16 Jan 2015

Va’era 5775: Doing Time

“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“The effort I invest is great, but I dont consider it a sacrifice. Its true that Ive trained every day practically since the age of six and that I make big demands of myself.” 

— Raphael Nadal

 And Moshe was eighty years old, and Aharon was eighty-three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh.” (7:7)

The courage, conviction and strength that is necessary in order to stand before an all-powerful king, and insist with threat and force that he set all of his slave labourers free, does not come easily. Great people who accomplish exceptional things are not born that way. Raw talent may certainly be a biological gift, but without cultivating and honing it consistently over time, it remains raw, and rarely, if ever,  yields exceptional results.

The verse quoted above which tells us the ages of Moshe and Aharon when they spoke to Pharaoh indicates how long they had lived and learned before assuming this monumental task. At a point in life when most of us are well into retirement, Moshe and Aharon were just getting started on the project that would define their lives and set them apart as two of our greatest leaders in history.

It was a charge of epic proportions. Even with all of G-d’s blessings and support, Moshe and Aharon had to be ready to execute their crucial role. They had to have put in the hours of learning and practice necessary to stand before the great power of Egypt in order to be capable of delivering a nation into freedom. This does not suggest, of course, that our greatest work cannot happen before we are twenty years into retirement. It does highlight, however, the importance of prerequisite work that must take place prior to the achievement.

When we see a virtuoso violinist effortlessly play exquisite pieces, or a great tennis player hit impossible shots with amazing dexterity, or a great Torah scholar express extraordinary knowledge with clarity and grace, it is often rooted in innate talent, but it is never without thousands of hours of work and development. We can often make the mistake of seeing exceptional people do remarkable things and think that we could never come close to such achievements. When we think that way, we artificially limit ourselves and we forget that mastery does not come to anyone on a silver platter. Years of diligence, patience, consistency, study, training and repetition, are all essential ingredients in our efforts to meet our greatest potentials.

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner (1906-1980), dean of the Chayim Berlin Yeshivah in Brooklyn, New York highlighted the importance if this ideal in a touching letter[1] to a student who, in despair, felt that the tedious struggles aimed at mastery would never bear fruit:

There is a sickly and negative behaviour we have when addressing our great ones. We look only at the final stages of their levels. We tell about their completeness and we leave out the inner-struggles…our discussions about the great ones leaves the impression that they left the hands of their Creator fully formed! Everyone speaks of the purity of the Hafets Hayim’s speech. But who knows about the struggles, failures, and setbacks he faced along the way?! And he is one example among thousands…

 In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about studies which indicate that extraordinarily successful people who are masters of a craft put in at least 10,000 hours of regular practice in order to be at the very top of their fields.


The idea that excellence at a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled upon what they believe is the magic number for such expertise: ten-thousand hours…In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.

 We can tell ourselves that we don’t have the ability, talent or strength to achieve greatly. But abilities can be perfected, talent can be sharpened and strength can be developed. It takes time and persistence. When we commit to the process, take every step along the way, and put in concerted and regular efforts, we bring into our grasp levels of achievement that we might never have imagined we could attain. We leave mediocrity and arrive at excellence.


Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] Pahad Yitzhak, Igerot uMikhtabim, 128