Amy was one of my first clients, she was very angry, and it was easy to understand why. She was in her mid-forties, desperately wanted to marry and have kids, and had just been dumped by the man she thought she was going to marry after a two year relationship. Now she was sitting across the table from me at Starbucks with nothing to show for it but a broken heart filled with hopelessness and despair.
I felt sympathy for Amy as I sat with her that day, but as I listened and watched the tears roll down her cheeks, an even stronger feeling welled up inside of me. I realized that in spite of the way things appeared, she was actually standing on the brink of an incredible opportunity. Right then and there, in the midst of her pain, was a chance for her to learn a vitally important lesson. In fact, until she learned that lesson I feared she would never find the happiness she sought in marriage, even if she landed the man of her dreams. As I sat there I was struck by the irony of the situation: If only she could see what was right in front of her nose she’d be overwhelmed with gratitude. But instead, all she could focus on was where she wanted to be – and she was miserable.
As we journey through life, we can focus on where we are or where we want to be. On physical journeys, it usually makes sense to focus on the destination since we already know the point of departure. But when it comes to our spiritual “life” journey, it’s a good idea to know where we’re going, but preoccupation with our destination is a sure-fire way to make sure we lose sight of the path that will take us there.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham embarks on both an expedition to the Land of Canaan, and a journey of personal discovery and growth that will ultimately develop him into the father of a nation and the founder of a historic 4000 year mission to perfect the world. Oddly, the statement that inaugurates this journey seems to focus way too much on his point of origin, while completely ignoring the identity of his destination.
“Go from your land and from your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12:1)
The late Slonimer Rebbe, in his Torah commentary known as Nesivos Shalom, gleans an important life lesson from the unusual focus of this verse: We each have a unique mission to accomplish during our time here on earth, and in order to accomplish it, we are given a “tool chest” of distinctive qualities and circumstances. Regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, strengths or weaknesses, opportunities or challenges, the tailor-made contents of our “tool chest” are molded, for the most part, by our culture (“Land”), our DNA (“birthplace”) and our parental role models (“father’s house”).
Abraham couldn’t possibly recognize the destination of his spiritual journey until he reached it. Nobody can. But by facing up to the reality of his life in the present – the products of his land, birthplace and home – he could put himself on the path that would get him there. This is why he was told to “go from” his land, birthplace and home as opposed to being told to “leave” them. Rather than turning his back on them, he needed to face them and utilize them for the good, because only they could provide him with what he needed to achieve his potential.
Amy’s story speaks to me because it’s my story. It’s so easy for me to fixate on how I think my life should be, but the reality is that my life is already exactly as it should be. The present moment, regardless of how difficult or hopeless it may seem, contains all that I need. My challenge is to embrace it, not flee from it. I may be clear about what I want out of life, but I have absolutely no idea what the future will bring. What I do know is that the distance between what is and what I think should be can be measured in the amount of pain that I feel as I go through my day. But worse than that, whenever I worry about the future, I’m not only almost always off the mark, but I lose the only thing I really ever have: the opportunity that stands before me right now.
“Anyone who sets his eyes upon what isn’t his; not only is what he seeks not given to him, but what he already has is taken away.” Talmud, Sota 9a