Are you ambitious?

August 29, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Does Judaism have a problem with people being ambitious?



Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Does Judaism have a problem with people being ambitious?

A. Alan Marshall, an Australian author who overcame polio, wrote a book, “I Can Jump Puddles!”

An American educator interviewed at the age of 70 said he was still climbing mountains, at least metaphorically.

In the Book of Genesis (chapter 28), Jacob dreams of a ladder that joins earth and heaven: and rabbinic sages put into God’s mouth the words, “You have a ladder – so start climbing!”

A moving film depicts a paralysed victim who determines, “I’m going to move that toe!”

That’s ambition, to jump puddles, to climb mountains, to ascend ladders, to move toes.

The Ten Commandments tell you not to covet, but they don’t tell you not to want to achieve.

Actually the Tenth Commandment needs to be looked at in full – it doesn’t say, “Don’t desire a house!”, but “Don’t covet your neighbour’s house!”

A person has to be impelled by desire in order to get somewhere, so long as it’s not at someone else’s expense.

Choose your goals wisely and sensibly, and when you’re almost at the goal, make sure there’s another goal ahead of you. Always have a kettle on the boil.

There will be obstacles, and you’ll often have to summon up immense physical, mental and moral courage.

Even if you never succeed in getting to the moon, you’ll get further this time than you did before. You’ll certainly get higher than those who never even make the attempt.


Q. How do we know that the “Oral Torah” as we have it today is authentic? Surely inaccurate teachings/interpretations may have crept in?

A. One of the reasons that we need an oral tradition is that on many things the written Torah is short on details.

For example, it believes in marriage but does not explain the marriage procedures; it believes in shechitah but does not record the method of carrying it out.

According to tradition, Moses was given the Oral Law on Mount Sinai in addition to the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch) and thenceforward it was handed it down by word of mouth.

When new situations arose, the “judge who shall be in those days” was empowered to make a ruling utilising the system of interpretation that derived from Moses’ day. Sometimes one rabbinic judge ruled differently from another, perhaps because of special circumstances in his time and place.

Oral rulings were eventually codified, and though no full code has been compiled since Joseph Karo in the 16th century there are partial codes and countless rabbinic “responsa”.

In the unlikely event that a rabbinic ruling is plain wrong there are always authoritative books and great experts to consult, and a concerted effort will be made to persuade the writer of the mistaken ruling to issue a correction.


Q. Why do we say “Elokai N’shamah” (“O my God, the soul you placed within me is pure”) every morning?

A. It is a Jewish answer to the Christian doctrine of original sin, which argues that because Adam (and Eve) sinned, all their descendants are born tainted.

In Judaism the belief is that if we sin it is not because we are sinners but because we sometimes miss our way and succumb to temptation.

Christianity says that sin can only be overcome by belief in Jesus; Judaism insists that if we sin we can overcome it by penitence and good deeds.

Reciting the “Elokai N’shamah” passage during the early morning blessings acknowledges that every day we are re-born with the opportunity of keeping our slate clean.

Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that this prayer is said in the morning after the “Asher Yatzar” blessing which speaks of the union of the body with the soul. “Elokai N’shamah” is its counterpart or even its continuation, speaking of the union of the soul with the body.

In addition, says Hirsch, it “makes man aware of the nature of his soul as he awakens to a new day”.

Body and soul should combine to make a moral and spiritual success of the day that lies ahead.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


3 Responses to “Are you ambitious?”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Well said, Eion,
    Ambition that becomes more and more focused on money can change a person in such a way that the kind of values Judaism seeks to foster get left by the roadside.
    The wealth gap is widening to an extent that is obscene, and with it opportunities for good work and even modest security. There is no place for fatalism or acceptance of such an inequitable situation, and there is evidence of unrest in our society in relation to it, not just by those on minimum wages, but by the middle-class as well. Politicians ignore this at their peril.

  2. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    I like the discussion of Elokai N’Shamah and Asher Yatzar. Quite beautiful, and resonant with hope. Thank you, Rabbi Apple.

  3. Eion says:

    One has to be in a special spiritual space not to covet .
    Especially with VCE marks league ladders and the BRW top rich .
    Those that are worth a billion plus are to some a more important achievement than the devoted and brilliant doctor nurse or paramedic .Thats not the Judaism I believe in.
    All peoples have failed with wealth gaps but the Jewish Joke that the rich man has more Tzores .
    Some are fatalistic and accept grudgingly the status as it is .
    There is always guilt which can be good as it often makes people humane and its true some wealthy are philanthropists some giving to very worthy causes .
    The belief is that the drive to succeed if balanced you care for all citizens creates the better possible though still flawed society

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