May 26, 2024
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May 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Lessons Learned on the George Washington Bridge

“Good morning, we’re a carpool.”

This phrase, which makes little sense to much of the English-speaking world, is instantly recognizable to a small subset of commuters who travel into New York City on one of the few remaining bridges that still employ human toll collectors. If you aren’t familiar, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey offers a discount encouraging carpooling for cars traveling with three or more people. The catch? You need to find a cash toll booth and tell the toll collector that you are indeed eligible. Whenever I head onto the George Washington Bridge, I have a very specific, very personal destination in mind: Toll Booth #16.

There is nothing unique about the booth itself. Yet inside, I have a friend. I don’t know his name, and he does not know mine. But when we encounter each other, and I wish him a good morning, he does the same with a smile that seems to explode out of his mask: “Good morning, my brother! Have a blessed day!” he exclaims. Last week, my friend in Booth 16 was pumped up about the upcoming Super Bowl, telling me excitedly that Rams star Aaron Donald is going to have a big game. I don’t know if my friend really recognizes me each time, but it feels like he does. For those five seconds we share a moment of humanity, of friendship and of happiness. As I move on and rejoin the mass of machinery and smoke, the world feels a bit brighter.

I don’t know how many other commuters my friend from Booth 16 inspires each day, but his effect on me has been powerful. Not because it contains a grand gesture or involves a significant investment of time. It is because of the sheer regularity of it. Being able to count on that moment each and every time makes all the difference to me, and I suspect to others as well.

There is a famous and often quoted conversation amongst Tannaim, where they debate the most important pasuk in the Torah. After Ben Azzai suggests the pasuk in Bereishit 5:1 that indicates that man was created in the image of God, Ben Zoma maintains that it is none other than the Shema, and Ben Nannas points to the famous dictum to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Ben Pazzi comes along and quotes the pasuk from our parsha (29:39) that indicates that we shall offer the korban tamid every day, “one sheep shall be offered in the morning, and a second in the afternoon.” Strangely enough, Ben Pazzi’s entry is declared the most significant pasuk in the entire Torah! The Maharal’s explanation of this unusual discussion is as significant as it is well-known: greatness is achieved through consistency. The other verses all talk about big ideas. But the korban tamid’s consistency, day in and day out, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, is the Torah’s path to greatness.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt”l, points out in an essay on Tetzaveh, this pasuk represents a deep tension between the Jewish approach to religious growth and the modern Western outlook, “a strange view of religious experience: that it’s what overwhelms you when something happens completely outside the run of normal experience… You are miraculously saved from danger… You are awed by the presence of something vast. We have all had such experiences. But that is all they are: experiences. They linger in the memory, but they are not part of everyday life. They are not woven into the texture of our character. They do not affect what we do or achieve or become.”

This tension comes to a head perhaps most intensely when educating our children. As Rabbi Sacks writes, “much of Judaism must seem to outsiders, and sometimes to insiders also, boring, prosaic, mundane, repetitive, routine, obsessed with details and bereft for the most part of drama or inspiration. Yet that is precisely what writing the novel, composing the symphony, directing the film, perfecting the killer app, or building a billion-dollar business is, most of the time. It is a matter of hard work, focused attention and daily rituals. That is where all sustainable greatness comes from.” As educators and parents, we play the long game, trying to help our children appreciate that the explosive moments can be powerful but they often fade away, and that growth happens through long-term grinding away.

But the reality is, it’s a hard sell. Young people are neurologically wired to emphasize the short-term gains over the long term, and in the current moment, technology companies are spending billions of dollars annually to ensure that populations (young and old alike!) are focused on 15-second snippets that appear in rapid fire and with ease on a screen in front of them any time, anywhere.

What are we to do?

Perhaps this moment calls for a doubling down on the power of rituals with our children. Getting them to appreciate that the key to success in life, be it in the spiritual realm or anything else, lies in the small steps carried out consistently. I’d like to suggest two practical suggestions for how we can try and achieve this lofty goal:

1. Adam Grant, a professor and researcher in the field of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of Business and a bestselling author, tweeted the following in September of 2019:

“If you want your kids to love reading, don’t just fill your home with books. Make them part of your life. Let your kids see you reading regularly. Talk about books during meals or car rides. Visit libraries or bookstores. Give books as gifts.”

One could easily substitute “learning” or “beis midrash” in this passage. One of the silver linings of the pandemic and its lockdowns was the amount of time that families were able to spend together. Reflecting on my own experiences, it was while sitting across our dining room table completing our remote work that I gained a newfound appreciation for the tremendous skills and discipline my wife brings to her work. With the abundance of externally imposed family time, I observed impressive things about each of my children that I had never seen before, despite being there the entire time. The (often sobering) reality is that our children are always watching and listening to us. What makes us excited? What are we running to do? What do we talk about? Perhaps we can be more conscious about talking about the consistent steps we take toward growth. When a child sees that a parent devotes time each day to, say, Daf Yomi, and talks about it with excitement, it does not mean the child will immediately start learning the daf, or anything else. But they will take it in, and they will continue to internalize a very important value.

2. Despite the characterization of young people as generally looking to short-term excitement, everyone, including children, have rituals. It may be reading a book at night before bed. Or playing ball each day. Imagine a conversation with our children where we help them identify and articulate their own rituals and consider how their lives have been impacted by the regularity and consistency of them over time. Doing so may help them appreciate the possibilities of new rituals and their potential for long-term growth.

I am sure that there are many other creative ways to approach this important topic, and I encourage you to think about others and share them with your own network of friends and colleagues. And if you see my friend in Booth 16 on the GWB, give him a thank you for helping us internalize the powerful message of the korban tamid.

Rabbi Dov Emerson is the interim principal for general studies at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). Dov can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @dovemerson.

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