Quite remarkably, just when the concept of “impossible” had been on my mind, I was invited to engage in an impossibly difficult challenge, abruptly enabling the fulfillment of what I had been learning, and more poignantly, what I had been teaching. But before that, let’s reflect on the immortal interpretation of Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt”l, commenting on the words of the Ramban (an interpretation that Reb Chaim was very fond of) concerning the artisans involved in the construction of the Tabernacle and its component parts.
The verse (Exodus 35:21) says that every man and woman whose heart inspired them brought bracelets, rings, nose rings, and body ornaments. The Torah also describes the volunteers who engaged in weaving and sewing, building, and all of the jobs requisite for the Tabernacle’s construction. The artisanry requirements for the Tabernacle presented an obvious difficulty for the available labor force. The Jews who were slaves in Egypt were never trained in the proficiencies necessary for this artistic work. They had been engaged in slave labor – anything but the refinement of aesthetic skills. So how in fact were they able to produce the work of masters?
Any sane, inexperienced person would never volunteer to create artistic masterpieces way above their ability or skill set. Indeed, the average person confronted with such a challenge would shrug their shoulders in despair and declare that the work was beyond their ability – and accordingly, impossible. Yet, explains the Ramban, these individuals were inspired and confident that G-d would assist them to accomplish what was conventionally regarded as impossible. Furthermore, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz comments, there is no limit or boundary to what one who is not afraid of failure can accomplish.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Meir Shapiro commented on the verse in Bereishis (15:5), “And G-d took [Avraham] outside and said, ‘Gaze toward the Heavens and count the stars; so shall your offspring be.’” Meaning, just as counting the stars in the Heavens is an impossibility, likewise your offspring will be willing to attempt, and never be daunted by, the impossible.
One who fears the limitations of their abilities or confidence has erected a dike blocking their ability to succeed. As Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski pointed out (and I wish I could remember where), people say that something is impossible when they really mean that it is difficult. This is a devastating and highly detrimental confusion. One who fears that a task is beyond their ability, or too challenging for their comfort level, has racked up the odds against their excelling beyond their current state of inertia.
When my son was wed in South Africa, we learned an interesting insight regarding elephant psychology. A seven-ton behemoth is not exactly a docile domesticated pet that you can readily park by tying it to a rail. What is the elephant rider to do when he needs to abandon his elephant for a few minutes to use the facilities or wishes to pick up a coffee? Good question, fascinating answer.
Elephant trainers foreseeing this problem dealt with the issue when it was still manageable. They chained baby elephants to stakes in the ground. A baby elephant has neither the stamina nor the tonnage to extricate itself from a post driven into the ground. Years later, the elephant (blessed with the memory of an elephant) remembers that struggling is futile and does not attempt to free itself from a situation that is well within its ability. The animal is discouraged and believes there is no point in pulling, although it has the capacity to readily remove the stake and all of the earth surrounding it.
The take-home message is that what we feel or fear to be reality may actually become our reality, and thus we avoid something that is within our wherewithal, dismissing it as “impossible.” An oft-used example is the previously well-accepted assumption that it was beyond the human ability to run a mile in under four minutes. Until Roger Bannister accomplished what was considered “impossible” in 1954.
Perhaps more significant than Bannister accomplishing the impossible is what has been labeled the Roger Bannister effect. Once Bannister crushed the “impossible” barrier, he enabled runners to dream, and ultimately achieve, the impossible. Once the psychological barrier was broken, others began to hustle under the four-minute mark.
Finally, to my impossible challenge: I was just minding my own business (as these stories always begin…) when Zvi Kresch asked me if I would like to take a polar bear plunge in frigid Michigan in early February. My response surprised him, for it was not a definitive no. Considering that my kids always complain that the showers in our apartment are freezing, why should I be dissuaded by the sub-zero Huron River?
The problem with offering a macho reply is that ultimately you have to pay for it (or be deemed a chicken). Ultimately, I accepted the challenge, although there is nothing daredevil or adventurous about my nature. I was, however, intrigued by the “impossible” component of the task. It was a concrete example of doing something difficult (or at least uncomfortable) which others would label, incorrectly, “impossible.”
To make this brief, I lived to tell the tale, and it actually was, as promised, invigorating. I shan’t be so audacious to claim that I fulfilled what the Ramban, Reb Meir Shapiro, Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz, and Rabbi Dr. Avraham J. Twerski explained regarding those who challenge the impossible. What I did was neither heroic nor spiritual, but it was a fulfillment of what I had learned academically, finally fulfilled corporally.