Brian Cavanaugh, TOR
published in the July/August 2005 edition of
published by the National Storytelling Network,
This text is an expanded version.
How does your family celebrate memorable events, those significant milestones of special birthdays or anniversaries? Does your family commemorate life’s moments of passage with momentous honoring? These passage moments are the particular stages of growth that need to be recognized in noteworthy fashion. In addition to special birthdays or anniversaries, other significant milestones are: Confirmation, Bar Mitzvah, going off to camp, off to college, graduation, new job, retirement, marriage, birth of a child, ordination, and a host of other pivotal events and times in a family that are not to be overlooked.
What I would like to do in this book is to propose a particular family tradition that you can incorporate into your own family celebrations to make them more meaningful, special, distinctive and personal. To commemorate the significant milestones of life try creating a Book of Wisdom for the person/s for whom this moment of passage is being celebrated. The concept for this Book of Wisdom is not my own idea. The idea was passed on to me by a mother named Robin, who honored me, when she wrote and asked if I would write some words of wisdom for her son Mordy, who was about to commemorate his special passage moment into the faith of his fathers with his Bar Mitzvah.
"Last year in honour of my second child’s Bar Mitzvah I asked people I admired and respected in the community to write a letter to my son giving him their advice for life. Some wrote quotes, some I interviewed, some sent poems or letters…I compiled all of these and presented them to my son, Milton, as his personal Book of Wisdom.
"In September my third child, Mordy, will be Bar Mitzvah. As I was reading and re-reading your story the other day, I thought how wonderful it would be if someone we didn’t personally know, but all respected, could write a letter to Mordy giving him some words of advice about life, to guide him.
"I know this sounds a little crazy, but it would be such a beautiful personal touch coming from someone as special as you. Mordy has always been very curious about life and asks questions all the time. He is intense about everything he does and wants to always be the best he can be. A wise letter from you to someone of his age approaching manhood would be a keepsake forever.
"Why not just read from a book or ask a neighbor to write? Life, I find, is made up of the little gestures and special moments. If Mordy sees that someone who is so highly regarded and very busy, who doesn’t even know him, took the time to write a simple letter it will encourage him when he is older to do the same for someone else."
It was the last line that told me this was something I had to do. Here was my opportunity—the "little gestures and special moments"—"to do the same for someone else." You see, when I began compiling "Apple Seeds," my monthly quoteletter of motivation and inspiration, and writing my books in the Sower’s Seeds series of inspirational stories, I received encouraging notes and letters from Earl Nightingale, Og Mandino, William Arthur Ward, Coach Lou Holtz, and others. These notes and letters validated my writings when I was unsure and needed some guidance and support. My letter to Mordy, which I titled Mazeltov! Mordy, is my little gesture to respond in kind as these great men did to me, and to pass on to another the support and encouragement from a host of kindred spirits who watch over us and help to guide us.
So, how about compiling your own Book of Wisdom to commemorate those significant milestones in your family celebrations? Give a gift that will last with the little gesture of a personal touch. In our society with its frenzied pace we have become too busy for "little gestures and special moments." So often a gift is quickly bought, quickly opened, and then just as quickly forgotten. But it is these "little gestures and special moments" that will be treasured for years to come. So, as the saying goes, "Give a gift that will last, give a gift of yourself."
Such a Book of Wisdom will be read, re-read and re-read again many times over the years, gaining new insights and understanding with each reading. So, make the time, give part of yourself, write a letter sharing your insights and reflections, pass on to someone else the gleanings you have jotted down from your own readings—those special thoughts, quotations and inspirations that have been your bridges over life’s troubled waters, or have been the guiding stars pointing the way through the dark areas of life.
To each of you who read this book, I share with you my own feelings when I finished with my thoughts for Mazeltov! Mordy. You see, I’ve discovered one of the great secrets of life: It is that the giver gets, more than the giver gives. So give a little of yourself, give a gift that will last and begin to create your own Book of Wisdom.
Mazeltov! on the honor of your Bar Mitzvah! Your mother asked me to plant a few wisdom-seeds to be added to your Book of Wisdom. I am honored and humbled to be included in your day of rejoicing and great celebration. Fortunately, one of my favorite sources of wisdom comes from the old tales of the Balem Shem Tov and the Hasidic rabbis:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to say the prayer, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: "Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer." And again, the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: "I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient."
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to The Holy One: "I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient." And it was sufficient.1
Mordy, I may not know the special holy places, nor the exact holy words, but I do know that a holy story is sufficient and I have plenty of stories. So what I will do is plant some wisdom-seeds contained in a few stories on this great day, wisdom-seeds once planted that need to be watered, nourished, cared for and watched over so that no thought-weeds begin to grow. And Mordy, you gotta watch out for those thought-weeds. They’re everywhere and will spring up overnight if you’re not vigilant over what you allow to be planted in the garden of your mind.
To cultivate wisdom, ah, that’s harder work, because wisdom just does not spring up quickly. Wisdom-seeds have to be planted deliberately before anything will grow and bear fruit. Also, wisdom-seeds take a long time to grow and mature. Remember, Mordy, the junk you put into your brain is no different than the junk others stick into their veins!
You see, Mordy every book you read, every movie you see, every piece of music you listen to and every person you hang out with, is either planting a seed of wisdom in the garden of your mind, or a weed that leads to negative thinking and bad choices. You are always faced with choices and decisions; some of them are difficult, too. But don’t let someone else make the choices or decisions for you—stand up when others remain seated, step forward when others step backward, speak out when the voices of silence are so deafening.
Mordy, the day you were born The Holy One gave you a gift, a special message, that only you can deliver to the world. As you enter into the fullness of the faith of your fathers, ask The Holy One to show you what is your special gift, your special message. For you see…
"There is an old tradition which says:
The Holy One sends each person into this world with a special message to deliver, with a special song to sing for others, with an act of love to bestow. No one else can speak my message, or sing my song, or offer my act of love. These are entrusted only to me.
According to this tradition, the message may be spoken, the song sung, the act of love delivered only to a few, or to all the folk in a small town, or to all the people in a large city, or even to all those in the whole world. It all depends on The Holy One’s unique plan for each person.
To which we might add:
The greatest gift of The Holy One, one would think, is the gift of life. The greatest sin of humans, it would seem, would be to return that gift, ungrateful and unopened."2
So, Mordy, I place before you a challenge. Now, it may take you a few years to fully understand and comprehend this challenge, but each year that you re-read this letter you will grow in wisdom and understanding. The challenge I place before you is to Dare Mighty Things! By this I mean to challenge yourself always to strive for excellence, to dare greatness, never submitting to the tyranny of sovereign mediocrity, especially from peer pressure.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, provides the following wisdom-seed to plant:
"It is not the critic who counts; nor the one who points out how the strong person stumbled, or where the doer of a deed could have done better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually strive to do deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he or she fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."3
Mordy, this wisdom-seed will bear the fruit of character. And character comes from the Greek word charaktér, meaning to engrave, to chisel, to carve. Now, character doesn’t have a sweet taste, but it is one that is immensely satisfying and fulfilling. Explore what it is like to spend your life in pursuit of a worthy cause and not be like the timid spirits who "live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
Treasure these wisdom-seeds, Mordy, plant them in the garden of your mind, nurture them and they will mature for you into a fruit-filled life. Discover your own God-given gifts, the special message you, and only you, can deliver and don’t let the peer pressure of mediocrity hold you back or put you down.
Now let us hear from the prophet Isaiah where in chapter 40, verse 31 it reads: They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar as with eagles’ wings; they will run and not grow weary; walk and not grow faint.
This text reminds me of another sacred story about a young Indian boy, a boy much like you, who was returning from his vision quest, which was part of the ritual for his manhood ceremony.
There once was a young native American boy who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and grew up with them.
All its life, the changeling eagle, thinking it was a prairie chicken, did what the other prairie chickens did. It scratched in the dirt for seeds and insects to eat. It clucked and cackled. And it flew in a brief thrashing of wings and flurry of feathers no more than a few feet off the ground. After all, that’s how prairie chickens were supposed to fly.
Years passed. And the changeling eagle grew bigger and stronger. One day, it saw a magnificent bird soaring far above in the cloudless sky. Hanging with graceful majesty on the powerful wind currents, it soared with scarcely a beat of its strong golden wings.
"What a beautiful bird!" said the changeling eagle to its neighbor. "What is it?"
"That’s an eagle—the chief of the birds," the neighbor clucked. "But don’t give it a second thought. You could never be like him."
So the changeling eagle never gave it another thought. And it died always thinking it was a prairie chicken.4
Mordy, your destiny is to soar on eagles’ wings; not to peck and cluck with chickens. Never forget this as your destiny: You Were Born to Soar! And, yes, eagles are an endangered species because they are so rare; you usually find them only one or two at a time. But chickens, they come in flocks—they peck, they cluck, they stick their beaks in the ground—and you know what we do with chickens! And remember this: that every time an eagle raises its wings to soar, someone will put an arrow to the bow. But do not fear for the eagle can soar always higher than any arrow can fly!
So reach for your destiny, Mordy. Stretch yourself! You see it’s a law of creation—the hand cannot grasp any farther than the arm is willing to reach. Once you have a meaningful goal, a burning desire, you will be amazed how much farther you are able to stretch. And so it is for your life; you will achieve as much as you are willing to reach for—Reach…Stretch…Soar!
For the final wisdom-seed, I turn to Chaim Potok:
Yahweh, Master of the Universe, blest me with a brilliant son. And he cursed me with all the problems of raising him. Ah, what it is to have a brilliant son! Not a smart son, Yahweh, but a brilliant son. Joshua, a boy with a mind like a jewel. Ah, what a curse it is, what an anguish it is to have a Josh whose mind is like a pearl, like a sun.
Yahweh, when my Joshua was six years old, I saw him reading a story, he swallowed it as one swallows food or water. But there was no heart in my Joshua, there was only his mind. He was a mind in a body without a heart. It was a story about a poor old man and his struggle to get to Jerusalem before he died. Ah, how that man suffered! And my Joshua enjoyed the story, he enjoyed the last terrible page because when he finished it he realized for the first time what a splendid memory he possessed. He looked at me proudly and re-told the story from memory, and I cried inside my heart.
I went outside and shouted to the Master of the Universe, "Why? What have you done to me? A mind like this I need for a son? A heart I need for a son. A soul I need for a son. Compassion I want from my son. Righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul, without a heart."5
Mordy, this last wisdom-seed may be the hardest of all to take root, and it will take a long time to fully mature and bear fruit. At first, it might seem that this is the simplest or weakest of the wisdom-seeds, but don’t be fooled. It takes great courage to develop a heart that cares, great courage and a character that dares mighty things. It always has been like this and always will be—it takes courage to care greatly.
So on this most special day, let us pray: May the Holy One, Mordy, raise you up in mind and heart with greater compassion and mercy. And may this day bring you buckets of blessings, showering you with the Holy One’s abundant grace for you to grow in wisdom, understanding and strength.
And finally, as I began this letter, I challenge you to live a life of excellence, I dare you to live a life of greatness…
I Dare You!
William H. Danforth (slightly adapted)
"I Dare You to achieve something that will make the future point to you with even more pride than the present is pointing to those who have gone before you.
I Dare You to do the uplifting, courageous things.
I Dare You, who think life is humdrum, to become involved.
I Dare You who are weak to be strong; you who are dull to be sparkling; you who conform to be transformed anew.
I Dare You, whoever you are, to share with others the fruits of your daring. Catch a Passion for helping others and a richer life will come back to you!"6
1 Brian Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds. Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1990 p. 15.
2 Brian Cavanaugh, Sower’s Seeds Aplenty. Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1996, p. 32.
3 Theodore Roosevelt, speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899.
4 Cavanaugh, The Sower’s Seeds p. 39.
5 Brian Cavanaugh, More Sower’s Seeds, Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1992, p. 16.
6 William H. Danforth, I DARE YOU! 32nd ed. St. Louis MO: American Youth Foundation, 1988.