Bruce Lee is quoted as saying “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” I once asked a teacher of martial arts about this quote and he explained that what Bruce Lee meant was that the mastery of a single movement is far more effective than underdeveloped knowledge of many movements.
I have thought a lot about this idea throughout the week, as we read about Noah in this week’s Torah portion. According to a number of commentators Noah and his family were chosen to build the ark and survive the flood because Noah had perfected his performance of a single commandment, that of giving charity. At the same time, our experience tells us that there is indispensable value in being well rounded and developing in a number of areas. Particularly as an educator, I often wonder what the right balance is between a singularly focused depth in one area and broad exposure to a variety of disciplines and studies.
Rabbi Joseph Hayyun, the last great rabbi of Portugal in the 15th Century pondered this question as well as he looked at two fascinating lines in the Talmud. The first, from Shabbat 118b presents a sage who asks his fellow “regarding what [commandment] was your father very careful?” and the second from Pirkei Avot (2:9) in which Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai says to his students “go out and see what is an upright path that a person should cling to…” In response to both of these passages, Rabbi Hayyun reflects on the assumptions behind them and wonders why a person would be careful about only one commandment or cling to only a single good path? Shouldn’t we strive for all of them?
His answer to these musings offers us wise counsel and is one I think Bruce Lee would appreciate. Rabbi Hayyun states “while a person needs to cling to all positive things, the right way to approach this matter is for a person to establish for themselves one particular practice to perfect and develop themselves in. Through doing so, one enables themselves to reach other positives practices as well”(Hayyun, Mili d’Avot on Pirkei Avot 2:9, emphasis mine). In other words, if we dedicate ourselves in one area, whether it is the performance of a commandment, an area of study or a martial arts kick, and then make sure to consider how that process opens horizons to new ones, we engage both with focused mastery and the benefits it brings, as well as prepare our minds to take what we’ve learned in order to seek out new arenas for growth and learning.