A great scholar once visited his rebbe to ask for advice regarding a career change. The scholar was tired of teaching and envious of those who always seemed to have time to relax, smoke their pipes, and meditate on the kabbalistic mysteries of God and creation.
“Teaching is exhausting,” he complained to himself. “All the hours of preparation, and then the classroom time, not to mention the never-ending questions of my students! No wonder I have neither the time nor the energy to partake of the pleasures these others seem to enjoy.”
When he arrived at the rebbe’s home, he found his teacher ill and in bed. Before he could greet his rebbe and wish him refuah shelemah (complete healing), the rebbe silenced him and said:
“Let me teach you the secret of the Torah’s phrase ‘These are the offspring of Noah.'(Genesis 6:9) The word ‘Noah’ means ‘easy’ or ‘convenient.’ The word ‘these’ connects this sentence with another: ‘These are your gods, O Israel.'(Exodus 32:4) What is the connection? We tend to make idols out of the easy and to worship convenience rather than truth. There is no telling whose effort is greater or lesser. All we can say is whether or not our effort is true to ourselves.”
The scholar nodded, awed that his teacher could read his thoughts. But he was not yet satisfied. “What you say is true, Rebbe, yet Torah also tells us ‘Noah walked with God.'(Genesis 6:9) What does this mean?”
The rebbe said, “We each have our own personal path to God. Some through meditation, some through labor, some through scholarship. We always see another’s path as easier than our own, not knowing the strugglles it entails. But if you abandon your path for another, you will find yourself lost, for you will worship the path and not the goal. Stay with your scholarship, my son. Toil day and night to wrest the mysteries from the text and to share them with your students. This is your path. This is the way you walk with God.”
The scholar nodded, turned, and began his journey home.
True spiritual work takes us to the very ends of our endurance. It exhausts all our resources, pushing us to the breaking point. For it is only when we are about to break down that we have the opportunity to break through.
This is what the rebbe knows and what the scholar has to learn. He is mistaking “Noah” for God, ease for reality. He is convinced that if he were to devote himself to some other career, he would have the leisure needed to awaken to the Presence of God. But his longing for God is being replaced by his longing for leisure. And when he gets it, he will discover that leisure is no more a way to God than scholarship. The way depends on the wayfarer, not the wayfarer on the way.
Each person is a unique expression of the infinite diversity of God. While it is true that all of us share the same goal of aligning with God and lifting the veil of ignorance that blinds us to the Divine Presence in, with, and as all things, the ways to accomplish this are as varied as the people who accomplish it. What is your way? And how do you know it is, in fact, your way?
One way we investigate the rightness of our path is to compare our way with the ways of others. But when we do this, we often fail to see the difficulty of others’ paths and imagine that they go through life with ease. It is then that our focus shifts from the goal — God — to the ease of the means. We want to “walk with God” without breaking a sweat. It rarely works that way.