I am beginning to know how to paint. It has taken me over fifty years to work to achieve this result, which is still far from complete.
—Pierre-August Renoir (1841–1919)

I once attended a Renoir exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. One of the first sights when entering the exhibit was this quote, painted starkly in large, unadorned letters, centered on a bare, white wall. Renoir said this in 1913, at the age of seventy-two. By this time, the Impressionist artist was a master at his craft. He was well-established, and considered by many to be the greatest living painter in France.

It’s easy, sometimes, to feel content with how far we’ve come and how much mastery we’ve attainedOne cannot help but marvel at his humility and self-awareness. While he did not trivialize the brilliance of his work, he also knew how far he still had to go.

It’s easy, sometimes, to feel content with how far we’ve come and how much mastery we’ve attained. To give ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back, stretch out our arms, pop open our recliners, and bask in the delightful glow of our accomplishments.

To some extent, we should feel proud of what we’ve achieved, how far we have come. And once in a while, we should relax—in body, perhaps even in mind. But never in spirit. Spiritually, we must internalize the balanced discernment of the mountain climber—simultaneously contented at seeing how far we’ve come and tenaciously eyeing the next mountain we must scale.

…And then the next one, and the next . . . never quite feeling like we’ve arrived at the zenith of our talent or ability or comprehension.

Renoir seemed to understand something that many of us, in our microwave generation of instant gratification and everything-at-our-fingertips technology, have a difficult time grasping: true mastery of anything—be it art, music, basketball, science, philosophy or spirituality—is not something that can be achieved in a month, a year, even a decade. Perhaps it’s not something we can attain at all, but an awareness that truly knowing means realizing how much we don’t know.

One might say that a life spent in a consciousness of, perhaps, inadequacy would feel frustrating and demoralizing. But perhaps it depends on our perspective. If it’s not just about us and our accomplishments, then the knowledge that true mastery is impossible, given the complexity and vastness of the subject or pursuit, might be the most liberating knowledge there is. For one, it tells us the infinite possibility and potential that lies within us and within humankind.

It tells us the infinite possibility and potential that lies within us and within humankindAs I once heard someone say, life is like riding an escalator going down. If we don’t keep moving, learning, growing, increasing, we will inevitably fall. No matter how far we’ve come, there is always another level to reach, another mountain to scale. And one thing that G‑d undeniably gave the Jewish people is a deep yearning to strive, to be better, go father, do more, seek a higher truth. Something in our nature will not let us be completely happy with the status quo. If channeled the right way, this relentless craving to go higher and do more can allow us to transcend our limitations and reach awesome heights.

This message is especially relevant as we approach Rosh Hashanah. We are now reaching the eighteenth day of Elul, “Chai Elul.” This day is the first of the final twelve days of Elul, leading up to a new year of the Jewish calendar. Each of these twelve days symbolizes one month, and as such affords us the opportunity to reflect on our behavior and actions during that month, on what we have accomplished and how we can improve in the coming year. And on the first day of each new year, a new energy enters the world, one which has never before been experienced by humankind. That means a whole new reservoir of potential and possibility.

And if we ever feel ourselves growing stagnant or complacent, especially in spiritual matters—such as attempting an understanding of G‑d and this magnificent, mysterious world that He created—we must realize that the more we know, the more we are only beginning to know . . .

May you be inscribed for a good and sweet new year.