It’s ironic, but early success often seems to be a harbinger of future failure. History’s pages are littered with examples of prodigies who blossomed early, and then just as quickly faded away into obscurity. How often do we hear of rock groups that release a number-one hit and then fritter away the rest of their careers on drugs and groupies, novelists whose entire reputation is built on one breakthrough novel, and sporting stars who somehow never satisfy the promise of early stardom? What a sad waste of potential.
What can one do to drive oneself to thrive in spite of the success one has already enjoyed? How to keep one’s nose to the grindstone when every temptation cries out for a well-earned break?
Perhaps this was the point Moses was making at the end of this week’s Torah section. For the last four weeks, we’ve been describing in absorbing detail the construction and dedication of the Tabernacle (Mishkan). We’ve built the Tabernacle, and done the interior decoration. The kohanim have been anointed, and their ceremonial clothing prepared. At the very end of the Parshah, in the penultimate verse of the Book of Exodus, the text veers off-message and introduces a totally new concept: “When the cloud [of glory] that covered the Tent of Meeting would rise, the Children of Israel would travel.”
At first glance, this seemingly off-the-cuff description of the Israelites’ travel through the desert seems a total non-sequitur. We’ve been describing the Mishkan. Describing the subsequent travel arrangements seems totally off-topic.
However, the Torah is teaching us how to achieve lasting success in life. You’ve just fulfilled a phenomenal mission: designed a home for G‑d, and built an eternal edifice for spiritual accomplishment. The temptation now is to rest on your laurels, and to take time off to bask in the radiance of His presence. But you have to remind yourself that your achievement was but one stage in the long journey through life. Immediately upon completing this first step, you are expected to start planning and preparing again for your next march into history.
We cannot afford to be satisfied; we can never feel secure in past glories or previous triumphs. Getting something right early is not an excuse for future time-wasting or lazy self-congratulation, but should act as a driver towards further achievement. Youthful promise can be a herald of future destiny, but it is up to us to deliver. The clouds of glory guarantee greatness for all those who are willing to leave camp and follow wherever they may lead, towards the grandeurs that lie at the end of the road.