Over my summer travels, I found myself at a gas station somewhere in rural New Jersey. Since New Jersey state law requires that someone fill up your tank – there is no such thing as self-serve – I opened my window to talk to the fellow who would fill us up.
Nice fellow, mid-30s would be my guess, with flowing blond hair and tattooed hands that didn’t match his very soft demeanor. It was instantly clear that this man had lived a lot more life than his years.
As he began filling my tank, he pulled out one of those window squeegees to start cleaning my front windshield. I thanked him and told him it wasn’t necessary. He said the window wasn’t perfectly clean and he’d like to do it at no extra charge, and then he said the words, “I am just trying to do the next right thing.”
Anyone who is familiar with the recovery program of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), which I do have some familiarity with, immediately knows that that term is very much a recovery term. Essentially it means, I don’t have to figure out how to live the rest of my life clean and sober, nor how I am going to navigate every upcoming crisis without “picking up” and “using.” I only need to do the “next right thing.” It’s similar in concept to another recovery slogan to “take it a day at a time.”
I thanked him and uttered a few slogans myself to continue the kinship that he had begun. He smiled and thanked me for the encouragement.
I thought to myself, as we begin to prepare for the high holidays, this is an excellent metaphor for preparing and experiencing the High Holidays.
Every year, most of us realize that we are not at the level we are supposed to be spiritually, and for many of us, we are not even at the lower goals we made for ourselves in the previous year and the many years prior.
It almost feels like we try again and again to set these goals for our Jewish development only to find that we didn’t achieve these goals and something is wrong with us.
This conversation with the gas station attendant in recovery may very well teach us the answer. Our problem isn’t that we don’t want to do the right thing or that our goals are too lofty, it is that we are setting these goals in a manner that requires us to do all the heavy lifting at one time, and that often feels unmanageable to us.
(If you have a 200-kilo bag of diamonds that you need to carry to your upstairs apartment, if you try to take up all 200 kilos at once, the load will be too heavy to carry, and the bag may rip regardless. The job will not be accomplished. But take the same bag, divide it into 5-kilo bags and take many shifts up the stairs, and the task will be easily accomplished.)
True for the addict that they cannot choreograph their entire life or even their entire year, month or week right now, but they can manage their life if they take it a day at a time. Similarly, every person who is lovesick for a deeper G-dly connection cannot accomplish it if we try to achieve our spiritual goals all in one shot. We could, however, do it if we simply tried to do “the next right thing.”
Then we take our spiritual journey of recovery one day at a time, one step at a time, doing only the next right thing, and one thing leads to another, and we can, in fact, look back at the year that passed with pride at what we’ve accomplished.
This is my New Year’s resolution, to simply try to do the next right thing in my Jewish and spiritual journey. Sure, I will set goals – I must, or I don’t know what I am striving toward. However, those goals will be accomplished only by doing the next right thing in the direction of those goals. If and when I reach it, I will know that it happened not by trying to do it all at once, but by simply taking it one day at a time and doing “the next right thing.”
Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Peabody.