Fulfilling Our Potential
In the midst of its account of the building of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) the Torah states that, "Every man whose heart inspired him came..." (1) The Ramban writes that this refers to those who came to do the work of weaving, sewing and building. Where did these people learn how to perform such skilled crafts? The Ramban answers that they found deep within their nature the ability to do them. These formerly hidden powers came about as a result of their deep desire to fulfill God's will by helping to build the Mishkan. As a result of their burning desire, God gave them the ability to do things that they had never been taught!
There is a well-known principle that God grants us a unique set of talents with which they can fulfill their potential in life. Whilst this is certainly true it seems that it can be somewhat misapplied: As we grow up we naturally become aware of our strengths and weaknesses - there is the tendency that we can limit our activities to areas in which our strengths lie and ignore those fields in which we fell less able. For example, a person may feel that he is adept at speaking in front of small groups but that he cannot speak in front of large audiences. Thus, even when there is a necessity for someone to speak in such a setting, he will shy away from the responsibility because he has 'pigeon-holed' himself as being unable to speak in front of many people.
We learn from the Ramban that this is an erroneous attitude - the people who stepped forward to work in the Mishkan had no awareness that they were able to perform such skilled crafts - however, as a result of their devotion to Hashem they found hitherto untapped talents that could be used to fulfill God's will. So too, in our own lives there may be times when there is a need for a certain task to be performed and we may feel that we are unable to perform it - however, the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers tells us that, "in a place where there are no men, be a man." The Mishna does not qualify its exhortation by saying that you should only stand up where there is no man in an area where you feel highly capable. Rather, the only criteria that we should examine is whether there is anyone else who can perform the required task as well as we can. And if there is not, then if we dedicate ourselves to doing God's will then surely God will bring out in us hidden talents.
There are many examples of people who were inspired to bring out hidden talents and consequently achieved great things; one of the most remarkable is that of the Netziv, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, one of the leading Torah scholars of the late nineteenth century. When he completed his commentary on the early work known as Sheiltot, he made a celebratory meal, partly because that is the custom when one completes a book, but there was another, more personal reason as well. He related that when he was a boy he was not particularly serious about his Torah studies. His parents made every effort to help him change his attitude but to no avail. One day he overheard them discussing his lack of success in Torah learning - they decided that he had no prospect of becoming a Torah scholar and therefore he should learn to become a cobbler. They hoped that at least he would be a God-fearing Jew who would go about his work with honesty and dedication. When he heard this, it greatly shocked him and he decided to take his Torah studies seriously - this incident has such an impact on him that it led to a complete change in his attitude and he became a Gadol (leading Torah scholar). How did he achieve so much? Because he developed a desire to be great in learning - it was through this desire that he found in his nature hitherto undiscovered ability to learn Torah to a very high level.
One may respond to this story by arguing that not everybody can become such a great Torah scholar, however Jewish history shows that we need not necessarily be a leading rabbi to achieve great things - sometimes there are other areas of expertise which are required in order to bring about a fulfillment of God's will.
Reb Dovid Dryan provides us with an excellent example of such a case. He was a pious shochet (2) known for his adherence to guarding his speech. However, there is one more thing that makes him stand out - he was directly responsible for the founding and running of the Gateshead Yeshiva and played a significant role in the formation of the Gateshead Kollel and Seminary. To a significant degree, his dedication is responsible for the fact that Gateshead is known as the greatest Torah center in Europe through which thousands of boys and girls have received a high level Torah education. How did Reb Dovid Dryan achieve this? When he came to live in Gateshead he found that there was no Yeshiva there. He said to himself, "how can I live in a place where there is no Yeshiva?!" This may be a question that many of us would ask in a similar situation. However, he did not suffice with just asking the question - he took action; he devoted much time and effort to achieve a seemingly impossible task in the face of considerable opposition. He took on many tasks which were not necessarily within the areas of his expertise, including fundraising and administration. He could have easily felt that he was a shochet and that was where his responsibilities to the community ended. Instead he motivated himself to do what was needed and God granted him the ability to succeed.(3)
Despite these inspiring stories one could still argue that he has in the past made an effort in certain fields and not been successful - consequently he feels that he is exempt from taking responsibility in these areas. The Chafetz Chaim addresses this claim; he points out how much effort we invest into our own interests. For example, if a business venture is not going well, a person will not simply give up, rather he will constantly think how he can improve the situation - he will seek advice from other businessmen and eventually he will often succeed. So too, he writes, "If performing God's will was of equal value to a person as are his own personal affairs, he would seek advice and strategies how to build up Torah so that it does not weaken, and surely God will help him find ways to succeed… however we do not do so in heavenly matters. When one sees that there is no way to improve the situation he immediately gives up and exempts himself from having to do anything."(4) If we were willing to apply the same effort in Divine Service as in our financial interests then we could surely rise above our accepted limits.
There is a remarkable present day example of a person who lives these words of the Chafetz Chaim. Rav Meir Shuster is naturally a shy person who is most at home learning or praying. However, many years ago, he recognized a need - every day dozens of secular Jews would visit the Western Wall and return back to their lives empty of Torah. He saw the necessity to approach these people and offer them accommodation in a hostel that could serve as the base with which to encourage the visitors to go to Yeshiva or Seminary. Consequently, he took it upon himself to go against his nature and walk up to these strangers and engage them in conversation. After doing this for many years, it is impossible to know how many hundreds of lives have been changed by his bold decision to do something against his nature because he felt it was God's will. But it is clear that had he limited himself to his natural areas of strength then the world would have greatly suffered for it.
The people who raised up their hearts to fulfill God's will found powers that they could never imagine they possessed. We too have the ability to break beyond our limits and achieve the seemingly impossible.
1. Vayakhel, 35:21.
2. This is the Hebrew term for the person who is qualified in the ritual slaughtering of animals.
3. Heard from Rav Yissochor Frand shlit"a.
4. Chizuk Hadas, Ch. 2, p. 14.