Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz told me a wonderful story about a presentation he made at a program for Jewish cub scouts. Chefitz had all the boys sit around a circle with a big tom tom in the center. He would beat a particular rhythm on the drum and then ask the boys who wanted to try it themselves. Every hand in the room would shoot up.
“Before you try,” the rabbi asked the scouts, “Do you want me to tell you it’s hard or easy?”
“EASY!” they all yelled in unison.
“If I say it’s easy and you can’t do it, how would that make you feel? But if I say it’s hard and you can do just a little bit of it, how would THAT make you feel?”
“HARD!” the boys answered back without missing a beat.
Rabbi Chefitz went on to tell me that he uses the same technique when he teaches scripture.
“I start with hard passages and I let my students know that the passages are hard. This way they have to stretch themselves to learn. And when they stretch,” he illustrated his point by extending his arm over his head and reaching for an invisible object beyond his grasp, “They learn more than they would otherwise.” He rubbed his elbow for affect.
President John F. Kennedy used this selfsame technique in 1961 when he promised that America would send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade.
Remembering the political events of the day is crucial for establishing context and Kennedy’s motives. At the time, Russia was winning the space race – first with Sputnik 1 in 1957 and then when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961. Plus, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had been dumped squarely on Kennedy’s shoulders.
Safely reaching the Moon required a yeoman’s effort not only by NASA but also by the educational, scientific, and political communities – a challenge considered as great in scope as the construction of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project.
Kennedy’s goal was finally realized on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module’s ladder and onto the surface of the Moon. “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
In the case of Chevitz’s students and NASA’s engineers, the meaning of goal setting becomes clear. Or as Robert Browning put it, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
The New Year celebration is a perfect time to look back on the past and plan for the future. As we watch the ball drop in Times Square and sing misty-eyed (and mispronounced) renditions of Auld Lang Syne, why not take a moment to think of what we want to accomplish in 2014? Just remember Rabbi Chefitz’s boy scouts and Kennedy’s astronauts and set a challenging goal for yourself.
After all, as the electrical engineer Nikola Tesla wrote, “Man’s grasp (should) exceed his nerve.”