“A lover of money won’t be satisfied with money.”
The Pillars of Hercules reside on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, and were once the unofficial gates to oblivion. Legend has it that here, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean, the words “non plus ultra (nothing further beyond)” were inscribed on each pillar. This was supposed the let sailors know that there was nothing beyond that point other than infinite ocean or perhaps the edge of the world. These words were later put on Spanish currency, but when Columbus landed in the New World, non plus ultra was as correct as the world was flat, and so the motto was then changed to “plus ultra (further beyond).”
How do we look at other people? Do we assume that what we see is what we get, or do we realize (or sometimes hold out hope) that there is more to them, that they have stories to tell, lessons to teach: non plus ultra or plus ultra?
Trying to be open-minded has helped me learn a lot about myself and other people. Case in point, a regular reader of this column often offers his honest critiques of my articles. His name is Tovia Paris, and while his opinions can be blunt, I listen to him because I can tell that he is intelligent, thoughtful, creative, inquisitive, funny, analytic, and especially charming. I think he sees some potential in me. By the way, Tovia is 12 years old.
After another one of his honest but sobering appraisals of my work, he followed up his ideas with this email:
Topic: I heard the terminology from Rabbi Yosef Deutscher that steps today are even, and so you must take even steps toward increasing your Torah learning.
Question: Rabbi Simcha Loiterman proceeds to ask me why the steps to the Beis HaMikdash [are] uneven?
If you love growing, if you love learning,
then life becomes an adventure
Answer: It is obvious that the reason that the Beis HaMikdash had uneven steps [was] to alert you that you are approaching the House Of G-d (the holiest place on Earth), so that you could cleanse your mind and focus fully upon this awesome meeting, basically with G-d on Earth. However, all other cases fall into the above category, which teaches us that you must pace your steps evenly in Torah learning so as not to fall behind.
Additional fact: Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian adds that one of the reasons that the holy Mizbei’ach had a ramp is because every Jew should go at his own even pace in Torah learning. Whether you are fast or slow, skinny or fat, you can climb a ramp. There is no set speed at which you must climb one.
What an amazing heap of perspective this was for me. Did I mention he’s 12? Who knew that he was carrying around these amazing keys to serving Hashem, that he could express it so eloquently and be so inspirational. All it took was the correct setting to allow the right questions to be asked.
Within his message of going one step at a time, there lies another theme of plus ultra, because you’re not bothering to climb steps unless you realize there is further beyond what you have now and desire to reach it. Not everybody does this, though.
Speaking very generally, I think that there is a perception that our lives are split into two separate phases: youth and adulthood. In our youth we rapidly reach and surpass milestones such as crawling, walking, talking, first grade, second grade, middle school, high school, college, doctorates. In this time, growth is in every fiber of what we do.
Next, adulthood is where we utilize the skills or experiences acquired from our youth to apply them to life. In this phase, we are for the most part a complete product with perhaps more information to learn but for the most part little more growth is needed. Conclusions about life are made already, reconciliations are developed, and a worldview is established.
In short, part of life is for learning, and the rest is for doing. The children should listen while the adults know enough to handle things from here.
If there is any attention to growth and climbing steps, it usually limits itself to professional development, making money, getting promoted, while relationships and spirituality stagnate and atrophy. We forget that we are not jobs or titles; we are also fathers, mothers, friends, children, teachers, students, creators, and more.
Instead of a continuous life of self-discovery and “sharpening the saw,” a misguided complacency sets in that tells you to be happy with how things are: how you understand things and people, how you learn, how you pray. At some point, you stop bothering with the steps or simply refuse to see them. Non plus ultra.
Stagnation is a frightening thing. Consider the word of T.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters:
…And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind…in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”
Rabbi Peretz Steinberg once said: “The yeitzer ha’ra is very, very patient.”
It is a gentle slope downwards, but as Rabbi Elya Lopian taught, it’s a gentle slope up as well. We just need to go up that ramp.
The adult in me feels paralyzed and hesitates ascending the great proverbial ramp of the Mizbei’ach. Fear seizes me, I want to accomplish, I want to reach the top, but what if my efforts are not enough? What if I fail? What if I reach the top only to find how far away I am? Serving Hashem could only make me feel more and more insignificant. The closer you get, the farther you realize you are. Why bother?
Here again the insight of Rav Elya (and some youthful hubris) provides the best course of action. Like pedaling a bicycle, treading water, or scaling an escalator going the wrong way, climbing a ramp requires persistent effort. Your current effort is important but is optimized with another timely follow-up taking you plus ultra… until you reach your next step and the next one after that and the next one after…
Just keep walking, heel-to-toe, slow and gradual, and realize that getting close, not being close, was always the goal. Closeness is the process of getting close. If you love power, you’ll never be satisfied with power; if you love money, you’ll never be satisfied with money. It’s a shallow, predictable existence – non plus ultra. But if you love growing, if you love learning, then life becomes an adventure. Everyone you meet – young and old – can be a willing guide to take you to amazing places hiding in plain sight with unlimited possibilities, propelling you plus ultra.
Simcha Loiterman is a resident of Kew Gardens Hills. He is available for speaking engagements and presentations or a cup of coffee and a good talk. He would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels very strongly that you can learn from everyone because we all have stories to tell, lessons to teach, and can kindle a spark of goodness inside. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in “Life.” Visit his blog at thisisloit.wordpress.com to learn more of his ideas and opinions about our beautiful world.