I have a love-hate relationship with writing. Or maybe a hate-love relationship.
I’m driven to write and I love the creative energy of pushing out a well-crafted sentence, when it works. I love watching my vague thoughts pour out into concrete expression on the page. But it’s incredibly painful when the words won’t come, or won’t come together.
As a college student writing papers all the time, I discovered that I just couldn’t write well the first time. I would write a bad essay and scrap it so I could write a good one. Sometimes I wrote two or three bad versions before hitting on something I could turn in without abject humiliation. As an adult dabbling in more and more professional writing, that hasn’t really changed. When I submit an article, I often have three or four drafts behind it, not even counting the ongoing editing I do as I write each one. My own mother, when I once sent her a draft for input, thought it was so bad (it was) that she didn’t even respond and risk hurting my feelings… and when I sent a new draft the next day, her immediate response was “How did you get from that to this?!”
Parshat Eikev is full of mistakes. So is last week’s parsha, and the one before that… We’ve made a lot of mistakes, as a nation and as individuals. It’s bizarre, in fact, that we could have messed up quite so much as a nation, and so early in our history. As Moshe highlights over and over, the Jewish people saw such incredible miracles – G-d did so much for us – yet we kept challenging Him. Really, a Golden Calf just after hearing “I am the Lord… You shall have no other gods before me?” (Okay, it wasn’t immediately after – and yes, there are lots of explanations offered to understand what Bnei Yisrael could possibly have been thinking – but still!)
There are so many ways we might mess up in the future, too. Moshe outlines a few in this week’s parsha, and I was particularly struck by a series of cautions against “forgetting”: When we’re settled and happy and well-fed – we might forget G-d, attributing our success to our own abilities and forgetting that G-d gave us those abilities in the first place (Devarim 8:11-18). We might similarly forget G-d and, instead of replacing Him with ourselves, replace Him with other gods (ibid. 19).
We might even remember G-d but forget ourselves – forget our own history, our own failings, and think we can do no wrong. Don’t forget, Moshe cautions in 9:7. Don’t forget that sin of the Golden Calf, or all the times we complained despite all the good G-d did for us. “You’ve been defying G-d ever since I’ve known you!” (9:22)
And yet – even though we’ve done so much wrong, Moshe prayed for us, and G-d forgave us, again and again. “Carve yourself two luchos like the first ones” (10:1). Hashem gave Moshe the chance to write a second draft of our national story.
Why do we need it? Why was it so hard to just listen? I ask my kids that all the time – “Why can’t you just close the book and set the table the first time I say it?”
What’s so hard about what G-d asks of us? Just “to fear Hashem, your G-d, to follow in all His ways and to love Him and to serve Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul” (10:12)? It should be easy, right? Keeping mitzvot is for our own good (v. 13)!
And yet, it’s still so hard to do the right thing. To keep doing the right thing. To remember and not to forget, to shape our lives always in accordance with every mitzvah. (Like one of my kids always answers – “Oh! I forgot!”)
Fearing G-d is actually a pretty tall order for most of us, as the Gemara points out (Berachot 33b). We have a yetzer hara; there are other things we want to do. We don’t want to put down the book and set the table. We don’t want to acknowledge the Source of our good fortune; we’d rather fit in with other nations, or take credit ourselves so we won’t owe Anyone anything, or tell ourselves we’re doing everything right and don’t need to struggle to improve.
Of course, that yetzer hara is part of G-d’s plan for our growth. The Gemara in Kiddushin 30b alludes to this in the context of a mashal illustrating a line we recite several times daily, from the end of Parshat Eikev: “Place these, My words, upon your heart…” (11:18). Based on a play on words, the Gemara compares the words of Torah to a bandage, explaining that as long as we keep the bandage on, we can live our lives without fear. “I created the yetzer hara, and I created the Torah as its antidote.”
So the obvious question is, why do we need the yetzer hara at all? Why not just give us the Torah without any temptation to “forget” its laws?
And the obvious answer, perhaps, is that without the yetzer hara – without sometimes failing – there is no growth. The complaints in the desert, the Golden Calf, forgetting to set the table the first time we’re asked – these are all part of a process.
Like an essay – we can’t be perfect the first time around. Nobody writes a bad draft on purpose, but we all do it sometimes. Some of us, a lot of the time. And then it’s our challenge to find the lines that need to be cut, the points that need to be further developed, the phrases we really could have said better. (Like that one.)
And part of the challenge is recognizing the role of those first, second, maybe even twenty-fifth drafts in our growth. In college, I came to accept that writing a bad essay was not a waste of time, but was a necessary part of my writing process. I reminded myself not to beat myself up for the initial failure; as long as I didn’t mistake it for a good paper and think I was done, it wasn’t really a failure but a first step towards success.
And the same is true in much of our lives. We can’t get everything right the first time, much as we try. We have a yetzer hara; we forget things and get distracted by other things. Sometimes we even forget G-d and our responsibilities towards Him; sometimes we get distracted by our (positive) feelings of personal accomplishment and forget to appreciate His role.
Sometimes our choices make our days look like some really badly-written sentences.
But those bad sentences are a valuable part of the process. If we heed Moshe’s warning not to forget our own mistakes, then we can use them. We can edit our days, keeping the good and scrapping the bad, so tomorrow is better. Tighter. More powerful. A really well-crafted statement of who we are and who we want to be – made all the stronger because of the words we tried and rejected along the way.
We can, perhaps, move our Father in Heaven to exclaim – like my mother did when she read that new draft – “This is excellent and also beautiful.” Look at what you accomplished today, because of what you tried yesterday. And imagine what you can take from today to build for tomorrow.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.