From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“I shall not drive them away from you in a single year . . . Little by little shall I drive them away.”
Everyone knows that Rome wasn’t built in a day. There isn’t a building site on earth where the contractor hasn’t explained away his delays by using that well-worn cliché. But did you know that Jerusalem wasn’t built in a day either? Nor was the Holy Land.
In this week’s reading, the Al‑mighty tells the Jewish people that they will not inherit the land of Canaan immediately. It will be to their benefit that the conquest of the Promised Land be gradual and deliberate. To settle the land successfully would take time, and they were cautioned up front to be patient. The process would unfold at a slow but steady pace so that there should be a smooth transition.
“I shall not drive them away from you in a single year, lest the Land become desolate and the wildlife of the field multiply against you. Little by little shall I drive them away from you until you become fruitful and make the Land your heritage.”
Overnight sensations are often just that. They don’t necessarily last. Slow and steady, step-by-step, the gradual approach usually enjoys longevity and enduring success.
Every Jew has a share in the Promised Land—not only geographically but spiritually. There is a piece of Jerusalem inside each of us. We all have the capacity for holiness, sanctity, and spirituality. But sometimes we may be discouraged from beginning the journey to our own personal promised land. The road seems too far, the trip too long and arduous. Here G‑d is giving us wise words of encouragement. Don’t expect overnight miracles. Don’t say, “I have a whole country to conquer, how will I do it?” Rather, say, “Where should I start today?” Don’t look at the end of the road; look at the first few steps you need to take right now. Then tomorrow, you will take a few more steps, and the next day the same, and before long the whole land will be yours.
If you were just starting your first business venture and I asked you, “Are you a millionaire?” would you say “no,” or would you say, “Not yet, I’m working on it”? The optimistic entrepreneur will accept that, having just begun his career, he may not have made it big yet, but being a go-getter, he is convinced that it is only a question of time before success will be his. It should be the same in our Jewish journeys.
Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) was a German-Jewish philosopher who as a young man actually considered opting out of Judaism completely. But his intellectual bent compelled him to at least do a proper examination of Judaism first. So he went to shul and, as it happened, experienced a spiritual transformation. He went on to become a serious student of Judaism. It seems that when Rosenzweig was once asked, “Do you put on tefillin?” his answer was “Not yet.” Not no, but not yet—and there is a critical difference between the two. No implies that I am not doing it now nor do I have any plans to do it any time soon. Not yet means that while presently I may not be there, I am still open to the suggestion. Hopefully, the time will soon come when I will be ready to make tefillin part of my daily observance.
The not yet approach is a good one. There is no one who does it all. We all have room for growth. We should all want to aspire higher. If we don’t practice a particular good deed at the moment, there is no reason why we cannot begin doing it in the near future. Let us never be discouraged by the length of the journey. Let us begin the first steps and keep moving. It may be slow, but as long as there is steady growth, we will get there. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.
So if someone asks, “Do you put on tefillin?” or “Do you keep kosher?” or “Do you observe Shabbos,” and you don’t, please don’t say no. Say not yet.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.