It is an age old custom to learn a chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) every Shabbat afternoon over the summer. Pirkei Avot contains the ethical teachings of about sixty sages who lived in the times of the writing of the Talmud. It contains such famous sayings as the one by Hillel (1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am (only) for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
A couple of years, as I approached my fiftieth birthday, I took another look at the teaching of Yehuda Ben Tema (5:25) which lists a feature of various ages in one’s life: “…a thirty year old attains full strength, a forty-year old attains understanding, a fifty-year old can offer advice…” In fact, the hebrew for fifty reads ‘chamishim l’eytzah’ which most commentators take to mean that by fifty one can draw on one’s life experience and learning to advise others. However, I chose to give it an additional meaning, at fifty one is ready to listen to others giving advice. When we are young, we tend to want to do things on our own, find out the hard way, blaze our own path in life. As we get older, we realize that others with more experience than us, can help us navigate the winding path of our lives.
So after I turned fifty, I started listening more closely to those who were willing to share their wisdom with me. I also reflected back on advice that others gave me over the years. Here are the five best pieces of advice I’ve ever got.
1. Go learn, and keep on learning
By my mid-twenties, I’d worked for an insurance company after university but given up on being an actuary as a career. I’d been to Israel a few times and loved it more and more each time I went. I’d dabbled in Jewish learning but wasn’t sure where to direct my life. I’d never even heard of a yeshiva until my Rabbi in Johannesburg, Rabbi Shmuel Moffson encouraged me to go learn Torah in a yeshiva. So in my late 20s, I went to Israel to learn. I loved Jerusalem and its kedusha (holiness), I loved the intellectual stimulation and I loved the focus on becoming a better person. I learned a new set of values, Jewish values that have lasted the test of time, values that every member of the community I live in, live by. I didn’t change as a person. I feel that I became a better me.
My advice: Learn a little bit of Torah every day, or every week. There are so many resources out there you are sure to find something you’ll like. You’ll never regret it. You’ll only grow to love it more and more.
2. If you can’t have things the way you wish them to be, then wish them to be the way they are in reality.
Of all that I learned in yeshiva, this line I read in Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s book, Happiness, contains the most simple, yet profound thought I ever heard. It speaks of living in the moment and feeling that whatever you have is exactly what G-d wants you to have right now. That’s a very liberating idea. I’ve seen it in so many areas in my life, my career, my family. I’m more appreciative for what I have, and I appreciate many more things that I might take for granted. I also am not as disappointed when I don’t get what I want, or if things don’t go the way I want them to go. I’m happier for other people when they are successful or when they get something. Rabbi Pliskin writes that if you can master this idea, it will change your life. It changed mine.
My advice: Say this to yourself a few times and think about it. Then try use it once a day until it becomes a part of your thinking.
3. At the end of the day, it’s your choice.
After I had been dating the woman who would become my wife for a while, I introduced her to a rabbi I was very close to. Later, I asked him his thoughts. He was very impressed, but he told me that ultimately, I had to make the decision whether I wanted to marry her. When you make a choice, you take ownership of it. Twenty two years later, I consider it the best decision I ever made in my life. More importantly, that decision committed me to our marriage. When we make decisions, there are consequences. Important decisions have more important consequences. Taking ownership of the decisions I’ve made, has made me think more carefully about them, and then to accept the consequences.
My advice: Think very carefully about the decisions you make. Then own them.
4. Call it JET.
Seven years after arriving in Chicago, I heard about the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship, a 10 week crash course in Judaism, started at the University of Michigan by Rabbi J and Rabbi E. I tried it in Chicago and it was such a success, I decided to start my own organization. I needed a name. When I was in Israel next, I went to visit Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, ob’m. I will never forget how he took out a thin strip of yellow paper, thought for a moment and then wrote down the words, ‘Jewish Education’, paused a while longer and then ‘Workshop.'”JEW.” He didn’t like that, so then he thought again and wrote down ‘JET.’ “Call it JET”, he said. He liked the image of movement it connoted. I came up with the word ‘Team.’ And then he gave me a blessing that I should be successful. 12 years later, I look back at all our successes, and I think back to the choice of name and the blessing that accompanied it. It felt good back then to have a great man give me advice – and to take it. It still feels good.
My advice: Ask someone wise for advice sometimes. It is amazing what you will learn and good things will come if you follow their advice.
5. Instead of thinking of what you want to do and how much it will cost to get it, think about what you have and what you can do with it.
Running a non-profit organization has been very fulfilling for my wife and me. We have seen hundreds of Jewish students grow in their knowledge of their Jewish heritage, becoming active, contributing members in their community. We love what we do and we pray that we can do this for many more years. At the same time, the least fun part has been the fundraising. Almost by definition, raising money for a non-profit is a constant struggle. There is always more to do and not enough resources to accomplish everything. Then last year, a successful businessman, told me this: Instead of thinking of what you want to do and how much it will cost to do it, think about what you have and what you can do with it. A light went on inside my head. I still have big dreams for JET, but now I’m being more fiscally conservative. We are still facing some turbulence but I’m in a much better frame of mind, deciding our path forward based on a realistic assessment of our resources and not what I would like them to be. I probably heard this advice before and didn’t pay attention. When I heard it this time, it was the right words at the right time. That is also part of giving and getting advice – when to say it and when to hear it.
My advice: Even simple pieces of advice that you’ve heard before may be helpful now. Don’t ignore advice you’ve heard before.
Now it is your turn to share your advice. I hope you’ll share some of the advice you have or have heard in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org: