“You cannot afford to live in potential your whole life; at some point, you have to unleash the potential and make your move.”—Eric Thomas

I grew up hating my potential. This was the potential that the teachers would write on my report cards when I disrupted the class, or what they scribbled in my autograph book at the end of the year: “You have so much potential . . .” The unwritten words following that were, “. . . but when will you fulfill it?!”

I grew up hating my potential

And that’s what I found so unsettling. For potential is only worth something when it is acted upon.

In chapter two of Ethics of Our Fathers (Pirkei Avot), we read how Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai cultivated the unique potential of each of his students. “He used to enumerate their praiseworthy qualities: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenus—a cemented cistern which does not lose a drop; Rabbi Joshuah ben Chananya—happy is she who bore him; Rabbi Yossei the Priest—a chassid (pious one), etc.”

But what was the quality being highlighted for Rabbi Joshuah with the words “happy is she who bore him”? And why doesn’t the verse simply say, “happy is his mother,” rather than say that his mother is the one who gave birth to him?

Every child is born with individual qualities catered to his or her soul’s mission in life, with the potential to live a life devoted to serving G‑d. Rabbi Joshua’s teacher was emphasizing that his greatest asset was that he sought to fulfill his own potential, to the point that people would look at his beautiful character and say, “Happy is she who bore him”—happy is the mother who sees her grown child fulfilling the potential he was born with!

Rabbi Joshuah’s mother is not mentioned arbitrarily. She was to a large degree responsible for his greatness. When he was an infant, she would bring his cradle the house of study so that he would become accustomed to the sweet sing-song of Torah study. Her efforts in shaping his character bore fruit, and she was lucky enough to witness her son actualizing his latent abilities.

It was Rabbi Joshuah’s free choice to use his G‑d-given talents, but it was his mother's actions that pointed him in the right direction.

Thoughtstream: Today, I will shape the environment of my children into a holy one, maximizing their ability to fulfill their potential.

(Adapted from Likkutei Sichot, vol. 23, p. 258; Sichot Shabbat Parshat Kedoshim, 5736.)