A few years back, my wife came upon me scuttling about the kitchen on my hands and knees before Passover vigorously attacking the floorboards in an effort to remove the encrustration of several months. "Did you ever imagine yourself doing this when you were in Yale Law School?" she asked.
Her question caught me off guard. Though I happen to delight in this particular activity, as I watch the transformation of the kitchen under my ministrations, I had to admit that cleaning floorboards had not been part of my career plan when I graduated.
On a deeper level my wife's question set off a sort of reverie, as I contemplated the enormous changes in my life in the last two decades.
Despite my share of prizes and honors in law school, today I lead my classmates in only two categories least money earned since graduation and most children. The fame and fortune that I once assumed awaited me as a matter of course have somehow eluded me.
My law professors included many of the finest legal minds in America. I admired virtually every one of them this one for his sharp wit, another for his civil rights work in Mississippi in the early '60s, yet another for his ability to force us, with his gentle prodding questions, to think harder that we had imagined ourselves capable.
And yet I never thought of any of them as a model for what a human life could be. I admired individual traits, not the whole individual. Had I asked myself then what I found lacking, I could not have answered, for I had never yet seen the quality that I sensed was missing. That would not come until years later when I was first privileged to be in the presence of a Torah scholar.
That elusive quality, which I could not even describe, but which I found lacking in everyone I knew (most of all myself), I would now call integrity.
By integrity I do not mean the usual dictionary definition of honesty. Rather I mean the quality of living a life that is integral, of a piece a life not characterized by the familiar modern dichotomies of work and play, work and family, public morality and private morality. That quality can only come from one source: the knowledge that all life, whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, is lived in front of G-d.
Not for us Emerson's dictum "A false consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Any lack of consistency in our lives reflects a failure to "set G-d before me, always."
I had many friends in law school friends with whom I enjoyed discussing both ideas and trivia (often within such a short space of time that I now wonder whether the ideas were not just another form of trivia.) Though these friends had emerged victorious in what is arguably America's most rigorous academic selection process, and many possessed gifts that seemed to me truly formidable, I never envied them or thought to myself, "When will I reach their level?"
In part, I suppose, this was because few of us had yet done anything, though this in no way diminished our confidence in our innate superiority, both intellectual and moral. We started with the assumption that we were among the world's elite. Law school was just to provide us with the tools to force the fools and wicked of the world to conform to our vision of right and wrong.
There is no time today to maintain the number of friendships of those years. Yet I know many people, contemporaries and those much younger, of whom I am in awe, people whose very presence makes me acutely aware of my many failures. And I am not talking about well-known scholars or tzadikim (saints).
The awe that those friends inspire has nothing to do with their superior minds (though many possess such minds.) I have finally learned that G-d's gifts do not confer merit. They are just that gifts to be judged by what we do with them. Two qualities stand out about those I'm referring to: self-sacrifice and humility.
I will never forget a former study partner from Jerusalem's Mirrer Yeshiva rabbinical school. Only two months from completing his master's degree in classics at Oxford, he was advised by the greatest Torah leader of the generation to return to Oxford. But he could not. "My soul thirsts only for Torah," he explained.
In his youth, he had garnered just about every prize one could receive for intellectual brilliance. Yet after 16 years of learning day and night, he still humbled himself before his teachers and chased after them with the same eagerness he had shown as a rank beginner. Graduates of the world's elite universities, full of their own importance, were often sent to talk to him. They came away humbled. Not by his brilliance, but by his distance from all their obsessive self-ranking.
Sensing how little he thought of himself, they were ashamed to think so highly of themselves.
They had never before met a contemporary they could truly look up to. For the first time, they were forced to acknowledge someone who through his discipline, sacrifice and genuine concern for others had raised himself to a qualitatively different level of being. His example alone brought many to a life of Torah and mitzvos (fulfilling religious duties).
The reverie triggered by my wife's question is over and I ask myself: Any regrets about the path not taken? Well, there is still a momentary twinge when I read about a friend who has just been appointed Solicitor General of the United States or that some fellow a few classes ahead is president. But that usually lasts no longer than it takes the next child to walk through the door.
And I bet Bill doesn't get to do floorboards.