Anything, Not Everything

May 8, 2021

Author(s): Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger,

Listen Watch

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai
May 8, 2021 – 26 Iyyar 5781
Anything, Not Everything
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


Madeline always loved to sing.  As a teenager, she had a gorgeous voice, a two-and-a-half octave range, and the kind of creative artistry that made people swoon.  She and her friends would sing along to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland, and she took the stage at every wedding and bar mitzvah she could.  In high school, won an adult talent contest at the Adams Theater in Newark. On her way out, comedian Joey Adams told her that she “had a very good voice and…should pursue it.”

That dream was tempting.  But Madeline’s family was struggling.  They lived in a tiny apartment without heat.  Her dad sold bananas on the street out of a cart, barely making enough money for the family of seven to scrape by.  Madeline knew that she had the raw talent to become an incredible singer, but she also knew her family needed her.  So, she chose to support her family and got a job working as a secretary.

And she kept singing. In 1946, Madeline discovered the Hertz Studio in Newark, where anyone could pay a small fee to record a song with the in-house band.  She went there as often as she could. It was pure bliss.  She would stand there, holding the mic with her eyes closed, in paradise and then, at the end of each recording session, the sound engineer would hand her a freshly minted 78 r.p.m. record.  Her own music. Her own joy.  She treasured those records.

Seven years later, she married her beloved husband, Joseph and they began to build a life together.  With her family of origin in a better place, and a husband who could support her, she could have pursued music then.  But again, Madeline chose to invest in family.  She became a mother and a homemaker. She put the records away for safe keeping.

When her story was printed in the New York Times, the author described her life as a Hollywood saga gone awry.  Here is a young woman, born through adversity, with this glimmering beautiful voice.  She should have sung her heart out.  She should have travelled the world performing.  Instead, she is sucked into secretarial work, instead her gifts are squandered in the home.  What a waste. What a loss.


Why do we see Madeline’s story as a failure, as squandered potential, as dreams smothered? Why don’t we listen to her story and say, “wow, what an amazing story of a woman who chose to do everything she could to support the people she loves.” Or, “wow, she chose not to sing in order to be a mother, she must really have loved that role.”  Why do we assume that because she had a talent that she didn’t pursue professionally, she wasted it? Or worse, that she was forced to abandon it?

The truth is life isn’t about doing everything we can. Each one of us is gifted with more talents, more interests, and more opportunities than we could ever fully pursue.  The art of life is choosing when to say yes, when to open to an opportunity and when to say no thank you.  I have a dear friend who likes to say, “you can do anything you want, but not everything.” We can do anything we set our minds to, but we cannot do everything.  And when we try, it can make us feel crazy.

When I speak to young moms, the most common refrain I hear is I do everything I can at work, but I’m always overwhelmed and always feel guilty that I’m not spending more time with my kids. When I’m home, I worry that I’m not pulling my weight at work. I try to do everything I can, but I don’t feel like I can do anything right.

When I speak with teens, I hear the same truth.  They’re trying to do well in school, to get good grades and good test scores all while maintaining a perfect resume of extra-curricular activities and managing a blossoming social life.  They’re overwhelmed and stressed all the time. They always feel like they could and should be doing more, that their lives depend on how much they can accomplish.

We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything.

Adam Grant just wrote a beautiful essay in the times about how we are all languishing.  Languishing because we’re trying to do more, more, more.  Languishing because our inboxes keep pinging and our phones keep ringing and the texts keep beeping and we can’t keep up and the more we try, the more we feel like we’re failing.  His answer to the problem of languishing is flow.  Turn off the notification alerts, close your inbox, and focus on something that you can accomplish now.  In other words, stop trying to do everything at once.

That’s the same wisdom of our tradition.  העוסק במצווה פטור מן המצווה we are taught that someone who is engaged in a mitzvah is exempt from other mitzvot.  The gemarra gives the example of a groom on his wedding night—each one of us is obligated to say the shema at night, but a groom on his wedding night is doing the mitzvah of being with his bride, and so he is exempt from the mitzvah of shema.  You might have thought tradition would ask us to do and be more.   You might have thought the groom should say the shema and be with his bride.  That we should answer our email and be texting at the same time all while sitting in a meeting.  But no. Our tradition prizes focus; our tradition prizes presence.  Our tradition prizes flow.

We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything.

Which brings me back to Madeline Forman.  During the pandemic, Madeline and her husband were cleaning out closets and organizing when she came across a box of records.  She called her 61-year-old son who lives ten minutes away and told him he had to come over immediately to listen! They were glorious. Just as beautiful as she remembered.

A family member posted one of the tunes to Facebook and it went viral. Hundreds of comments poured in from around the world, from everyday people and musical experts alike.  Grammy winners, Academy Award winners, producers: the feedback was overwhelming.  As one of her family members described, “it’s like an amateur ballplayer who played in the minors and you go, ‘Gee, I could have been in the big leagues.”

But for Madeline, it was enough to have loved those songs and to have sung.  As she looks back on her life, she knows she could have made different choices. She knows she could have had a different path. But she has no regrets. She sang the song she wanted to sing. The song that filled her with joy.  As Robert Frost famously wrote, “two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”