As far as slogans go the Oakland Raider NFL franchise had it right. They marketed their team to the world with the catchphrase “Commitment to Excellence.” By and large, the Al Davis owned club of the 70’s and 80’s lived up to that motto. Of course, “Commitment to Excellence” is a concept not restricted to professional sports, it is a mantra one should intone while setting out to accomplishing anything in life. In Jewish living it is an imperative.
For starters, commitment means loyal devotion to the cause of upholding a unique legacy in the world. Legend has it that when the Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai over 3000 years ago it was offered to the other nations of the world, as well. We are taught that ancient peoples such as the Canaanites, Babylonians, Ishmaelites, and others, were given the opportunity to accept this divinely inspired system of living. However, as representatives of these nations inquired as to what was written in this legal document they demurred. Each one had an objection. This one did not want to give up theft. The other one refused to abandon a career of bloodshed. Another did not want its promiscuous lifestyle to be cramped.
Sure enough, only one nation was willing to take the plunge, the Israelites. There are variations to this legend and diverse explanations as to exactly how the law was presented, but the gist of the story teaches a profound lesson in commitment. Regardless of ideological or ethnic background, constant challenges are imposed on a person’s independence and individual freedom while trying to fulfill tenets of one’s belief. Commitment to a cause, or spouse, often entails making uncomfortable decisions and compromises.
Commitment can spawn ambivalence because of its attendant assumptions. Some may assume, for example, that commitment at work means long hours and greater productivity. While to others it may mean self-sacrifice for the sake of the team. In marriage, commitment implies changing from the individual “I” to the collective “I”. In other words, making decisions with another person in mind. A Talmudic passage teaches that couples should strive to achieve the domestic tranquility symbolized by the dove. One interpretation of this metaphor is that the dove, when it mates, keeps its partner for life. Secondly, a dove, like other graceful birds, is as comfortable soaring in the heavens, as it is perched on a tree limb.
The salient message for couples in these two explanations is one of profound consequence. Firstly, it is a commitment to stay together. In the “Throw Away” society that we live in today, we have been conditioned to think in terms of “Why bother to fix it when we can buy a newer one cheaper.” The logic follows that if it applies to automobiles, computers and clock-radios, why can’t it apply to marriages? Indeed, many liberal-minded mental-health professionals counsel married couples in precisely this fashion. Growing apart? Don’t see eye to eye anymore? Not getting enough out of the relationship? Why bother going through the trouble of working on it when dissolution is so simple? How about remembering the dove and our vows and check to see if we are honoring our commitments before abandoning ship?
Second, the dove is just as comfortable on terra firma as it is in the friendly skies. This means, as a metaphor, that one should strive to achieve in marriage a level of connection and love to one’s spouse that it no longer matters who is giving and who is receiving. When both are content with either scenario, the couple knows they have reached the level of the collective “I.” Likewise, when there is pain and suffering for one, the otehr should experience it as his/her own. The story is told of a great sage who lived in Israel during the first half of the previous century. He paid a visit with his wife to the podiatrist who warmly greeted the couple as they entered the office. The physician then asked the rabbi what seemed to be the problem. Without pretentiousness or hesitation the venerable sage announced, “My wife’s foot is hurting us.” How many of us express ourselves in daily life with this type of commitment, connection, and concern for our spouses?
If people cannot initially commit, it doesn't mean they don't care. More often, it means they do care, and they are caught up in a process of doubt. This process precedes every meaningful commitment. It is taught that even Moses isolated himself in a mountain for three days to work out his doubts before taking the hand of Zipporah in marriage. Reasoned contemplation, whether it is over a business relationship, career decision or matrimony, is prudent and wise. Following up on that commitment often entails placating our misgivings. Once accomplished, setting a course of action is imperative in order to achieve excellence through fulfillment of that commitment.
Next time you ponder a new commitment, climb up that “mental diving board” with courage and conviction. Yes, commitments contain unknowns, and some warn of possible failure. It is common for people to neither jump nor climb back down the "ladder," but rather to stay stuck at the end of the board, immobilized in pros, cons, obstacles, and worries. In this state of mind, the obstacles begin to rule, obscuring the vision, blunting motivation. Life is too short to indulge in what ifs. As that eminent Civil War poet once said “Of all things said of mouth and pen the saddest indeed are ‘it might have been.’”