“A million dreams are keeping me awake…”
Those were the lyrics I heard drifting from a speaker the other day—an aspirational song about someone literally being kept away by their dreams.
It got me thinking. (Such lofty, whimsical rhetoric can do that to you sometimes!) What are my dreams? Which of my goals are so ambitious, so pressing, so mind-blowing, that they literally keep me awake at night?
None. At least not at that moment.
Yes, it was kind of depressing. Am I really so boring that I possess no starry-eyed visions to share with the world?
I don’t know.
Today’s climate does seem to push this sort of expectation. “Chase your dreams!” “Realize your truth!” and other such grandiose calls for thinking big are commonplace. It seems as if it’s no longer acceptable to be simple, plain, or ordinary. If you’re not the next big thing, it would seem, you’re a failure.
Think big or go home. The iPhone wasn’t made by thinking small, so why suffice for anything less?
Is that true?
It’s one of the more perplexing conversations in the Torah
Running after a stray sheep, Moses encounters a marvelous sight: a bush that burns yet is not consumed. G‑d calls out to him from the bush, and the lonely shepherd in the Midianite pasture is tasked with a mission as large as history itself. He is to tell the Jews that their day of salvation has arrived and thereafter confront Pharaoh, the supreme leader of the civilized world, and demand that he free the Jews.1
Here’s where things get awkward.
“Who am I to go tell the Jews that? They won’t believe me?!” Moses cries.
“I’ll be with you,” G‑d replies.
“But I’m not a man of words, I have a speech impediment! Send someone else, please!” Moses presses on.
G‑d gets angry. “And who do you think grants people the power of words? It is I, G‑d! Go, and I’ll be with you! Besides, your brother Aaron will accompany you and help you, so it’ll work out.”2
And so, off goes Moses, and as they say, the rest is history.
Now, this is a strange conversation at best. One can’t help but wonder, what was Moses thinking? Did he really think that a speech impediment would get in the way if G‑d Himself was directly tasking him with the job? If G‑d would appear to you in a burning bush, would your subpar grammar or your lack of articulation hold you back? Of course not!
So what was Moses thinking?
From a Different World
Kabbalah3 explains that Moses possessed a unique soul that stemmed from a world entirely unlike our own. The name of this world is Tohu, generally translated as “chaos.” It’s a world where the G‑dly energy is so intense and singularly brilliant it cannot be contained or tempered. In that world, there is what the Kabbalistic masters call “an abundance of light and a dearth of containers.”
A simple example of this phenomenon is the brilliant professor who couldn’t button his shirt straight. Or the genius scientist who couldn’t be bothered to spell things properly. These are incredible minds where the “light” of their intellect shines so intensely, it is hard to contain in simple boxes like symmetrical garment buttons or proper spelling.
By contrast, the soul of the average person who isn’t Moses stems from a world called Tikun, generally translated as “discipline.” This is a world where the energy is not as intense and the light not as bright, for it is tempered and disciplined by the protocols of its containers. For example, it is representative of the more ordinary person who somehow manages to button her shirt straight, for though she is indeed intelligent and her mind is filled with great ideas, it is contained enough so as not to hamper her chances at championing the button challenge.
It is a world the Kabbalists describe as one with “an abundance of containers and a dearth of light.”
While Tohu is an intense and lofty world, the world of Tikun is a more practical one, for it is only when intense energy is tempered and balanced that real results happen. So long as the energy is too intense to be contained, well, then, it’s simply a powerful force running amok, with no concrete outcome or accomplishments to show for itself.
Our world is the world of Tikun, and G‑d favors Tikun over Tohu. For although Tohu is a great place to be, there’s little to show for it. The practical results are to be found in Tikun—and results are everything. The Kabbalists called it, “The end is rooted in the beginning.”
There Are No Words
Kabbalah teaches us that only two souls descended from Tohu to this world, and for very specific reasons—to literally save the world. One was Enoch, who “walked with G‑d,”4 and without whom the entire world, including Noah, would have perished in the flood. The other soul was Moses, dispatched to this terrestrial landscape to free the Jewish people and usher them to the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Precisely because Moses possessed a soul so lofty and intense, his speech was impaired. As an ambassador of Tohu, the energy of his soul was so great, so impossibly bright, it could not be contained in fluid, articulate speech. As one from a world with an “abundance of light and a dearth of containers,” Moses’ capacity of speech was just another “container” which, relative to the light of his soul, was in the “dearth” column.
Moses was well aware of the limits his own greatness presented. He was aware that as one stemming from such an intense world of energy and light, practical results were harder to come by. Moses knew that although the average soul is from a far more banal place and shines with far less intensity, the proof is in the pudding—they get the job done.
And that’s why he told G‑d, “My speech is impaired; send someone else.” In other words, “My soul is trapped in its own intensity, thus I am not an appropriate candidate to get the job done. Send someone else, a ‘regular’ Tikun-type soul that is more action-oriented, so that whatever needs to be carried through will indeed cross the finish line!”
It was Moses’ remarkable humility and self-awareness that compelled him to resist G‑d’s request and point to other, more suitable candidates to fill his shoes.
It’s All about Results
Ultimately, G‑d’s response that Moses should indeed go ahead, explains that after all is said and done, G‑d has the power to make a Tohu-like soul do Tikun-like things.
But there’s much to be learned from Moses’ initial approach.
As much as Moses recognized how lofty and aspirational his soul was, he felt that the one to put the Exodus in motion and write the course of history should be someone more ordinary and action-oriented.
That’s quite some realization!
There are people with high-level positions making decisions that impact entire countries. Executives wave corporate wands with decisions that make the difference of millions of dollars. Entrepreneurs innovate things that change lives. Nonprofits take on projects that save entire communities.
That there are people with such big dreams and such large impact is great. But without the “ordinary” people who carry out those grandiose plans, they would amount to nothing. The big policy decisions and the groundbreaking innovations would get stuck in the fancy meeting rooms in which they were concocted or signed, yet another burst of energy that may have been lofty and intense, but with nary a container to carry it through.
When lots of regular people do simple, ordinary things—that is when change happens.
And that is why, if you’re feeling less-than because you haven’t a dream—let alone a million of them—keeping you awake at night, you really shouldn’t be bothered. Aspirations are great, and you probably really do have them anyway, but perhaps more important than dreaming big is actually doing, even if it’s small. Don’t feel any less worthy because you’re not the next big thing, because in reality you are—by dint of the practical things you do every day.
Results. They’re the true magic.
|1.||Exodus, ch. 3.|
|3.||Torah Ohr, Shemot 51d-52c.|