The Torah’s Secret To Success
We all want to find the key to success. Whether at work, learning, in marriage, or parenting, we strive to attain our goals and reach new heights. People often can’t figure out why they’ve failed. They look at others who have succeeded, and think, ‘I’ve got everything he’s got. What’s his secret?’ In fact, sometimes those with greater natural ability are surpassed by those with far less. What is their secret?
It’s usually not what you’d expect. While there are many factors, one is purely psychological. All too often our greatest obstacle is our own mind. We may possess the innate ability to succeed, yet our mind creates psychological barriers. These can be more crippling than any physical shortcoming. We don’t believe in ourselves or abilities. We lack confidence and expect to fail. This false perception is very difficult to overcome.
This concept is addressed in this week’s Parsha. The pasuk tells us that a Jewish maid-servant does not go free in the same manner as a non-Jewish slave. The Torah doesn’t explain further, but Chazal interpret this to mean that unlike a non-Jewish slave who is freed if his master causes him to lose a limb or a tooth, a Jewish servant who suffers the same fate must nevertheless serve out his term. One wonders why the Torah says this cryptically. Instead of saying that she is merely different from true slaves, leaving Chazal to determine the difference, couldn’t the Torah have simply said, “You may not go free when you lose a limb”?
A great Rosh Yeshiva explained that the Torah is doing a great psychological chessed for jewish maid-servants. At first glance it seems like a punishment for jewish servants to remain with their masters even after losing a limb, while non-jewish slaves go free. Why is the jewish servant treated more harshly than the non-jew? The Torah is emphasizing that the rules in fact reflect the Jew’s superiority, not inferiority. True, they don’t go out early. But that’s not because they’re worse than non-jews. It’s because they aren’t slaves to begin with. They don’t have the same label, or the same servitude, so it makes perfect sense that they don’t go free in the same manner. That’s the deeper meaning of the pasuk–”You shall not go out like slaves do.” In other words, you are not a slave. Don’t view yourself as one.
The Torah is attesting to the value of psychological barriers. If we label ourselves slaves, we’ll be like slaves. We’ll think and behave sub-human. But if we break the barrier, remove the label, and view ourselves through the prism of independence and greatness, then we’ll be great. We are capable of achieving great heights. Our sole limitations come from within.
We learn this lesson from Moshe Rabeinu as well. Moshe was apprehensive when Hashem told him to ask Pharaoh to release B’nai Yisrael from Mitzrayim. He felt he could not properly communicate due to his speech impediment. Hashem responded that Aharon would join him and do the talking. It appears that Hashem agreed to Moshe’s assertion that his oration skills were insufficient. The obvious question is, why did Hashem tell Moshe to do the talking in the first place? Only after Moshe expressed his concern did Hashem tell him that Aharon would speak. What was Hashem’s plan had Moshe agreed to speak?
The answer may be that Moshe indeed had the ability to speak and be successful. But he doubted himself. Once he labeled himself as being impaired, he limited his own ability. At that point the task would be beyond him. Had he accepted, though, and believed he could do it, then Hashem would have enabled him to succeed.
This fundamental lesson is relevant to parents and Rebbeim. We tend to label children and place limitations on them. Not explicitly, of course. Most of us don’t deliberately tell a child he’s slow, or anger-prone, or fat. In fact, we don’t even realize it, but we subtly convey to kids our true feelings about their capabilities and shortcomings. And don’t kid yourself—they pick up on it. Every nuance.
When a child thinks his parent or Rebbi thinks he’s not very bright, or lazy, or not nice, he feels he’s been labeled. This reinforces his own insecurity, and thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other words, the child will “live up to the expectation” of failure.
If a positive message is sent, however, one that says, “I believe in you,” this can instill confidence and enable him to reach beyond his natural flaws and work toward success. The child has been given a label he’s proud of. But if he senses the people he looks up to have written him off as a failure, it can be a near-unbreakable barrier. A barrier we may not even realize we’ve created.
Parents and Rebbeim must be very careful to think about the messages they send. Sometimes a few words we blurt out thoughtlessly can do a great deal of damage. At times even failure to say something we should be saying can be detrimental. A great deal of effort is required to constantly keep up our guard, because every situation is unique. The bottom line is this: how we perceive ourselves and others is a key component in leading successful and productive lives.
Yaakov Margulies is a Bais Medrash Rebbi in Queens, NY. He is Director of the ACHI Mentoring Program. He counsels adults and teens. To subscribe to his free audio shiur, just email “Subscribe” to YMargulies@gmail.com.