It’s funny where we derive the lessons that stick with us. For example, a first-grade teacher might make an offhand comment that lasts a lifetime. I learned one such long-lasting lesson from Night Court, an enjoyable but fairly unremarkable sitcom of the mid-eighties through early nineties.
The protagonist of Night Court was Judge Harry Stone, the youngest judge in New York City history, portrayed by Harry Anderson. (You may recall Anderson as “Harry the Hat” on Cheers. He played a lot of characters named Harry.) In one Night Court episode, Judge Stone explained how he became the youngest jurist ever. The mayor had a list of prospective candidates for the position. He called the first name on the list, but that person wasn’t home. (This was back when our phones were connected to the walls of our houses.) The mayor called the next candidate, who also wasn’t home. He called every name on the list until he finally came to Harry’s, at the very bottom. Harry was home, so he got the job.
I can’t recall to whom Judge Stone was recounting this story or for what purpose but I do recall that person’s response: he scoffed at Harry’s qualifications because, after all, he was last on the list.
“Yes,” Harry countered, “but I was on the list.”
There’s a lot to be said for just being on the list. A doctor who graduated at the bottom of his class at Harvard is still a Harvard-trained physician; I would trust him a lot more than I would the valedictorian of Moe’s Online Medical College and Driving School.
This is true in other ways. In Crossfit, daily results are logged on the gym’s whiteboard. On occasion, I have been at the top of my class results. I’m usually in the middle and often at the bottom. It doesn’t matter. It takes some training to stop thinking of the daily results as a ranking. We’re not in competition with one another, we’re only in competition with ourselves. It’s okay if I don’t lift the heaviest or complete the quickest; what matters is that I’m there, getting it done. The important thing is to be on the list.
In how many other scenarios might this be relevant? Perhaps one might despair of his intellectual ability compared to others and give up on shiurim. That’s the wrong attitude. One need not be the most pious, the most intelligent or the most knowledgeable student in the kollel. One need only do his best. Even the last guy on the roster is far ahead of those who don’t bother to show up at all.
This is where I normally cite some Talmudic dictum to support my position but in this instance, nothing jumped out and grabbed me. Hillel says not to separate oneself from the community (Avos 2:4) but that’s not really what I’m talking about. You know what does sum up this sentiment nicely? The old jazz standard “The Saints” (author unknown). The refrain of the song is “When the saints go marching in, I want to be in that number….” The person singing doesn’t need to be at head of the line, he just wants to be among those who get to go in. That’s a pretty good attitude. It’s one that Yeravam ben Nevat (Jeroboam) would have been wise to internalize.
Yeravam, you may recall, was the first king of the Ten Tribes following their secession from the nation. Originally a hero, he turned bad immediately after ascending to the throne. Nevertheless, God extended to him a rare invitation. As the Talmud in Sanhedrin (102a) details, God approached Yeravam and said, “Repent, and you, I, and David will all stroll together in Eden.” Yeravam asked, “Who will go first?” God replied, “David will go first.” “In that case,” Yeravam responded, “I don’t want it.”
Yeravam would have been wise to accept the offer even though he wasn’t going to be at the top of the list. Instead, the mishna in Sanhedrin tells us that “three kings and four commoners have no share in the Next World….” The first of the three kings? Yeravam. (He really should have taken that deal!)
Similarly, on the “High Holidays” of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we ask that God inscribe us in the metaphorical “Book of Life.” We’re not real demanding about what page He puts us on, we only ask that we make it through the final edit!
I can’t tell you what lists you want to be on. Only you know whether you aspire to be a night court judge, a Harvard-trained doctor, a Crossfitter or a yeshiva student – or if you’ve received an invitation to go strolling in Eden with King David! Whatever your aspirations, both temporal and spiritual, don’t despair just because you’re not the best. Let’s take that one step further: don’t despair even if you’re the worst! You’re not in competition with anyone else. At the end of the day, we’re not being ranked. All that matters is that our names are on the list.