By: Yaakov Daniel
The story is told of two men, Reuven and Shimon, who lived in a 19th-century European shtetl. Times were challenging; with little to no income, no capital to invest in even the smallest of business ventures and no opportunity to borrow, they relied solely on charitable donations for food, clothing, and basic necessities.
The status quo seemed unlikely to ever improve—until one day, when a wealthy merchant passed through the area. Learning of their plight, he generously provided each of these down-and-outs with 10,000 rubles—a fortune, even for the affluent townsfolk!
Overjoyed by his turn of circumstance, Reuven was determined to make changes for the better. After setting aside 10 percent for charity, he bought food for his family, wood for the fireplace, and clothes to replace the rags they had worn, including outfits for Shabbat and festivals. He repaired the leaky roof and fixed new glass panes in the window frames. Creditors’ debts were paid off.
He allocated funds to ensure his children would receive a decent education. After tending to these expenses, he deposited some money into a bank and invested the remainder into a small enterprise. Over time and with great effort, Reuven went from an existence of barely being able to survive to one in which he was thriving. His business was successful, he was now wealthy, and he had become a respected figure in his own right.
Shimon, who received the same generous sum, was also elated. He broke the news to his family, and they immediately relocated to a much grander home. He lavished expensive gifts on his wife and children, treated them to luxuries, and splurged on a fancy horse and carriage, never missing an opportunity to parade himself around the town, flaunting his newfound wealth.
Time passed, and Reuven felt compelled to seek out the merchant to express his profound gratitude and return the 10,000 rubles. His benefactor refused his offer, assuring Reuven that seeing him make something of himself was repayment enough.
Around the same time, Shimon’s recklessness meant his fortune had been almost entirely depleted. His feeling of entitlement and chutzpah, however, had not and he requested additional funds from the same benefactor. Outraged, the latter responded that not only would no more be forthcoming, but he considered the 10,000 rubles a loan for which he now demanded reimbursement.
What does this story teach us?
The benefactor and his money are a metaphor for inspiration. No doubt we have all experienced occasions when an incident or experience leaves a distinct impression upon us. It could be an act of kindness, a beautiful sight in nature, a philosophical idea that we might not have considered before. All these instances have the potential to lead to a long-term alteration in our mindsets.
Often that inspiration, accompanied by the resolution to do something positive, still lingers the following day, but as time passes, our resolve languishes and leaves us with nothing more than a fleeting thought.
Perhaps the greatest cosmic moment of inspiration was the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Yet once the Torah was received, the light and sound effects disappeared. From then on, it was up to the people to discipline and immerse themselves in the study and practical application of this infinitely precious gift.
Fast forward to now. A hitherto unknown disease has forced society to rapidly adapt to a “new normal.”
The paramount, instinctive response has been self-preservation and to protect our loved ones as we are reminded how precious life is.
Notwithstanding the many challenges, there have also been positive outcomes, starting with the simplest things that we paid little attention to until now but to which we have suddenly become more attuned.
As once-busy roads became empty of noisy, fume-emitting traffic, the din was replaced with clean air and the sound of birdsong, normally drowned out by vehicular activity.
We’re perceiving quiet, subtle kindnesses or positive attributes in people we thought we already knew, but never on such a level as now. Many of us have developed greater self-awareness, allowing us to create a better relationship with ourselves and others.
For all the limitations caused by social distancing, it has prompted many to re-establish a closeness with those from whom they had become estranged.
Many of our purely material goals and lifestyles have been exposed as shallow and have given way to a more philosophical and spiritual approach.
The list is endless . . .
Meanwhile, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, cinemas, retail outlets, shopping malls, coffee shops, theaters and gyms—the places we often head to in order to distract ourselves from our realities—were obliged to indefinitely close their doors to patrons. Most are coming back to life, hopefully in a timely but safe manner, but during their closing a curious lesson has been learned. We saw that we may rely too heavily upon the many luxuries and social options available to us, which stifle potential growth within ourselves and our relationships.
Inspiration can be found in many places, but it can only carry us so far.
Just like the 10,000 rubles, the initial cash pile will inevitably run out. However, if our inspiration—our eureka moment—is “invested” and applied wisely toward a longer-term vision of self-betterment, the result can have an unimagined yet highly productive impact on our own lives and possibly the lives of others.
Did you connect with an old friend or family member during this time? Make sure to keep that conversation going even now that you have resumed grocery shopping.
Have you found yourself speaking to G‑d more often in the stillness of your home? Keep that conversation going as well, and maybe even take it to the synagogue when that is deemed safe.
Oh and those new cooking skills you’ve developed, to while away the time? Well, you can still work on them even if your local eatery is back open.
And most importantly: Did you reorganize your hierarchy of priorities? Why not jot it down and put it somewhere prominent so that you will not forget what you now see so clearly.
Ultimately, inspiration is only there at the start, often coming from external factors, but it is a gift only worth receiving if we internalize and apply it. One day, after having put forth much effort, we’ll look back and realize that this was the time when real change began.