Before the Wright Brothers finally got their plane o the ground, they had an experience similar to that of many geniuses and visionaries. People laughed at them and told them it could not be done, family members, neighbors, the press . . . lots of people got a chuckle out of their first attempts.
Fortunately there have always been these exceptional few whose powerful self-confidence could overcome all of the negativity being tossed their way.
Did you know, for example, that:
Early in his career, Jimi Hendrix and his band opened for the Monkees and got booed o of stage. And then dropped from the tour.
Did you know that Jack Kerouac tried to find a publisher for On the Road for six years.
Did you know that Elvis was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry in 1954, with the advice that he should stick to his day job as a truck driver.
Or that Winston Churchill failed the Royal Military entrance exams, twice.
Lucille Ball got sent home from acting school in New York because her teachers thought she was too shy, and would never make it as a performer.
Michael Jordan, a great name in basketball, was actually cut from his high school basketball team.
Beethoven’s music teacher once told him that he was a terrible composer.
(I apologize for the misogynist nature of this list of early failures, but all the “early failure lists” that I looked at are dominated by men!)
Admiring this type of person and their perseverance to succeed and overcome, Rabbi Sydney Greenberg observed that, “Great discoveries are usually made by people who are so passionately committed to their quest that they can withstand the discouragement of those who are convinced that the goals they seek are only illusions.”
And sometimes the voice is internal.
Vincent Van Gogh said, “If you hear a voice within you say „you cannot paint“, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
But, a little reality check here: most of us – 99% of us – are not Elvis, or a Winston, or a Vincent, or a Ludwig or a Lucy.
Rabbi Greenberg tells of a group of Portuguese sailors centuries ago who are more typical of folks like you and I. These Portuguese sailors ventured out to the Atlantic trying to prove that you could reach land crossing the ocean. Before they left the shore, they were already a little weak in the self confidence department.
Their families, friends and fellow sailors were no help, taunting them and saying they were crazy they wouldn’t find anything, except maybe sea monsters, and likely fall o the edge of the earth, which everyone knew was flat.
Well, the Portuguese sailors set sail. Legend has it that they headed westward for about 50 or maybe 100 miles, had a change of heart, came about, and raced back home, announcing to the world “There is nothing there!”
Now of course there was something there. We’re here.
They never really gave it a chance. Whether because they themselves never really believed it, or lacked courage, or had their ambitions thwarted by their doubting families and colleagues.
So they claimed, there’s nothing there!
So, for us regular folk who sometimes venture out and conclude that “there’s nothing there”; or “there’s not enough in here” . . . what’s getting in the way of our self-confidence to move forward?
And what does Rosh Hashanah have to say to us?
A great story from Torah is about such self confidence . . . what can enhance it, and what can devastate it.
It’s the story of the 12 Israelite scouts: The Jews are in the desert, getting ready to enter the Promised Land. And like any well-run military expedition, you can’t just blindly send your army into foreign territory without first getting familiar with the lay of the land and the enemy’s capabilities.
So Moses sends in 12 scouts to reconnoiter the Canaanite fortifications, their soldiers, the quality of the land for agriculture, and the nature of the terrain for military maneuvers.
Now comes the crisis in confidence: 10 of the 12 scouts come back with the most scary, negative and pessimistic report. And they freak out all of the other Israelites, convincing them it can’t be done. They say, “Their soldiers look like giants to us, and we must have looked like little insects to them; their fortifications are huge and impossible to penetrate. Sure, the land is flowing with milk and honey, but we’re never gonna get any of it. We’re just too small and weak!”
That’s what the majority of ten experienced. And the last two scouts? Joshua and Caleb? Well, they saw the very same places, the same fortifications, the same soldiers, and the same terrain.
But somehow they had enough confidence in themselves and in the Israelite people to come to an entirely di erent conclusion:
They said, “Yeah, they have a lot of soldiers; yes they have some fortified towns. But you know what? We can handle that. We’re strong enough. We’re prepared. We can beat them. And it doesn’t hurt the God’s on our side.”
10 scouts shaking in their boots – sandals -say, “No, we can’t do it.” And only 2 say, “Yes we can, it’s big and it’s scary. But we can do it.”
The rabbis look at this in a couple of interesting ways. And both are helpful to us here on Rosh Hashanah.
One interpretation is that the majority of 10 represent that large number of the naysayers we often encounter in life. It’s when most of your friends tell you, “No, that’s not a good idea.” And only a couple of intuitive, wise, and supportive friends who say, “Yeah, go for it.”
The ten scouts you know at work who say: “That idea of yours? That’s too expensive; it’s impractical; we’ve always done it the other way.”
And if you’re lucky, you’ll have those two scouts who support you and say, “There’s merit there. Good idea. Let’s go with it. You can do it!”
I think the Rabbis’ second interpretation – a more compelling one – is that the 12 scouts don’t really represent 12 other people; but rather they reflect the struggle of many voices and feelings inside of us. Our own internal dialogues and battles.
It’s a really brilliant recognition that it’s the majority of our internal voices that tell us “we cannot”. And it’s often the minority opinion that tells us, “yes we can”.
The Torah didn’t say that the 6 say yes, and 6 say no. The Torah recognizes that our self-doubt is often much more powerful than our confidence.
“Oh man, there are hundred reasons I shouldn’t be trying this. But there’s this one little voice, quieter than the rest, overwhelmed by the rest; but very persistent in my gut that’s saying, ‘I can accomplish this. I can manage this. I can overcome this. It’s the right thing to do.’”
To have the courage and confidence to:
Declare my love
Start my own business
The courage to end this bad relationship
The courage to work on this troubled relationship that’s redeemable.
The fortitude to recover from this illness
Pursue my dream
The confidence to seek the professional assistance I know I need
The courage to get in there and help my kid through this di cult time
Or the courage to back o , and give my child the room to figure this one out on his own
That lone little voice, that minority voice, won’t always be right. But there are times when listening to that little voice can make all the di erence.
Experts say that there are a lot of brilliant, famous and successful Broadway actors that are so nervous before each and every performance that– if you’ll pardon my saying so – they get so nauseous that they can’t help but throw up every night before going on stage.
Ten voices inside making them throw up. And then the two little voices that win the day, and get them to go on stage and give a brilliant performance.
What are the most powerful voices we carry inside throughout our lives? For better or for worse (hopefully more often for the better) our parents voices are loud and clear; and lifelong.
I was sitting in the activities room of a nursing home. A couple of ladies were helping each other put on some make up for a special occasion. One of them – 98 years old – looking a bit scared – said to her friend, “If my mother saw me doing this, she’d kill me!”
A voice from almost a century ago!
A parent’s voice. The voices that – perhaps more than any other – create and mold our sense of value, self worth, and our ability to navigate life.
I was at a training seminar this summer for rabbis and teachers who will be leading a monthly mentoring and discussion group for boys at our respective synagogues this year. I look forward to o ering a monthly group for our 9th and 10th graders.
At the closing evening session of this three day seminar, there were about 30 guys, sitting around the table in this conference room at the hotel.
We were asked – for those who wished-to share a time when we made our fathers proud, and a time when we felt we had disappointed our fathers. Powerful questions.
One of the older teachers, a guy about 60 years old, said, “My older brother was the golden child. It was always so obvious that my father had such high expectations for him. He was pushed, encouraged and expected to do important things in life.”
“I on the other hand, felt no sense of expectation from my father. I always felt that he thought very little of me because he never pushed me; he never got angry when I didn’t have excellent grades as he would my brother. He would just sort of verbally pat me on the head and smile.”
“And because he never seemed to have any expectations of me, I don’t think I ever really had them for myself.”
“Fifteen years ago, after my father died. For the first time, I shared my thoughts with my older brother. He looked absolutely floored and taken by surprise at my words.
“Did you really think that? That Dad thought very little of you? Let me tell you something. You know you were born prematurely. And back in those days, it was really touch and go. Dad was so scared. When you finally made it and it was clear you were going to be all right, Dad said that you were his miracle son. And he always felt that just the fact that you were alive was a beautiful and wonderful thing. And enough for him. He loved you so much, and was so scared of losing you, that he never wanted to push you or be angry. He was just so happy to have you in his life.”
“Finding that out has helped me change my life.”
That story is only marginally a thought for us as parents: The cautionary note that we be thoughtful, consistent and loving and clear in what we convey to our children.
But mostly, that man’s story is a lesson to us as children, whether we’re 18 or 99. One of the great tasks we all share is that we have to take responsibility for the voices and forces inside of us. Regardless of their origin. We need to take control and ownership for our internal voices.
It’s never too late.
These High Holidays, these Days of Awe, are rooted in a most magnificent and profound belief: That we human beings are capable of change.
That’s what these holidays are for.
Why go through this oft times painful introspection contrition unless we believe there is a chance to change ourselves, for the better?
If not, let’s skip these days and begin the year with the pure joy of Sukkot!
But Rosh Hashanah says; And the Torah declares; And the Rabbis teach; And we have learned;
-that we can change:
Whatever obstacle is in our way, whatever has been holding us back, can be over come.
So that we can find the courage to declare that new love
That we can find the confidence to create that new business That we can reach out and repair the seemingly irreparable relationship with our child
That we can find that illusive spiritual strength to physically heal That we can put on that make-up – even if it would have angered Mom in 1925.
That we can change our careers, even if it will anger our parents in 2013.
That we can have faith in ourselves, even if we believe that faith was damaged by our parents.
May these sacred days of 5774 be a season of giving heed to the healing, loving, bright and wise small still voice that – if we allow it –can guide us, from the center of our souls.