Category Archives: Pirkei Avos

When the Journey Can Be the Reward

I have traveled many roads. Some were straight and easy, while others were dark and winding. Some of the roads led deep underwater into long eerie tunnels, while others were narrow and mountainous, so that I feared that one wrong step would lead me over a cliff.
If I would have a choice I would only choose to travel roads that are straight, with bright sunlight lighting up the way and beautiful scenery to enjoy as I coast along. But who is given a choice? In this life, we don’t get to choose which roads we have to travel.
As I once slid into the driver’s seat of my van, my son commented on his desire to drive. “It’s so much fun to drive. It means you’re in full control – like you’re the master, and the car is the servant,” he told me.
I couldn’t help but think to myself, Really? Do we ever have full control? Oh no. The roads we travel on aren’t the ones that we choose, but rather the highways and byways Hashem has chosen for us. The only choice that we have is how we will deal with the roadblocks we bump into on these windy, dark, narrow and mountainous roads.
In Pirkei Avos, פרק א’:פסוק ג’we are told, “אנטיגנוס איש סוכו…אומר: אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין…לקבל פרס” – Don’t be like servants who work only to get reward. But that seems so impossible. I should work and work on doing all the mitzvos and doing them with the right intentions and never get a reward? I am not a car, which my son says is like a servant. I am a real person with thoughts and feeling, desires and wishes. As Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld says, “If I am doing and doing and never getting anything in return, then the whole relationship seems meaningless. It feels like a master-slave relationship. And if Hashem is giving me all these challenging roads to travel with seemingly insurmountable roadblocks and without a thought of reward, then how can I continue onward?
Author and educator Rabbi Yaakov Astor explains that time moves slowly when you’re expecting, waiting, pushing for something to happen – and it’s not happening. But when you’re focused on the process – accepting that what is happening is the way things are supposed to unfold, then the result doesn’t matter.
I remember a difficult road I had to travel when I was in high school. I was chosen to head a big project. I was excited and felt honored to be the chosen candidate. However, the other girl that was chosen to work with me had social issues. It was really difficult to work with her. The whole project wasn’t working out the way I had hoped it would. I felt incompetent – like a failure. I also felt stuck. I am doing this with someone who is incapable, therefore it is a disaster, and I can’t fix it.
I could have become angry at the hanhalah for doing this to me. I could have judged and criticized this girl for her wayward thinking and odd behaviors. But I recognized that that would keep me on a dark road of anger and resentment, devoid of any shining sun and beautiful scenery.
If Hashem placed me in this situation, which required me to work with this girl, then perhaps He wanted something from me. I had to learn how to explain things over and over again with patience. I had to learn tolerance for her emotional incapacities. And I had to learn to let go of the outcome. Perhaps that year Hashem didn’t want this project to be a smashing success. But He wanted me to work on my middos.
This is one of the deeper things אנטיגנוס comes to teach us. Do good without expectation of reward: when focusing on the process – which for me was working with this girl and making sure she didn’t feel put down because of her deficiencies even if the desired results wouldn’t follow – the right frame of mind that one comes to when working for pure motives becomes its own reward.
My roads may be winding and twisty. They can be dark and scary, with roadblocks of all kinds. Bur I ask Hashem to please help me to be like the servant who wants to serve Him in order to go through the process of bettering myself.
After all, what do I know about what’s really best for me? But doing His Will will undoubtedly bring me to bright and airy roads.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Do You Know Who You Are?

Do you remember that girl in your class who was really pretty, whose hair was always perfect? Did you compare yourself to her and feel ugly? How about the girl who always had a witty response? Did being around her make you feel as if you were just so dull?  Do you still find yourself thinking like that? Does your super-clean sister-in-law make you feel like an incompetent housekeeper or your stay-at-home neighbor make you feel like an incompetent mother? Do you ever feel that you are boring, that you always mess things up, that you’re not so smart or talented or just a complete failure?
Guess what? You are normal. Probably many of the people you think are better than you look at others and also feel inferior in some way. It’s almost as if this is a mandatory qualification for being a woman.
I know a tenth grader who is on top of her class academically. She has a wonderful personality and lots of friends, and her middos are extolled by many of her teachers. Yet when I asked her why a teen who has everything going for her would have low self-esteem, she looked at me as if I was crazy and answered, “Isn’t it obvious why?”
Low self-esteem doesn’t stay behind in a classroom. If it isn’t worked on, it follows us straight into the workforce, marriage and motherhood.  But no matter our stage in life, it’s never too late to work on improving the way we feel about ourselves.
In פרקי אבות, פרק ב: משנה ו, it says, “.ולא הבישן לומד” What does this mean? One can’t learn because of embarrassment? Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that if a person has a question in learning but won’t ask because he feels that he should know it, or he must not be smart because no one else has this question, then he loses out on very important learning opportunities. How can a person learn if he always feels embarrassed? This is not a good embarrassment, nor is it humbleness. It comes from feeling bad about one’s self and the repercussions are not positive.
With these kinds of feelings it is hard to achieve anything. How can you accomplish if you always feel that if your ideas had merit someone else would have come up with them or that you’re just not capable of carrying them out? Nowhere in the Torah does it say that you should feel incompetent or unqualified. And as the Mishnah says, your shame will stop you from understanding, learning and accomplishing.
There is one kind of embarrassment that is praiseworthy. This comes from anivus, true humbleness, like Moshe Rabbeinu displayed. We all know that Moshe Rabbeinu was an ענו מכל אדם. Yet, Moshe was the leader of Klal Yisrael. He knew his strengths and used them for עבודת השם.
We are all mirrors reflecting tiny pieces of Hashem’s various middos. Therefore, we must be careful to acknowledge when a talent exists within us. It is not egotistical to know that you are a great organizer, a wonderful listener, a talented party planner or a very patient, loving mother. Rather, realize that you are a reflection of Hashem’s attributes. When we can acknowledge that the strengths we have are from Hashem and we are ready to use them for our own growth or for the sake of those around us, then we are acting in a G-dly way. This is a positive kind of “embarrassment.”
So let’s say you are the typical mother and wife fighting those nasty voices in your head telling you that you aren’t good, that you are inferior to others. You don’t know how to handle this child’s issue. You aren’t sure that you are showing enough support to your husband. And maybe in general you are doing something wrong because your children almost never show responsibility. What are practical applications to help you like yourself?
You can know that like every living person, you are perfectly imperfect. Your flaws were given to you by Hashem, Who wrapped them all up together in a box for your life’s journey. (You can imagine what color your box is, the size of the box and whether it has a bow or not.)
Accept your limitations – they are from Hashem. But don’t become complacent about them. Work on them with Hashem. Ask Him to help you make changes to turn your negatives into positives. And don’t forget to recognize your strengths. Find them. Remind yourself every day about the qualities that are specific to you.
Talk back to your negative voices. You can tell them, “Listen here, Voice, I know you are trying to making me feel bad about my flaws. But guess what?  Everyone has flaws. I also have strengths. That’s what I am trying to focus on. So you can keep telling me that I am not good enough, but I will keep telling you about all my strong points.”
Consider the following quote: “It’s not what you are that is holding you back, but rather, what you think you are not.”
Learn what you are so that you can use your kochos fully.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Friendships Can Make all the Difference

Do you remember how the years of high school can be filled with social stigma and social anxiety? Social circles and social acceptance are of utmost importance. I remember girls who wouldn’t walk down the hall to get a drink without a friend, as others might view them as being friendless. That was not a risk worth taking. Are you nodding along, even as you laugh at how silly this sounds?

The truth is, friendship really is important. Friends are influential – for the good and for the bad. A friend can help a person find herself – who she is and who she wants to become. A friend can encourage and inspire. A good friend continues to fill this role as one moves on through the various stages of life.

In the first perek of Pirkei Avos, the sixth mishnah tells us: “קנה לך חבר” – be mindful of who your friends are. Make sure that you are forming relationships that will help you grow and change, relationships that will allow you to learn and teach, relationships that will make you feel good about yourself so that you can be a positive, productive person.

A negative friendship will put you on a downward spiral. You might find yourself doing things you don’t really feel comfortable doing, going places you never went before, wearing clothing that are not up to your tznius standards or letting your children do things that are not really on par with your chinuch standards.  In such a friendship, you might feel anxious, confused and down on yourself, and when you stop to think about it, you might feel that the things you are busy with are not really “you.”

A positive friendship, on the other hand, can help bring out your ma’alos and strengths. Such a friendship engenders good feelings and pushes you to want to be a better “you.” In the company of a good friend, it is often easier to make the right decisions.

On the first day of my year in sixth grade, a new girl walked into the classroom, and we all realized we had a star in our class. I felt so lucky that she chose me to be her friend – her best friend. My new friend brought out my fun side, as well as the introspective side of me. As the years went by, and this girl continued to impress our teachers and amaze the principals, I really felt lucky that she was my very best friend. I had my social standing with a friend who was helping me grow.

Eventually we grew apart. But I can look back and see how our friendship helped mold me as a person. Years later, already married with children, I became acquainted with a woman in my town. Over time and with shared experiences, we eventually became close friends. I know how lucky I am for the friendship that we have. My friend is there for me whenever I need her. We share chinuch concerns and ideas – both practical and theoretical – and support each other when making difficult decisions. She is there for me when I am down because of a parent or sibling’s yahrtzeit; she helps me to get to the crux of what I’m experiencing so that I can move on. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses; we build on the strengths and encourage through the weaknesses.

 And so I try to use my friendships for growth, and I try to be a friend who can inspire growth.  I hope I am passing down to my children the lesson of having a good friend and of being a good friend.  I hope that my parents are looking down and having nachas from the friends I have, the friend I am and the friend I have taught my children to be.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.