Our Goals Shape Us
You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it — the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.” —Deuteronomy 32:52
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we find God instructing Moses to ascend a mountain so that he may look out upon the Promised Land from a distance before his death.
Moses, whom the Torah describes as our ultimate prophet, who helped lead us out of slavery in Egypt and led us through the desert for 40 years to the edge of the Promised Land, was not going to be permitted to enter.
Parshat Haazinu: Deuteronomy 32:1-52; (Shabbat Shuva) Hosea 14:2-10, Micah 7:18-20, Joel 2:15-27.
I can only imagine the sense of frustration and disappointment that Moses must have been feeling in that moment. To have come so close to attaining your ultimate goal and then to not be able to see it through could be nothing short of maddening. I would have been angry. I would likely have acted out. I would have viewed myself as a failure. I certainly would have questioned God’s decision.
We’ve all experienced disappointment and setbacks in our lives in some form or another. Part of life is that you can’t always get what you want. How do we deal with disappointment? What is it to work really hard for something and then to come up just short?
British poet Alexander Pope once wrote: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
What are our expectations for our lives? Assuming we’re even remotely ambitious, Pope would argue that we’re primed to be disappointed at some point or another. The key, however, is to not let the potential for disappointment keep you from acting in the first place.
If you knew ahead of time that you would be unable to finish a particular task, would you do as much of it as you could, as Moses did, or would you resign yourself to defeat and give up?
Our tradition makes clear that like Moses, we are meant to embrace the work itself, and that even if we aren’t sure if we’ll be able to reach our ultimate goals, that we still need to try.
We learn in the Mishnah, in the section dealing with the Ethics of Our Ancestors: “It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” — Avot 2:21
While having end goals is important, the reality is that it is not the end that is truly transformative, but rather the work you do to try to get there.
Set lofty goals. Work hard toward them. Recognize that we all face disappointment during our lives. Know that through your hard work, even if you don’t end up reaching whatever your particular end goal might be, you will be changed, and you will have meaningfully changed the world around you.
Dan Horwitz is the rabbi and founding director of The Well, a pluralistic Jewish community building, education and spirituality outreach initiative.