Business psychology tells us to build upon our strengths and manage our weaknesses. You will win with your strengths if you can only ensure that your weaknesses don’t derail you. While this advice is commonsensical enough, it misses a crucial point: your strengths need plenty of managing too.
Consider the following story. The setting: Ancient Israel. The scene: A bloody battle between King David’s loyalists and Avner, general of the recently deceased King Saul. Ashael, the swiftest of David’s warriors, set his sights on Avner and gave chase. Avner repeatedly beseeched Ashael to leave him alone. “I don’t want to kill you,” he begged. Ashael would have none of it. Left with no choice, Avner quickly turned on his pursuer and stabbed him to death.
Ashael’s greatest asset, his speed, led him right to death’s door.
Years later, King Solomon reflected, “I sat and contemplated all that is beneath the sun, and I saw that the race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the battle to the mighty.”
Sometimes our strengths bring us success, sometimes they’re no help but do no harm; sometimes, though, if we aren’t careful, as in Ashael’s case, our strengths can become a death-trap.
The recent Torah readings bring this message into clear focus.
Pinchas took daring initiative and was praised and rewarded. The righteous daughters of Tzlafchad begged Moshe to give them an inheritance in the land of Israel. They didn’t wait around to let Moshe dictate their future; they took matters into their own hands and were praised and rewarded for it.
Pinchas and Tzlafchad’s daughters courageously pursued their aims, achieving their objectives and more, but there were others who didn’t fare quite as well.
The tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe raised cattle, and so they wanted to settle the recently conquered lands of Sichon and Og, where the vast, fertile fields were perfect for their grazing cattle. Although the land was on the eastern side of the Jordan, far from what would soon be Israel proper, the men of Gad were world-class warriors who could protect the settlement alone.
These two-and-a-half tribes also took the initiative, but Moshe gave them a sound rebuke instead of words of praise and reward. In addition, centuries later, they were the first to be carted off to exile by Assyrian king Sancherav.
Why the difference? Why were Tzlafchad’s daughters and Pinchas commended and Gad censured?
Pinchas utilized his strength to avenge the honor of Hashem and put a stop to the devastating plague that threatened to destroy a nation. He wasn’t after money or fame.
Tzlafchad’s daughters had a dream; they wanted an eternal portion in the land of Hashem. They wanted to be closer to the world-center of Divine service.
Gad had a different objective. He had cattle that would thrive here, and for this, he would remain outside of the world’s spiritual center.
This issue is as relevant today as ever. We have what it takes to succeed, so we give chase, we pursue our objectives. But sometimes, we realize, too late, that we’d been better off had we held back.
Had we felt less powerful yesterday, we wouldn’t be so powerless today.
But how do we know when to go and when to halt? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life had a traffic signal at each stop? But wait, such a traffic signal does in fact exist; it is there in plain sight, but must stop if we are to notice it. Only then can we hear the silent voice of reason, the whisper of our conscience.
We must quiet the passions of war coursing through our veins and ask ourselves some questions: what is it that I’m chasing? To what end? What do I hope to achieve? Is it recognition, power? Is this agenda I’m pushing something I genuinely care about today, or is the ‘principle’ of upholding old, stale opinions that is truly at stake? What will this power, this fame, do to make me a better person or the world a better place? Nothing. So let it go.