Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz
Message in a Bottle
For some time, I’ve had a concept I wanted to write about but no good way of explaining. Recently, as summer approached, the analogy hit me.
Years ago, when I was a camper, we had a Truth or Consequences night activity in which various campers went onstage to take part in the action. One activity that recurred year to year was the bottle walk. In those days, 16-ounce sodas came in tall glass bottles, not stubby plastic ones, and special cardboard carriers held eight of them at a shot.
The staffers would set up a maze of the bottles on stage and have a contestant try to memorize their placement. Then they would blindfold him, spin him around and gingerly guide him through the maze with verbal commands.
“Move your left foot slightly to the right.” “Take a small step with your right foot.” “Whoa! Wait… Wait… Oh that was close.”
What made it funnier for the spectators was that unbeknownst to the contestant, after he was blindfolded, another staffer silently removed the bottles and he was essentially walking through nothing yet being extremely careful and nervous.
After he passed a spot, the bottle would be put back behind him. Finally, they would put one right in front of him and tell him to take a step. He would knock it over and everyone would laugh as he thought he had gotten so close but he really had no clue what he’d been going through.
They eventually decided this game did not exemplify good middos and might cause embarrassment, so they put an end to the game. In the meantime, however, it helps me to frame the following concept:
In life, we never really know where we’ve started from or where we’re going. I mean, let’s say I do something nice for someone. Was it because I have worked on myself or because Hashem put it in me to be nice?
I might say that in the past I wasn’t so sensitive and now I’m more so, but I can’t let it go to my head because maybe that’s just the circumstances of my life kicking in and having an effect.
Chazal say, “If you’ve learned much Torah, don’t take credit for yourself for that is why you were created.” I’d always understood it to mean that we shouldn’t be prideful because we’re just doing our jobs.
In truth, there’s another dimension to it. Not only are we supposed to do it, but we are uniquely qualified to do the things at which we excel. Don’t pat yourself on the back and rest on your laurels, they’re telling us, because you were built for this.
Just as a horse is built for running, a person is built for growth. We are infused with capabilities and talents that we are supposed to use, with character traits that we’re supposed to refine, and with sensitivities which we are to enhance.
The thing is, just as the guy who was blindfolded couldn’t tell if he didn’t knock over a bottle or break some glass because he was just that good, or because the situation was arranged by another and he was set up NOT to fail, we don’t know whether we’re making progress.
We can follow growth cycles, see how we behave when the same challenging situation comes up in the future, but we can never really be sure how we’re doing. Far from being a bad thing, I think it’s a great kindness.
Imagine a person writes a message on a piece of paper and rolls it up into a scroll. He then places it in a bottle and puts the cork in tightly. He casts it into the sea and it begins its journey. It bobs up and down on the waves, riding high and then sinking low, and throughout it all, that message is protected. Nobody knows what it says until it reaches its destination and only then is it opened and read.
Life is like that message in a bottle. We don’t know exactly what we’re made of, so we need to keep working, keep striving, and keep heading towards the far shore. We don’t have time to be arrogant or full of ourselves because maybe the internal scroll says we’re capable of much more than we’ve done so far.
All we can do is make our best efforts and keep moving forward, not taking it easy because we think we’ve arrived. If we do that, we’ll be unstoppable.
Jonathan Gewirtz is an inspirational writer and speaker whose work has appeared in publications around the world. You can find him at www.facebook.com/RabbiGewirtz, and follow him on Instagram @RabbiGewirtz or Twitter @RabbiJGewirtz. He also operates JewishSpeechWriter.com, where you can order a custom-made speech for your next special occasion. Sign up for the Migdal Ohr, his weekly PDF Dvar Torah in English. E-mail info@JewishSpeechWriter.com and put Subscribe in the subject.