Sometimes, you find the most sublime clarity in some very unexpected places.
A little while back, Yaakov Branfman set out his vision for Sasson as a place where we strive for ‘greatness’. That’s a lofty goal. It’s an enormous challenge. Not least, because Sasson is not backed by any deep pockets, or important connections.
It’s a grassroots publication, trying to find a way back (and a way forward…) to enabling more orthodox Jews to express ourselves creatively and joyfully without getting pulled down into politics, point scoring or soapbox ranting – quite a tall order, in our day and age.
So how could something as modest as us get anywhere close to the ‘greatness’ envisioned by Yaakov, in his piece? I pondered that even while I was editing it, and wondered how it’s really possible for us to get from here – grassroots, heart-in-the-right-place-but-limited-resources – to there, that place of creative and spiritual ‘greatness’?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was one of the poets in our midst who stepped forward with a suggestion for how we can bridge that enormous gap between how things are now, and how we really want them to be.
In her comment on Yaakov’s piece, Zisi Berkowitz came up with just about the best definition of greatness I think I’ve ever read in my life:
So how do we foster Greatness? By connecting to the Ultimate Truth. By questioning our aspirations and scrutinizing our motives. By thinking and probing and connecting. Daas Torah is the huge umbrella that sponsors growth and inspiration in Klal Yisroel. Beneath that canopy, Individual Greatness rises strong, upholding the world.
I read that, and all of a sudden I got excited.
Because I can do that!
(Still with a lot of help from Hashem, natch.)
Or at least, I can try. It seems possible, it seem do-able to focus on a greatness that emphasizes the positive in the world, and in ourselves, without pulling down others.
As someone who writes a lot of non-fiction, I can tell you it’s SOOOOO hard today to avoid getting pulled into ridiculous posturing or poisonous partisanship. Partially, it’s an ego thing – writers have what to say, they have a gift for communicating, and that ability to potentially sway another person’s opinion is powerful, heady stuff.
And so easily mis-used.
And so easily hijacked and bought by organizations, ideas and products who are willing to pay people to put their message across, and to sway people to coming around to their version of events, their way of thinking.
It’s so easy to preach theoretical middot from a lofty perch, far removed from reality.
And when that disconnect occurs, all we seem to read about is how we should all be acting, and believing and even eating.
It’s so easy to mistake painting an unreal, perfectionistic picture of the world as ‘greatness’.
“I’ll be a great mum when I can cook three wholefood meals a day that are totally organic – and that my family actually wants to eat…
“I’ll be a great Jew when I never, ever lose my temper – not even a little bit, not even with the old hag behind the till in my local super, who always yells at me for not giving her the right change…
“I’ll be a great writer when I finally author the book that’s going to sell a million, or change the world, or get quoted by people in Hollywood….”
That’s how this unreal, perfectionistic picture of ‘greatness’ plays out in our heads.
Personally, I’ve been striving after it for over a decade now, and I’ve never really even come close to grabbing it and making it real.
Because it’s a sunbeam. It’s a fiction. It’s a figment of the imagination.
It doesn’t really exist.
Realising that can be very dangerous, but also very liberating.
It’s liberating, because now you know ‘perfection’ is unattainable, you don’t have to keep beating yourself up, or putting yourself (and other people…) down for not being perfect.
It’s dangerous because once that prop is removed – why keep going? How can you stay motivated? What’s the reason you’re going to wake up in the morning, or go back to bashing away at the keyboard?
Here’s where Zisi’s suggestion comes in:
Keep trying to improve, keep asking God what He really wants from you, keep trying to give it to Him any way you can – but don’t put other people down in the process. And that includes yourself.
To really do that in practice, we have to stop competing with and criticizing each other, and to start encouraging more. Of course, that applies to Sasson, and our efforts as writers, but it also applies to life generally.
Let’s be a place where the soapbox is stored away; let’s a be place where minds can meet without being cut down to size, or narrowed in order to get along; let’s be a place where more and more of us are striving to realise true greatness by talking less about what WE think, and talking way more about what God really wants and expects from us.
Again, this is a challenge. It’s a goal. It’s not at all as easy as it sounds.
But it’s the bridge from mediocre ‘here’ to great ‘there’ – and with a lot of prayer, patience and mutual encouragement, it really is possible.