Venturing from the shallow end of Jewish life
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — When I was a child attending summer camp, I dreaded pool days. I did not know how to swim and hated being forced in the water. I always made sure to stay in the shallow end of the pool and no amount of coaxing would entice me to enter the deep end.
One day during swimming lessons we were told to float on our backs. I lined myself up in such a way that I would stay in the shallow part of the pool and I began to float. The swimming instructor told me to begin a back stroke. I complied and slowly began to move. He continued to encourage me before finally telling me to stop. “Look where you are,” he said. I turned over and noticed that I had backstroked all the way over to the deep end, and I had not sunk or drowned. From that day on I was never afraid of the deep end again.
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale spent most of his life promoting the power of positive thinking. You can accomplish whatever you set out to do, he claimed, if you have the right attitude.
The same is true of negative thinking. If you believe you cannot accomplish something, you have already defeated yourself.
The Torah tells us that God’s Instruction “is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens…Neither is it beyond the sea.” (Deut. 30:11-13) Rather, “the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 11:14) The commentator Malechet Machshevet notes that in this last verse the Torah reverses the usual order of things. Normally, one thinks about something in one’s heart before saying it. Here the Torah perplexingly says that first we should “say” something and only afterwards think about it.
Malechet Machshevet suggests that the Torah proposes this order because it is talking about performing mitzvot. When it comes to performing mitzvot, we should first do them and only afterwards think about them. He adds that when it comes to mitzvot this is especially important because so many people look at performing mitzvot as a daunting, impossible, or difficult task. When they approach mitzvot with this attitude, their failure to perform them becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. They have already convinced themselves that they can’t.
I can vouch for the veracity of Melechet Machshevet’s opinion. I cannot even begin to count the number of Jews who have told me they don’t want to keep kosher because it is too difficult or expensive, or Shabbat and holidays because they are too restrictive. When one sees Jewish observance as a hardship rather than a joy, one is less likely to give it a try. Such is the power of negative thinking.
While it is easier to stay in the shallow end of Jewish life, it is not nearly as fulfilling or productive as when one ventures into its depths. When it comes to performing mitzvot, it is better to jump in first and think about it later!
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego