Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | July 29, 2016

Don’t Pull the Sheepskin over my Eyes

Totally Useless DiplomaWhile moving some old framed documents we’d put away, I found several that made me stop and think. They were certificates of completion, essentially a diploma, for a computer course I’d taken many years ago when I was about to get married and needed to have some plan for supporting my family.

At the time, it sounded amazing. The saleswoman from the school told us how people with this degree are almost guaranteed a job right after they complete it, making $60,000 a year.  Especially since this was nearly twenty years ago, that sounded like a dream come true.

We signed up for the courses and my parents paid the thousands of dollars it cost. Needless to say, the woman wasn’t quite accurate about the job opportunities that awaited me, even when I went on to complete all three certifications. It would seem she pulled the wool (or sheepskin, a colloquial term for diploma) over my eyes.

Not only did I not get a job that paid that kind of money, within a year and a half I was done with computers and had moved into another field. What made the revelation of just how useless those diplomas were even stronger, was realizing (in 2016,) that the company had basically stopped producing the software in 2009 and all the certifications were for something that no longer even existed. It’s like being a Palm Pilot technician, cassette tape salesman, or the road manager for R’ Shlomo Carlebach.

Looking back at those pieces of paper which once meant enough for us to frame and realizing that they turned out not to be something worth treasuring was eye-opening. Sometimes something seems so important, and yet it’s not.

Along with those certificates, I found a diploma from my Yeshiva. In those days they didn’t have a specific document and when a friend and I asked for one, we were told we could print one and they would sign it. I recall the care with which we typed it, agonizing over the font and the verbiage. Then we purchased gold foil seals and red ribbon to make it look like we imagined a diploma from an Ivy League school might have looked. It was gorgeous and when it was done we were so proud to have it to hang on the wall.

And now, two decades later, I find not only the paper, but the meaning we placed on it, laughable. Certainly one should be proud of his accomplishments, and if your doctor doesn’t have a diploma on the wall you should probably consider staying healthy, but the importance is not invested in that piece of paper. Rather, what makes any degree valuable is the time and commitment of your life which it represents, and the nobility of the cause to which you made that commitment.

I am reminded of the story of a man who was emigrating from Europe to America in the early 1900’s. He had a three-week stopover in Paris before his boat would sail to America. In preparation for this, he spent months learning French. When he arrived in Paris, he was able to converse, shop, read the paper, and whatever else he needed to do. It was fantastic.

Until the day he set sail for the United States.

During the trip, and upon his arrival, he was unable to communicate in English. He was ill-prepared for his residency in America and barely managed to make ends meet.

The Baalei Mussar use this parable to explain how people get so caught up in succeeding in this world, which is temporary at best, while forgetting about the next world, where their soul will reside permanently. The 70 or 80 years a fellow might have here are like the three-week stopover the immigrant had. His time would have been much better spent learning English, the language of his final destination, and our time on earth would be better spent aiming for eternal success.

When I looked at the diplomas, these once-coveted objects, and realized how their importance never really materialized in my life, I reflected on how we often get caught up in things that we think are do-or-die and may never realize that we’re spinning our wheels.

Whether it’s the fancy clothes or car, the big house, the honor and respect, the Mensa ID card, or any other physical item, at the end of the day, what really matters is how we follow the Torah and treat other people (they go hand in hand.)

Hopefully, we can all get this message and when we look back on our lives, we’ll have picture frames full of the smiles we put on people’s faces, the honor we bestowed on them, and proof of our commitment and dedication to HaShem and the Torah. That would be something worth treasuring.


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