It doesn't take big leaps or dramatic acts to succeed, only continual and consistent effort. This week's Torah portion describes both the continually lit lamp - the Ner Tamid, and the continual offering - the Korban Tamid in the Tabernacle. Both were distinguished by their quality of consistency. We can take a lesson from them and realize that the surefire way to reach our goals is through consistent work.
In our story, a boy learns about the effectiveness of consistency.
"OUT OF THE WOODS"
"Great job, Michael. We're proud of you!" My uncle Jack was all smiles as he pumped my hand. I had just finished my Bar Mitzvah reading, and everyone seemed so happy about how well I did. I smiled back, and winked over at my friend, Steve, who was standing across the room. I wonder if, besides him, any of them realized just how close I came to giving up and not doing it at all?
You see, I have a lot of talents. I can run faster than anyone else in my class, and nobody can beat me at checkers. But when it comes to things like reading, especially in Hebrew, let's just say I'm not at the top of the class. The words and letters just seem to jumble and get lost somewhere between my eyes and my tongue.
So I would go twice a week to Mr. Frand's house for extra tutoring to learn the special section I was supposed to read out loud for my Bar Mitzvah. He was a nice enough guy, and his wife always served really good homemade cakes and cookies. But I felt like I was getting nowhere, fast, and after a couple lessons I was ready to throw in the towel.
Since Mr. Frand lived on the other side of the neighborhood, the fastest way to get there was to cut through the path in the woods behind my house. A lot of times my buddy, Steve, who lived next door to the tutor, would meet me after the lesson and we would either spend the afternoon hanging out at his place, or we'd walk through the woods together to mine. That's what we were doing that day, but I wasn't very good company. That week I had really stumbled through my lesson, and as we hiked along the well-worn path, all I could do was fuss and complain.
"That's it, I'm quitting. Lessons or no lessons, I just can't read the thing, and I never will."
Steve tried to get me to laugh it off, but then he saw I was serious. "But you only started the lessons a few weeks ago, what do you expect? Do you practice every day?" he asked.
"A few weeks, few months, few years ... what difference does it make? With my thick head I'll never get it, so what's the point of practicing? Whenever I try to read, the words come out more tangled up than those thorn bushes over there!" I said bitterly, pointing to the side of the path.
We walked a bit more in silence, then Steve turned to me with a funny look. "Mike, I think I have your answer." I didn't know I had asked him a question. "The only way to get through the thorn bushes is to make a path."
He seemed excited about his idea, but I had no idea what he was talking about. "What?"
"Don't you get it? If the woods are so full of brambles and thorn bushes, how come we can walk across it so easily?"
I glared at him. My mind was burned out enough from the lesson; what did I need to play 20 questions for? "What kind of question is that? We don't walk through the bushes, we walk down the path."
"Ah hah!" he said, "And how did the path get here? Did it just appear out of thin air?"
I picked up a rock and lobbed it into a nearby stream. I wasn't sure what he was driving at, but it was actually an interesting question. I thought back about when the two of us first became friends. There really wasn't any path back then. I remembered how hard it was to walk through, and how Steve and I had kept cutting through the same way to get to each other's houses. After a while all that walking, day after day, sort of pushed aside and crushed down a few of the bushes, and smoothed out a path...
I think I was starting to get Steve's point. "You're trying to say that by cutting through the same place over and over, we made the path through the thorn bushes, right?"
"That's right. Even though each time we walked through it didn't seem to change anything, eventually it added up and we had a path. Same thing here - if you stick to lessons and keep going over them every day, I'm sure you'll..."
"I'll cut through the thorn bushes in my head and start to read better, right?"
We played a little less that day since I had my lessons to practice. And while it wasn't easy - I had some pretty tough thorns in my head - little by little, I started to read much better, and by the time my Bar Mitzvah rolled around, I was ready. It was a great day and everyone was proud. But no one was happier than me, and my friend, who taught me how by sticking to it, I could get unstuck.
Q. How did Michael feel at first about his Bar Mitzvah reading lessons?
A. He felt that since it was so hard for him to read, he might as well quit trying.
Q. How did he feel after his walk home with Steve?
A. He felt like he could do it. Even though it was hard for him, he realized that by trying over and over again he could succeed.
Q. What was the lesson Michael learned from the path in the woods?
A. The path didn't form overnight. Only little by little, after the boys walked through the same place in the woods many times, did the tough thorns and brambles smooth out into a path. Michael came to see from here how a consistent, repeated effort can over time clear a path through life's obstacles, like his reading challenges.
Q. In your opinion, which is a more important ingredient for success: effort or ability?
A. Certainly having a talent or ability at something is a big advantage, but it isn't enough to succeed. Far more important is the willingness to diligently keep working at something, even if at first we don't seem to be getting anywhere. Eventually our efforts will pay off; not only can we put our talents to maximum use, but we can even develop and bring out abilities in us that we never knew we had.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach that if someone maintains that he tried but didn't succeed, or conversely succeeded without trying, we shouldn't believe him. How do you understand this statement?
A. True success is defined as reaching one's full potential. This can only come about through sincere and consistent effort. Therefore, only one who fully applies himself in a given area can be considered a genuine success in that area. One who doesn't, no matter how much he accomplishes, has in a sense failed, as he could have accomplished so much more.
Q. Would God be doing us a bigger favor if he let us succeed without really trying?
A. We might achieve a measure of immediate gratification, but the pleasure would soon fade. The ultimate pleasure consists not only in obtaining a desired result, but in the accompanying satisfaction of knowing that we have truly 'earned' it by having put in our utmost effort to get there.