> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

It's Not Me

June 11, 2014 | by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

Breaking out of our self-imposed confinements.

Missed opportunities.

Life is full of them.

A good friend takes a trip. You are invited, but don't see the value. She comes back glowing, perhaps transformed. If only you had gone.

You meet someone for a date. Despite her qualities, she is SO not your type. You move on. Ten years later you meet again and wonder how you blew it.

Life is full of missed opportunities – many because we are rigid and set in our ways.

A neighbor has an idea for a business venture. There is risk involved. You have a steady, boring, middle income job. "It's just not me," you say. Down the road you read that the business has gone public. Fortunes are being made.

Life is full of missed opportunities – many because we are rigid, set in our ways, and cannot see outside the box. What a shame.

This morning I walked out of my house and there, in the garden, the tulips had opened up... all 24 of them.

That may not sound like earth-shattering news to you, but you don't understand. These are my tulips.

I grew up in the asphalt capital of the world – the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Every day, for 21 years, my feet traipsed the sidewalks of New York – to the subway, from the subway, to the library, synagogue, school, friends' apartments etc. Living mostly on either the 6th or 7th floors of high-rise buildings, I probably spent more time in elevators than most of the executives who work in the Empire State Building.

As a budding major leaguer, I honed my skills playing punch ball in concrete school yards, box baseball on the pavement, and stickball in the gutter. Put it this way – the poorest selling sign in my local True Value Hardware store was definitely, "Keep Off the Grass!"

The only thing really growing in my neighborhood was the crime statistics.

When I was eight years old, I accompanied my parents on a long July bus ride to a camp near New Paltz, New York to visit my brother, Izzy, who was 11. The sun was blazing hot that Sunday and the bus had no air conditioning, but it was 1961 and nobody seemed to care in those days.

We arrived around noon and found Izzy immediately. I remember being surprised that I was almost glad to see him. I guess two weeks of absence will do that to a ‘normal' sibling relationship. After the obligatory visitation to Izzy's bunk, where we made the drop – Bachman pretzels, Stella Doro cookies, grapes etc. – we ventured outside and toured the camp grounds. It was at that moment that I fell in love. There, in living color, in front of my own eyes, was The Baseball Field. With the exception of TV, it was the first time I had ever seen a baseball field, and my, was it beautiful.

The grass had been perfectly groomed and the bases, REAL ones, were tucked proudly into their positions. I broke free from Mommy's hand and gleefully ran into the outfield, imagining I was Mickey Mantle himself (the Mets were not born until a year later). My navy blue Keds were never so happy.

Soon I arrived at home plate. Dreaming I was facing Camilio Pasqual, I swung my mighty, imaginary Louisville and darted down the first base line. The infield dirt was rich and alien. My little legs carried me on to second and then third base. Making a wide turn around third, I headed for home. Seconds later, sliding into the plate I declared myself "Safe!" I'm not sure if anyone was watching, but it didn't matter. To a little city boy from Manhattan, this was my Field of Dreams, and I was loving every second.

I reunited with my folks on the wooden bleachers down the first baseline, and gazed out upon the baseball diamond before me. I looked up at my parents and uttered just three words, "Leave me here." At that moment, I could think of no place I would rather be. And to their loving credit, before leaving camp later that day, they marched into the office and registered me for the second half of the summer. 16 days later, I did, indeed, return.

As it turned out, for the next 13 years summer camp was really my only true experience and exposure to outdoor life.

When I got married, I moved to an apartment in a two-family house in Brooklyn. As the years wore on and I remained in Brooklyn (hardly the Mecca of horticulture), I nevertheless ventured by the homes and lawns of neighbors and marveled at their landscapes. How pretty they were. Of course, I didn't know a daffodil from a geranium; a spade from a screwdriver, or a weed from a petunia. All I knew was those yards sure looked nice.

It had taken over 30 years of married life, but live organisms were actually growing on my property.

The centerpiece was always the tulips; tall and firm, brightly colored, open and proud. But so ignorant was I, that for many years I didn't even know their name.

"Look at Gorgeous, no?" I would tell my wife.

It's not that I cared that much about nice flowers. Even my wife was not a flower aficionado. I liked ‘manly' stuff – sports, pastrami, and gadgets. Having my own tulips was never even on the radar screen. If they don't sell them in Radio Shack or Kosher Delight, they were "out of my range."

When I moved into my current home (yes, still in Brooklyn), I did acquire a fleck of agriculture in the front, measuring all of 6 by 12 feet. For the first few years, we basically ignored it. And it ignored us back. But last spring, in a sudden flit of reckless abandon, we plunked down $200 and hired Crescensio and his crew of Mexican nurserymen. Weeks later, real, authentic, bona fide green grass grew in the fleck, accompanied by a couple of ferns and some little flowers – impatiens, I think.

It had taken over 30 years of married life, but live organisms were actually growing on my property. Insignificant? Perhaps. But to me, coming from the asphalt jungle, it was quite a surprise.

When the New York City winter finally surrendered, Crescensio and his gardening band re-appeared one day, on my modest fleck. I watched them from my window working on my little parcel.

But the strangest sight came just days ago. I was standing on my front steps and there, in full Technicolor glory, tall and firm, open and proud, stood 24 breathtaking tulips.

I stood there for quite a few moments, not taking my eyes off them, just smiling and talking to myself.

"Those whatevers sure do look nice."

What I thought could never ever be, suddenly was.


* * *


What could be more ordinary than flowers growing on a lawn? Sure, tulips look pretty, but do they really matter in the greater scheme of life? Certainly not. But it wasn't the tulips that I saw that day. It was missed opportunities.

How many times had I seen friends who had the courage to try something new, learn something really difficult, or commit to a project even though it had a probable chance to fail?

How many challenges had I faced in my own lifetime that I automatically assumed were "out of my range"?

Far too often we dismiss openings, possibilities, and chances for greatness, thinking, "I wasn't brought up that way," or "I don't know how to dance," or "Who is going to listen to little ole me?" That's a formula for failure.

Don't let Torah study join your list of missed opportunities.

Shavuot is here. It is time to celebrate the seminal moment in our storied history, when God opened the heavens 3319 years ago, spoke to all the people, and gave us the ultimate gift – the Torah. But a celebration without a plan for the future is merely a memory of the past.

How many times have we thought, considered, or just imagined that we too could study some Torah? And how often have we brushed aside the notion with a swift, "I don't really know any Hebrew," or "I'll never be a scholar anyway," or "I'm just too old."

Hebrew is no longer a prerequisite and no one is too old. And it doesn't really matter how much we study – it could be 30 minutes a day or 10 minutes a week. The important thing is to start. And Shavuot is the perfect time to do it. Just don't let Torah study join your list of missed opportunities.

You may not know which end to hold a rake, and maybe you can't tell the difference between a rose from rhododendron, but that doesn't mean that someday...somehow...a city boy can't have tulips.

I know.

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