbetzin Feige Twerski.)
A curious phenomenon in the religious Jewish world: If you want to meet a special rabbi or rebbetzin, usually all you have to do is phone them or show up at their door! Once inside, listen to how they talk to their children, watch how they react in trying situations, and notice what they do and don't spend their money on.
Another way to "meet" great people is to read biographies of tzaddikim. A search through Jewish bookstores or websites will yield dozens of such biographies. 
Whoever our role models are, we must allow their example to effect us on the level of motivation, not just inspiration. Observing the great deeds and character traits of others should expand our own vistas of what we, too, can become. Teshuva is the art of the possible.
An acorn is not an oak tree, but it's not a stone either.
This method is undermined by the raspy voice that whispers in our ear: "Who do you think you are? How pretentious to attempt to be like __!"
The difference between pretension and aspiration is the difference between pretending to have reached the goal and striving to get there. Failure to recognize one's infinite Divine potential is not humility but blindness.
An acorn is not an oak tree, but it's not a stone either.
EXPANDING OUR SENSE OF THE POSSIBLE
Lately I've been immersed in the example of a great Jewish woman whose biography I'm writing. Rebbetzin Haya Sara Kramer, zt"l, (known to my readers under the pseudonym "Devorah Cohen" when she was alive) was the epitome of generosity. Although she lived in utter poverty, her magnanimity flowed to everyone who approached her.
One of her neighbors told me: "Whenever a guest came, everything in the house was put out on the table." This made me flinch as I thought of how I treat guests: I offer them ice water or apple juice, but I hoard the chocolate chip cookies for myself.
Another neighbor testified how lavishly Rebbetzin Haya Sara gave of her time. Whenever anyone came to see her, even on a busy Friday afternoon before Shabbos, she sat down and gave her full attention to that person. This made me flinch as I thought of how stingy I am with my own precious time, how abruptly I answer an intruder at my door when I'm working.
Yet, in the best Inner Game tradition, the more I focus on Rebbetzin Haya Sara, the more I find myself changing. Last week, the chocolate chip cookies actually made their way to a plate in front of my guest. And then there was the great test of August 23...
My youngest child went to overnight camp for a week. For six of those days, we had relatives as houseguests; they left on August 22. The last day of camp, August 23, was to be my one completely child-free day, my one day to write without interruption. I looked forward to August 23 with relish.
On the evening of August 22, a young friend phoned me. She lives in northern Israel, but was coming to Jerusalem the next day, for one day only, and she wanted to come and talk to me about something. Then the phone rang again. It was a cousin who suffers terrible back pain. I had been urging her to go to my doctor, and after many aborted attempts, she finally got an appointment -- for August 23. Since she doesn't have a car and didn't know where the doctor's office is, would I drive her?
These were two tests that I was incapable of passing. It was, I was sure, beyond my spiritual level to give up two large chunks of my precious uninterrupted day. But while the raspy voice was screaming, "No! You can't do it!" a quiet voice was whispering, "If Rebbetzin Haya Sara could put all her time, 24/7, at the disposal of others, you are capable of giving up a few precious hours of work."
I realized that giving away my child-free day was not beyond my capacity, but only beyond my imagination. Once I saw that what I thought was impossible was possible, it was just a short jump to getting there.
None of us is an oak tree, but we're not a stone either.
1. Two personal favorites which focus on contemporary heroes: A Tzaddik in Our Time by Simcha Raz, a biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, and Jewish Tales of Holy Women by Yitzhak Buxbaum.