In her 2002 book, “Riding the Bus with my Sister,” Rachel Simon, a very successful but unhappy professor, tells the story of her sister Beth, a woman with special needs who spent her days riding public buses and talking to the bus drivers. In an effort to better understand and connect with her sister, Rachel spent a number of weeks riding the bus with her sister and getting to know the drivers.
One of the drivers was a man named Tim, who truly loved his job and always seemed to be smiling. Rachel asked Tim what he used to do before he became a bus driver. Tim explained: “I used to be what you might call ‘searching,’ except I’m not sure how much I ever let myself see. I came from a college educated family and dreamed of being an archaeologist, but I got so lost in my own head that I couldn’t buckle down to a career or even school. I studied to be a photographer, but I ended up getting married and needed more income. So I left college and became a bus driver. It’s a rewarding life!”
Rachel, who had achieved all of her professional dreams and yet was so unhappy with her life, couldn’t understand how Tim – whose career path was one of total frustration – could be so happy with his life. What was Tim’s secret?
Tim explained: “You could say I left college behind. But I think all I really did was find another major: the details – the ones that are so easy to overlook. There is so much richness on a bus – really, so much richness everywhere – if you just develop the ability to look at life with a different eye, and appreciate the opportunities offered to you.”
What did Tim mean by this? What was the secret to his happiness?
This week, Jews around the world will read the following words from the Book of Deuteronomy:
“See, I set before you today a blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Hashem your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and curse, if you do not obey the commandments of Hashem your God, but turn away from the path that I enjoin upon you this day and follow other gods, whom you have not experienced.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-28)
A careful reading of these verses reveals a word that appears to be unnecessary. “See, I set before you today a blessing and curse.” The word “today” is easy to miss, because it doesn’t seem to add anything to Moses’ message. But the language of the Bible is always precise, and when Moses said the word “today,” he meant to convey something important to the people of Israel – and to all of us.
In the old days, great Rabbis were often known for “specializing” in particular commandments. Some were known for their great love of other people, others for their passionate prayers. Someone once asked a student of the Rabbi of Kobrin: “What was most important to your rabbi? What did he specialize in?” The student answered: “Whatever he happened to be doing at that moment.”
We human beings have a natural inclination to fantasize and worry about the future and to replay the past in our heads, over and over. When we are at work, we fantasize about being on vacation; on vacation, we worry about the work piling up on our desks. Over and over again, we replay certain conversations, or stress about what may happen in the future. “Will I finish preparing for that presentation in time?”
Our minds are like monkeys, vaulting from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree. And what is the end result? We spend a significant portion of our lives engaged, not fully in the moment, but in thoughts of that past or future. We don’t fully engage with the present. And we constantly sacrifice the now, the actual, living present, for fleeting thoughts of what was or what will be.
It is precisely this trap that Moses warned us against. “Behold, I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse.” The word “today” is not unnecessary; it is essential to Moses’ message! For in every moment of life, we all have a choice: how will we experience this particular moment? Will we be fully engaged in today? Will our attention and energies be focused on what we are doing at this particular time? Will we experience the present in the way God wants us to experience the present – with focus and urgency?
“Behold, I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse” means that the way you experience today, your ability to live in today, will determine whether your life is a blessing or a curse!
When we are sitting with a child or grandchild, are we fully in that moment? When we are sitting with our spouses at the end of the day, late at night, do we have a real conversation? Or do we lay in bed playing on our phones or watching TV? These are the everyday choices before us – choices that determine if our lives will be a blessing or a curse.
And this, I believe, was the secret to Tim’s happiness. “There is so much richness on a bus – really, so much richness everywhere – if you just develop the ability to look at life with a different eye, and appreciate the opportunities offered to you.”
To tap into the blessings of life, all we have to do is be present and pay attention!