JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Sept. 26, 2001 / 9 Tishrei 5762

Mediocrity is not an option

By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

WE ALL THINK WE'RE EXPERTS on the topic of sin. We don't need definitions of what sin is; we know it when we see it.

Sin, many of us believe, is doing what our mothers tell us not to do. Sin is what those TV preachers talk about on Sunday mornings. Sin is the subplot of our favorite soap opera.

While these may be good examples of sin, our overall definition of sin is often cartoonish and one-dimensional. We may know a lot about sins that are bad actions; however, we know very little about sins that are bad attitudes.

There is a story told about the late dean of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ZT"L. He asked one of his students to choose which are the worst two sins in the Torah. The student thought for a while, and gave an answer. Rav Hutner rejected the answer, and the student thought about the question again and came back with a different answer. Again, Rav Hutner rejected the answer. This cycle repeated itself several times, until Rav Hutner told the curious student: "The two greatest sins in the world are mediocrity and foolishness."

What an insightful answer! Often we lose sight of the connection between our attitudes and our actions, our feelings and our failings. Most of our shortcomings can be traced to these two cardinal sins, the sin of foolishness and the sin of mediocrity.

Of these two, it is the sin of mediocrity that interests me at the moment. Is it wrong if someone chooses to take it easy? Must we all be dynamic, type-A strivers?

In short, the answer to these two questions, is yes. Yes, it is wrong to be complacent. Yes, we must constantly strive for spiritual growth. The great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Hillel said that we must either "grow or die" (Pirkei Avos 1:13). Life is a precious gift, intended to be used to the fullest. If we refuse to improve ourselves, if we settle for mediocrity, we become one of the living dead, a person who is squandering the gift of life.

With this insight, we get a better understanding of repentance.

Repentance is not merely a response to sin, but rather a war against mediocrity. It is the process of changing attitudes, of no longer accepting the status quo. Repentance demands spiritual growth and improvement, no matter what level a person is at.

It is for this reason that Maimonides (The Laws of Repentance 3:4) compares the shofar blast to a wake up call, telling the slumbering ones to awake.

Throughout the year, we live with the status quo, sleepwalking through our daily routines. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time when we wake up from bad habits and stale routines, and reach for greatness. To live with the status quo is to live with mediocrity.

And mediocrity isn't an option.

JWR contributor Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem near Montreal. Comment by clicking here

©2001, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz