A particularly inspiring story broke this week. Gac Filipaj (pronounced "Gahtz Filee-pie"), an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, graduated from Columbia University with honors. This might be unremarkable, were it not the fact that Mr. Filipaj has worked at Columbia for the last 19 years as a custodian, where he was entitled to take a certain number of courses free each semester. It took him seven years to learn English, and then 12 years of full-time work and part-time school, but he earned a Bachelor's degree in Classics this past week.
His tale is one of change -- long, slow, arduous change. What is so beautiful about Mr. Filipaj's story is not necessarily the "bootstrap" experience, raising himself up in accord with the great American myth, but rather the idea that we all have within our powers the ability to change ourselves, our status, our mindset, our lives.
Of the 13 baqqashot / requests found in the weekday Amidah, recited three times daily, we find that the first is for personal knowledge:
חָנֵּנוּ מֵאִתְּךָ דֵעָה בִּינָה וְהַשכֵּל. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', חונֵן הַדָּעַתHonnenu me'itekha de'ah binah vehaskel. Barukh Attah Adonai, honen hada'at.Grant us knowledge, wisdom, and discernment. Praised are You, Adonai, who graciously grants us intelligence.
Why is this the first on our list of baqqashot? Because it is only through intelligence that we discern the right choices, the ones that enable us to become better people and to change ourselves.
Rabbi Seth Adelson