Appreciating the Process
"First, I was dying to finish high school. Then, I was dying to finish college. After that, I was dying to get married. Then, I was dying to have children. Then, I was dying for the kids to get older so I could marry them off and relax. After that, I was dying to retire. Now, I'm just dying and I realize that I never really lived."
-- 70 year old patient in Intensive Care Unit
If there is one lesson we must learn in order to truly utilize our lives and our time in this world, it is this: We must appreciate the present moment and not always look forward to something in the future. The process is what counts. An understanding of certain commandments in Parshat Ekev leads us towards this path.
"And now, Israel, what does God, your Lord, ask of you but to fear God, your Lord, to go in all His ways, and to love Him." (Devarim 10:12)
Loving God and fearing Him are two are the most difficult commandments to fulfill. We can fear the cop who might give us a speeding ticket. We can love our spouses or parents who love us and do so many things for us. They are tangible - I can see them. There's an actual relationship that is in the physical realm. But how can I relate, much less love or fear, a Being that does not seem to talk or communicate to me in a way that I can clearly understand?
Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just, Chapter 19, Steps Toward Piety,) by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato puts the question this way: "There are things that a person must look into and ponder well in order to acquire fear of God. The first is that one is actually standing in the presence of the Creator, Blessed be His Name, and communicating with Him, although He cannot be seen. This is the hardest. Can a person create a true 'picture' in his heart when he is entirely unassisted by his physical senses?" Rabbi Luzzato continues to explain that with great effort and through meditation on certain thoughts that he describes, one can accomplish this.
Even if we were to bypass this tremendous difficulty of trying to love and fear an invisible, intangible God, there is another problem we face in trying to fulfill these commandments. How can love or fear be commanded? How is it possible to command an emotion? Either I already love and fear God or I don't. But commanding me to love God does not make me love Him. Usually when it comes to fulfilling a commandment, there is a concrete action that I can do. I either ate Matzah on Passover, or I didn't. The action of eating is a clear directive. But what is the meaning of a commandment for an emotion, and how can I fulfill it?
The Rambam in Yesodei HaTorah, 2:2 (Fundamentals of Torah) presents an approach to loving and fearing God that addresses all of our questions:
"What is the path to love and fear Him? When a person thinks deeply of His wondrous and awesome creations and actions and sees from them His infinite wisdom, inevitably and necessarily, he will love, praise, glorify, and desire greatly to know the Great Name... And when he thinks of these things, he will inevitably and necessarily tremble and become afraid, knowing that he is a small, low, creature standing with feeble intelligence before the Perfect and Complete Knower of all things."
When the Rambam writes the laws of prayer, for example, he does not ask, "What is the path to pray to God?" It is obvious that you recite prayers in order to fulfill the commandment of prayer. There is no path that is needed to spell out. This holds true for all commandments that involve action. Only when it comes to commandments involving emotion, like loving and fearing God, does the Rambam feel compelled to present a path toward achieving it. This is because the Rambam acknowledges that it is not possible to command an emotion, unless there is a clear path to guarantee the attainment of the emotion.
The Rambam is showing us that pondering God's wondrous creations will unmistakably lead to the emotions of loving and fearing God. This is the path we must use if we wish to fulfill the commandments to love and fear God. And this is the approach we must take in relating to an invisible and intangible God. We must relate to and see Him through His creations.
We cannot actively involve ourselves nor worry about attaining the ultimate goal of feeling the emotions of love and fear for God. The only thing we can do is to embrace the process and the path toward the emotions of love and fear by daily and continuously contemplating His works throughout our lives. Through consistency and dedication to the process, the final goals - of love and fear of Him - will come.
The process is what needs focus, not the results. The results can only come if the process is accomplished well and the process will only be accomplished well if it is properly appreciated.
You want to be a good father. You want your grown kids to look upon you with love and respect as a result of your fathering them properly. Then, you must, at least once a day, take a step back, to love what you are doing in the now, in being a good father and showing love to your children. Driving your child somewhere, talking to him, listening to him read, playing ball with him, cleaning a spill, even breaking up sibling fights, must be cherished now. If not, then you will always be looking 'to get it over with' and you will not become a person who your kids see as a loving father.
You need to be reflective in order to appreciate the process, removing yourself from the microcosm of the present event and contemplating how this experience fits into the entire picture of what you are accomplishing. Focus on the process, not the ultimate goal.
This is what is meant by Proverbs 17:24, "Wisdom lies before an understanding person , but a fool's eyes are directed to the ends of the earth." Rashi explains that a fool concentrates on the end, the goal, whereas a wise person thinks of the here and now, the process. He thinks of what lies right in front and before him only, and that is the wise path.
Rashi cites the Midrash (paraphrased): 'The fool says, how can I learn Torah? Each tractate contains 30 or so chapters! It's too much for me to handle! But the wise man says, today I'll learn two chapters, and tomorrow another two chapters and so on.'
Let's face it. We don't live forever, and unless we treasure our individual days, one by one, we will end up growing old even faster than we think - with nothing left to 'get over with' and nothing left to look forward to.
Let's truly live the 'process' of life, not only the results. Living in this fashion helps us get more out of the years of our lives.