Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
We all admire great people and wish we could be great too. The truth is we can, and it's easier than we think. The secret to becoming great is simply to become ourselves! Each of us has our own unique potential for greatness which we tap into by discovering and using the special traits and unique talents that God gives every one of us.
In this week's Torah Portion, Jacob, our forefather, teaches his 12 sons the secret of greatness. As he's about to leave the world, he blesses them to reach greatness. But he doesn't simply give each of them the same blessing; rather, he carefully chooses his words and blesses each one according to his unique traits and abilities. The point is that we really can become great - not by copying anyone else's greatness, but by becoming the best and greatest indivitual we can possibly be.
In our story, a kid discovers the surprising secret of becoming great.
The word spread like wildfire. JJ Jackson, ex-captain of the school basketball team, had been drafted by the pros, and offered a huge contract! If the rest of the kids were excited by the news, Arnold Domby was absolutely inspired.
From the day he heard the news that the school had someone who reached heroic greatness, Arnold decided he would do it too. He became the world's #1 JJ fan, following his every game and studying his every move. He bought a lifetime supply of JJ T-shirts, wearing a different one each day, and was proud of the nickname 'JJ Junior' that they started to call him around the school.
When it was time for basketball try-outs, Arnold was of course first in line. After all, how could he ever reach his dream of becoming another JJ without first becoming star of the school team? The fact that the lean, muscular JJ was nearly seven feet tall, and the brainy, but not particularly athletic Arnold was only 5'4" - with a build more suited for basket-weaving than basketball - was a minor detail that Arnold was sure wouldn't stand in his way to greatness.
Well try-outs didn't exactly go the way Arnold had hoped they would. Things started going wrong when he bounced the ball too hard, hitting himself in the face and breaking his glasses. And things only went down hill from there. He still figured he'd make the team - after all he did manage to sink one of his ten free-throw shots through the hoop - almost.
The next day, Arnold was the first one at the gym to see the list of those who made the team. He read the list once, twice. His name had to be on it, but where? But soon enough he had to face the truth. He hadn't made the team, and even worse - he felt he had lost his chance to be great.
Arnold was still standing there with his head hanging lower than an ant's stomach when the door opened to the gym and in walked Mr. Landers, the basketball coach. Arnold couldn't hold himself back and ran up to the coach. "Coach, please! You've got to put me on the team!" he begged, tears welling up in the corner of his eyes.
Mr. Landers tried to explain to him how not everyone could make the team, and how he could always try out again next year, but nothing helped.
"Please coach, don't you understand? I've got to be like JJ. I've got to become great!"
The coach looked at Arnold in his JJ T-shirt, and nodded his head. "You know," he said, "you're a big JJ fan, aren't you?"
"Are you kidding? He's the greatest!" With that, the boy began rattling off from memory JJ's statistics from the whole season - points scored, rebounds, and even minutes played, rolled off his tongue as easily as if he was reciting his own telephone number.
"That's pretty impressive," the coach said shaking his head. "You told me you want to become great. Let me ask you something: what do you think makes JJ great?"
Arnold thought, "Well to start off with, he has a great shot, and he's really fast, and he's..."
"Whoa," the coach cut him off, "all that is true, but that's not what makes him great."
"Nope. What makes him great is that he realized which talents God gave him and worked hard to make the most of them, instead of wasting his time trying to become like anybody else."
Arnold didn't get it. The coach went on. "In case you don't know it, I was also his coach back then. I happen to know that JJ loved horses. Now what do you think would have become of him if he had decided he was going to become like one of those great jockeys he admired instead of playing basketball?"
Arnold couldn't help smiling at the thought of the big seven-footer sitting on a horse, his long legs nearly dangling on the ground. "Not too much, I guess."
"That's right. But JJ was smart enough to become who he was instead of trying to become who he wasn't. That's what makes him great, and you can do the same thing too."
Arnold's face brightened. "You mean you'll let me join the team?"
"Yes, but not the way you think. I wasn't only JJ's coach, I was also his math teacher, and I can tell you he could never in a million years knock off those facts and figures the way you just did. You have a real talent for numbers. How would you like to become the team statistician? It's a lot of work, you have to follow every game and compile everyone's stats, but I think you could do it, and not only that, but great at it. What do you say?"
Arnold thought about it. It wasn't what he had in mind. But he had to admit, he loved numbers and it would be a big challenge and a lot of fun, and ... he rubbed the bump on his head from where the ball hit him, probably less dangerous too. "I'll do it, coach!" he said, thus beginning his great career - of becoming himself.
Q. How did Arnold feel at first when he found out he couldn't play on the basketball team?
A. He felt bad, since he thought that being a basketball star like JJ was the only way he could become great.
Q. How did he feel after his talk with the coach?
A. He felt much better since he understood that he didn't have to be like JJ or anyone else to be great, but rather he only had to be himself.
Q. What was Coach Landers trying to tell Arnold?
A. He saw that Arnold wanted to be great but he was going about it the wrong way. He thought he had to become another JJ. The coach let him know that if he really wanted to be great, he would have to find his own greatness by discovering his own talents and traits and begin putting them to good use. Then he gave him a head start by pointing out Arnold's talent with numbers and offering the job of team statistician.
Q. How can we discover in what areas we have the potential to be great?
A. We can ask our parents, teacher or friends. Often people see things in us that we can't see ourselves. Another thing is to try to notice what types of things interest us over and over again, and what kind of things do we really enjoy doing, and don't mind working hard to accomplish.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Are some people naturally greater than others?
A. Some people may have more talent, fame or fortune than others, but that's not greatness. Real greatness means sincerely and diligently making the most of whatever abilities we do have and applying them to a truly valuable purpose such as helping others. For instance, a janitor in a sports stadium who sincerely does his job to the best of his abilities, and does it because he really want the spectators to enjoy a pleasant and clean environment. In the ultimate sense, he may be far greater than a superstar ball-player who earns more in one game than this janitor will earn in his lifetime, yet whose only motivation is to get rich, and only plays hard enough to get by.
Q. Our Sages teach us that each of us must look at the world as if it was created especially for us. What does this mean, and how can we apply it to our lives?
A. Each of us is, in a sense, our own world, and it is up to us to make the most of that world, and not fall into the mistake of comparing ourselves with others. Each person has his own 'setting', i.e. life circumstances, strengths and weaknesses, etc., custom designed by God for us to perfect ourselves and our own unique part of the cosmos. Live as if the world is yours - not to dominate or abuse, but to learn from and leave as a better place than when you arrived.