We are told a story at the end of today’s daf (Nedarim 89b) about someone who made a vow that he would not get married until he completes his study of ‘halakha’ (which, as Tosfot explains, is to be understood in this context as referring to the study of the six orders of the Mishna). However, as the Gemara puts it, רָהֵיט בְּגַפָּא וְתוּבַלְיָא וְלָא אִמְּצִי לְמִיתְנֵא – literally, ‘he would run up a ladder and rope but was not able to learn’ – which in this case means that notwithstanding his efforts, he was not able to achieve this goal.
Naturally, there are many factors that may have contributed to why this individual was unsuccessful in reaching his goal. Perhaps this man was trying to learn the Mishna without a teacher? Or perhaps he lacked the skills to understand the text? But what seems clear from this story is that he set his goal too high and ended up feeling disappointed with himself.
Personally, I am a big believer in goal setting in Torah study. However, alongside this we must be realistic in our goal setting, because failing to achieve one’s goals can often trigger feeling of failure and can, at least in some people, it can diminish their confidence to try once again.
The problem, however, is that the goal of one person isn’t always the goal of the other, yet we often measure other people according to our goals and not their own. In fact, this point is powerfully expressed in Yisroel Besser’s biography of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld (simply titled, ‘Reb Shlomo’), who once quipped: “Today, if you’re not a big learner, you’re out – there’s no place for you. If you do get into learning, then you think that you’re a big talmid chacham and that’s just as dangerous. Back then [when I was a young child], you could be involved in the life of the shul and you were part of it. There was a chevre Mishnayos in my shul, and they made a big party when they finished Mishnayos. There was a chevra Tehillim and a chevra Ein Yaakov. There were tzadakos and tomchei Torah and places to get involved… [The ideal is to have a community where] everybody is doing something different, getting involved.”
Ultimately, we need to ensure that our communities value the different contributions from each member of the community, that we celebrate different forms of learning at different paces, and that those who are thinking about their Torah study goals, while they should certainly stretch themselves, should not set themselves up – or be set up – for failure.