Rashaan Salaam, a former running back who won the Heisman Trophy in 1994, was found dead [last week] in Colorado. He was 42. Rashaan Salaam was a star athlete in high school at La Jolla Country Day School and a highly sought-after college football recruit. He went on to play for the University of Colorado, where he won the Heisman. “Rashaan will be remembered as one of the greatest football players to ever wear a Buffs uniform, and his 1994 Heisman Trophy brought great prestige and honor to the university,” Philip P. DiStefano, the chancellor of the University of Colorado, said in a statement. Mr. Salaam was a first-round selection in the 1995 N.F.L. draft by the Chicago Bears, with whom he played three seasons. He became the youngest N.F.L. player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
But his promising professional career was cut short by injuries, fumbles and marijuana use, which he reflected on in an interview with The Chicago Tribune. “I had no discipline,” Mr. Salaam told The Tribune in 2012. “I had all the talent in the world, you know, great body, great genes. But I had no work ethic, and I had no discipline. The better you get, the harder you have to work. The better I got, the lazier I got.” (By Liam Stack, New York Times, December 6, 2016.)
The recognition by Mr. Salaam that one’s personal development demands ongoing hard work, especially when you’re endowed with talents, is a wake-up call for us all. His untimely death cut short great unactualized potential. Where would science be today if Newton, DaVinci, and Einstein not worked tirelessly to actualize their contributions? Where would the Jewish world be today if our great prophets, sages and rabbis were not unswervingly committed to Torah study, dikduk hamitzvos, chesed and personal growth? (See Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Mesillas Yesharim, based on Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair’s steps for measured personal growth in Avodah Zorah 20b.)
How can one learn to integrate the intellectual awareness of what one needs to accomplish in their professional and personal lives and actually overcome the daily challenges confronting him? Judaism is keenly aware of the challenge, importance and necessity of life-long, disciplined personal growth. This is in fact a key theme in this week’s Parshas Vayishlich, understood from the encounter between Yaakov Avinu and the archangel of his brother Eisav. Rabbi Yissacher Frand (on Torah.org) explains:
The Torah quotes an interesting dialogue between Yaakov and the Angel. The Angel asked to be released because it was morning and he had to go back to heaven. Yaakov responded that he would not release the Angel until he gave Yaakov a blessing. The Angel asked Yaakov what his name was and, when Yaakov answered, then told him that he would no longer be known as Yaakov, he would from here on be called Yisrael. Then Yaakov turned the tables, and asked the Angel what his name was. The Angel responded, “Why are you asking me what my name is?…” Rashi explains the Angel’s response as, “We Angels have no set names — our names are dependent on the current mission on which we are being sent.”
I once heard a very relevant interpretation of this dialogue from Rav Chaim Dov Keller, the Rosh Yeshiva in Telshe of Chicago. The name of something defines it. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch compares the Hebrew word for ‘name’ (shem) with the Hebrew word for ‘there’ (sham). A name defines an object. It tells us where it is and of what its essence consists. Yaakov told the Angel, “We have had a battle and I know that this will be an ongoing battle. Explain your essence to me. What are you all about? Let me know your ‘name…’”
The Angel’s answer to this question was “It does not help to know my name, because I am not just one thing that you will have to conquer.” The Angel (who is known as the Satan, Yetzer Hara) alluded to the fact that throughout the generations he would be changing… All the tests and all the philosophies and all the battles that we have had to fight throughout the generations are embodied in this one Angel. He could in fact not define his essence for Yaakov because the nature of his essence (which represents our struggle with Eisav) keeps changing. Sometimes it pushes us from one direction, sometimes it pushes us from the opposite direction. It is always a different fight.
This is the archangel of Eisav. “It does not help for me to tell you my name. There is no battle plan. I cannot tell you this is who I am because I am ever changing…” “May you remove the Satan from before us and from behind us” [Evening Prayer Liturgy]. Sometimes the Satan steps in front of us and prevents us from doing mitzvos. Sometimes the Satan appears in back of us and pushes us to do mitzvos. That can also be the Satan. He has no strict definition as to who he is. He does not fit into easy definitions. He has no ‘name’. The battle with the Satan which is the battle with the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination), which is the battle with the archangel of Eisav, is an ever changing battle.
The quest and achievement of great personal growth is within everyone’s reach. It does not need to be through dramatic or overbearing efforts, rather by taking small daily steps. Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovitz teaches the importance of taking charge of one’s life. It is essential to make a plan to reach one’s goals. And then, start working. The goal is to strive for shleimus; perfection of our character. To start take a small step and you’re on your way. You’ve taken responsibility for your life.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe describes the process (Aley Shur Vol. II, Page 189): “It is normal for a person who wishes to rectify the world to think of a grand method that encompasses great breadth, or of a global organization for peace or justice. Someone who wishes to mend himself also thinks of great and impressive actions of kindness or holiness. What completion can arise from small deeds, which barely require effort to accomplish?
Yet, the truth is that a person is built specifically from small deeds. The practice of medicine serves to illustrate the point: The quantity of the active ingredient in a given medicine is tiny, perhaps one milligram. If the medicine would contain a larger amount of this ingredient, it would cause someone damage rather than heal him. He might even die… This is the first principle of working on oneself: by no means should the method of labor be burdensome.”
Despite the tremendous importance of devoting one’s entire life to personal growth, no person should feel discouraged if he has failed to achieve any self-improvement until today. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (Introduction to T’nuat HaMussar, p. 316) teaches that it is never too late to begin working on one’s self – or to continue striving to improve, even if one has failed in past attempts:
Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once went to a shoemaker to have his shoes repaired. The hour was late and darkness had already descended. Noticing that the candle was burning out, the rabbi realized that the shoemaker might have trouble repairing the shoes in the dim light, and suggested that perhaps the work could wait till the next day. “Don’t worry,’ replied the shoemaker, “I can work very well by candlelight. As long as the candle burns, it is still possible to fix the shoes.”
Rabbi Yisroel immediately recognized the deep significance of the shoemaker’s words, and repeated them over and over. As long as the candle burned, he could repair what was broken. Likewise, as long as the spark of life still flickers in a person, that person can still repair his ways. One should never despair.
Click here for the Morasha Syllabus shiur on Judaism and Personal Growth I: Scaling the Internal Alps
Click here for the Morasha Syllabus shiur on Judaism and Personal Growth II: Making it Happen