Reb Mendel Futerfas was a legendary Chabad chassid who spent a decade in Soviet prisons and labor camp gulags. He tells a story about how the prisoners would sit around at night and share from their past lives, their areas of interest and expertise, their talents and hobbies. One fellow prisoner was a circus entertainer before ending up in prison, and he was an expert tightrope walker. Reb Mendel was curious, always eager to learn a lesson in the service of G-d (as the Baal Shem Tov taught) from all life experiences.
Here are two takeaways Reb Mendel Futerfas took from the tightrope walkers tale:
1) It’s all about focus. More than about the feet, tightrope walking is about the eyes. Keeping focused, never wavering. Don’t blink. It’s all about the goal on the other side.
2) Takeaway #1 is why the hardest part of tightrope walking is turning around to come back. You can lose focus for that split second, and it’s all about staying focused. That in-between moment is the biggest challenge.
I’m sharing this story tonight at the last Shabbat of Fall semester 2019 for two reasons:
We’re coming up against a month-long winter break. A lot of us really need and crave that break. But keep this in mind: Some of you have all of break planned out and accounted for, but many others have a much looser break schedule. For much of the semester you kept focus and on track because you had milestones and obligations and things to look forward to. Semesters are filled with structure points. But for many students break is all unstructured. There’s no goal, no focus, nothing to keep you on track. Some of that is good. We call need downtime and time off. But too much downtime can become a negative, sometimes people fall apart without any structure or goals. So with all the break ahead, try to keep focus, have some goals, keep some milestones in place. Celebrate Shabbat in some fashion helps with that. Trying to do one special Mitzvah each day is another format. Don’t let days slip or melt away, find or create some meaning and value in each day of winter break.
It;s also just a few days after the terrible Jersey City attack on the Kosher store. As details emerge, it becomes clearer that this was no random act but an murderous act of anti-Semitism, that may even have been originally intended to go after the Jewish school next door. It is becoming apparent that the attackers were motivated by extreme anti-Semitism and anti-law-enforcement rhetoric. Much efforts have to go into dealing with such incitement and rhetoric, free-speech notwithstanding. But for us here now, let’s also not let this concern and uncertainty derail and distract our focus, our goals, our dreams and our efforts to make our corners of the world a better place.