Alexander the Great was the emperor of Greece. He was responsible for the growth of Greek wisdom and culture and supported many scholars, philosophers, artists and athletes. He set out to conquer the world and introduce Greek enlightenment to all the lands of the earth and eventually his power extended over hundreds of thousands of people. Nothing could happen in the civilized world without his approval. Did he need anyone? Could any person living in his time period compete with him? Yet for him it was not enough.
The Midrash tells us that when he was exploring in Africa he once sat down to rest near a spring. The spring emitted a wonderful scent that he had never inhaled before, and when he tasted its waters he discovered that they had the magical power of restoring one's strength. Alexander followed the spring to its source and found himself at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. He raised his voice and ordered, "Open up the gates of the Garden of Eden and let me enter."
A heavenly voice answered him, "These gates are for those who fear God and only the righteous may enter."
"I am an important king, and I have conquered every city I reached," Alexander the Great argued.
The gates remained locked, and Alexander could not break through. After a while he made another attempt. "Can you please grant me at least one small request?" he entreated in a less demanding tone. "Since I have already reached this wonderful place, please give me some object, a memento, to prove that I reached the Garden of Eden."
Suddenly a hand came out of the gate and gave him a small round object.
When he returned to his palace, he decided to weigh the mysterious disc. It was light to carry, yet when he laid it on the scale, strange things happened. He placed a bar of gold on the opposite side of the balance but it was not heavy enough to tip the scale. He threw ten bars on the pan; the disc from the Garden of Eden did not lift. He threw a hundred, a thousand, and finally all the gold he owned into the pan. No amount would outweigh the small round disc.
"This is impossible," Alexander thought. "What is happening here cannot be explained logically. " He called the Jewish sages and asked them, "Can you identify this object from the Garden of Eden and tell me why nothing I've put on the other weighing pan can make it rise?"
The sages explained, "If a person reaches the Garden of Eden, the object they will give him is something that can teach him a lesson he can apply to his life. You were given the eye of a human being. The nature of this eye is that it never knows satisfaction. It doesn't matter what its owner possesses; the eye always craves more.
"You have already conquered many countries, both near and far. If you will now stop going out to battle and focus instead on using the wealth you attained to improve your life and that of your citizens, you will live a long and fruitful life. If you continue, however, to go out and wage wars, you will eventually be killed in battle."
Alexander said, "Prove that your words are true."
The sages replied, "Take all the gold out of the other pan and cover the disc with some dust. You will find that afterwards even the smallest coin that you put on the opposite pan will tip the balance and cause the eye to rise."
Alexander did so and found that the words of the sages were accurate. He asked them the meaning. They replied, "The human eye is never satisfied as long as a person is alive, but once the soul leaves the earth and the body is covered with dust, it no longer has any use for wealth."
Alexander's story need not discourage us. Understanding our inborn needs and characteristics is the first step toward outgrowing them. As part of the process we will need to examine and perhaps dismantle some tendencies that society, our backgrounds and human nature have instilled in us.
What are we supposed to do? Examine the attitudes you hold dear. Some are hidden deeply in your psyche and you may have to ferret them out. Do you constantly aim for everything around you to be perfect? Do you wonder why things never measure up to your expectations? Who has given you the definition of "perfect" -- your schoolmates? Fair-weather friends? The surrounding culture? Do you feel that unless your circumstances are "perfect," your life is not worthwhile?
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
There was a water carrier in the Baal Shem Tov's (18th century) village. The Baal Shem Tov greeted him one evening and asked, "How is everything?"
"Absolutely terrible," the water carrier griped. "I'm an old, weak man. This work is much too strenuous. I never get a chance to rest, and there is no one to help me. When I make an effort to climb stairs with these heavy buckets, the women complain that water spills on the steps. Life is miserable."
The Baal Shem Tov comforted the man and blessed him. A few weeks later he met the water carrier again and asked him, "Have things improved?"
"Thank God," the water carrier beamed. "I am so fortunate. I may be old, but I am healthy and strong. I can afford basic necessities, and I need not burden my children. Not only am I independent, I can help others in my job. People depend on me; when I bring the water, they are grateful. Sometimes when I've climbed many steps on a cold day, they serve me tea so that I have a chance to rest and warm up."
The Baal Shem Tov explained that the water carrier's behavior was really not contradictory; God had just given him the tools to make the most of his circumstances.
Sometimes our situation doesn't improve. We wake up to the same problems, the same limited resources, the same surroundings, and we spend our day involved in the same activities. However, we can choose to approach the day differently. God would love to put a feeling of joy and hope in our hearts and if we only allowed it to enter, that slight change of attitude could alter our existence.