30 Tishrei 5776 / Tuesday, October 13, 2015 | Torah Reading: Noach
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Rising Above Mediocrity     Rising Above Mediocrity

Mediocrity is not only stagnation, but it's the floor falling out from under our feet. Hashem doesn't want us to be mediocre, especially since He designed us for excellence...


I should have taken a breath before deciding to engage in a conversation about television. I used to be a professional TV watcher. A week didn’t go by that I didn’t put in my standard 25 hours. At work, my colleagues would ask me about a project I was working on and if I needed their help. My reply was always the same:
Now that I have 23 hours each week to engage in more productive activities (barring one DVD video every seven days that I still have yet to excise myself from), I am a lot happier. My wife relishes the extra time we spend together, as do my kids. I love to read. As a result, the choices I make in my day to day speech have evolved. A lot can be said about a man based upon the words he chooses to express himself. I finally got rid of Tony Soprano once and for all.
We all take cues from the things we see and hear around us – even our greatest Rabbis. The Gemara is replete with stories about questions on proper conduct. Many of them were resolved by following a great Sage around until he was in the very situation that was being debated. The course of action he took resolved the matter. For over one thousand and five hundred years, many of our own greatest actions came from what our ancestors saw and heard.
When I spoke to my friends about television, I don’t think I was expressing anger at the media, the “western” lifestyle, or them. I was angry at myself for waiting so long to change. After too much exposure, I reached a level where I sincerely believed I was impressing people by talking like I belonged to the Italian Mafia.
Why are we all so resistant to change? Why do we get so offended at anyone offering the best advice for our personal welfare? We do it because people like me make the same foolish mistakes over and over again.
When anybody calls something bad that we take for granted as normal, the critic becomes a fanatic, even if what the fanatic says is true.
What fanaticizes the critic is his implying that unless you eradicate a bad habit completely, you have a problem. If something is unholy it has to go away. There is no incremental withdrawal. For a human being, who was created to make changes gradually, a demand – even one not directly stated – that you have to go cold turkey on something rips us out of our comfort zone. It is too intense for polite talk.
That’s what renders the critic a fanatic – even if he is sincere in his desire to help. That’s how I became the “Grand Ayatollah of Hollywood.”
What about the listener? Wouldn’t it be for their benefit to hear the guy out? It would, but it’s not likely to happen. Habits like television, internet, and even sports are things many of us have been obsessed with not merely for years, but for decades, even a half a century. We don’t exactly give these activities up after an informal conversation. Even if we do, it is not immediate and complete.
So what do we do? Do we dismiss the critic as a zealot and go about our lives? What if we concede the point and admit to ourselves that he is presenting us with something beneficial and that we can seize the opportunity? Is there some middle ground here?
Baruch Hashem, Judaism is all about conquering the middle ground! Mediocrity is not only stagnation, but it's the floor falling out from under our feet. Hashem doesn't want us to be mediocre, especially since He designed us for excellence.
Vigilanceis the act of reflecting on our day to day deeds and asking ourselves if they were right. Alacrity is the act of running to do a mitzvah. It entails finding within ourselves the desire to break down all personal barriers and do something. Cleanliness is the trait of washing away those parts of our existence that are not yet pure.
These are some of the personal character traits that the Ramchal, in his classic work The Path of the Just, advocates every man work on throughout his lifetime. These are not objectives we meet in a day. They are personal qualities we improve upon bit by bit as we engage in the lifelong process of self-improvement.
Take out a piece of paper. On the left side make a vertical list of every date for the past three weeks. Next to each day estimate how much television you watched. Determine the average number of hours you watch each day and the average number of hours you watch every week. That’s vigilance. Then make a list of 10 productive things you can do instead of watching television. Take out another sheet of paper and on the left side write down the date for the next three weeks. Set a goal for reducing the amount of television you watch by 30%, 50%, or 66%. Plan what you want to do during those days. That’s alacrity. Very quickly you will begin to appreciate all the things in life you will be able to accomplish, experience, and become now that you have learned to love the extra time on your hands. People will marvel at your ability to speak like the more civilized members of society as you talk about personal experiences they will find exciting and captivating. That’s cleanliness.
Once you find yourself in a pattern of meeting your goals and gradually raising the bar on yourself, try the same exercise with the Internet, Facebook, your favorite sports teams, junk food, and everything else that enables you to unleash the greatness Hashem put inside you to share with the world.
That’s growth. You don't have to be mediocre if you don't want to.
* * *
Dovber Halevi is the author of Sex, Religion, and the Middle East, a book about personal holiness and happiness. He lives in Israel with his wife and three children.

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