As a child, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was once playing with his friends. One at a time, the boys attempted to climb the tall tree that stood in the yard. His mother watched as, one by one, each child reached about halfway up and suddenly fell down onto the grass. Only her son managed to get to the top of the tree.
"How is it that you succeeded where everyone else failed?" she asked in amazement.
"Because," answered the future leader, "As they climbed up, the other boys all looked down to see how high they were, and they got so scared that they fell. I, instead, just kept my eyes focused on the top of the tree and worked on getting there. So I did."
Hurricane Sandy left a path of destruction in its wake. Many are suffering. As we seek to comfort one another and rebuild, we also take a moment to reflect on the life lessons we can draw from this experience. The flow of emails and phone calls I’ve received this past week all carried a similar message – one of refocusing.
Indeed, focus is what keeps us on track. It is what helps us prioritize; it is a vital tool for growth.
Staying focused is not easy. The world is full of distractions; in fact, billions of dollars are spent daily in an effort to gain your attention. Staying focused ensures that you remain the boss, that you consistently set the tone in your life.
Granted, we all fall prey to the distractions that surround us. Perhaps, even against our will, we get swept up in society’s materialistic pursuits. But when tragedy strikes, it forces us to refocus; suddenly, nothing is taken for granted. We face the fragility of our human condition; we recognize that as great as our stability may appear to be, the unknown of our future is greater still.
For those of us forced to evacuate our homes, what came first to mind? Our families, our loved ones. With schools closed and our children home; public transport at a halt and work suspended, we suddenly had time to connect to one another and focus on our relationships.
Our forefather Abraham recognized the importance of focus like none other: Indeed, he stuck to his beliefs in a civilization where everyone ridiculed him. In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham names his son “Yitzchak,” from the word for “laughter” in Hebrew. In naming his son so, Abraham was imparting an important life lesson: Do not pay attention to the trends of society. Even if they try to sway you, even if you are mocked, laugh it off, take it lightly. And take the lead. We are not under the world’s influence; rather, we have the power to influence the world.
Refocusing chips away at the barriers that separate us. Suddenly, we are all in the same boat, we are all united in an effort to survive. How beautiful it is to view one another as family. A friend of mine who went back to his building just to feed some elderly people who were stuck on the top floor, shared how deeply he was moved when an old man shed tears seeing how another human being cared enough to think of him.
But focus alone is not enough. We must also constantly be climbing. Now that we’ve refocused, let’s use our newfound concentration to climb. Let us hold our heads high, and keep our eyes raised heavenward, so that we never lose sight of our purpose.
Rabbi Mendy Wolf is the educational director for the Institute of American & Talmudic Law, and the director for Project Life, an organization promoting Jewish awareness throughout the business community in NYC.