Soon after earning my Private Pilot’s License, I was sitting in the left seat of a Piper Cherokee single-engine airplane flying at 5,000 feet over the Mozambique jungle on a course for Lourenco Marques. I had no idea that soon thereafter the beautiful landscape beneath me would be transformed into a bloody battlefield of a civil war, resulting in the mass exodus of about a quarter of a million skilled Portuguese citizens and the destruction of an Indian Ocean paradise.
On that sunny afternoon, however, I was accompanied by a British friend who was visiting me. We rented a plane in Johannesburg, and with my fresh piloting skills, we set out to fly to the coastal resort now known as Maputo.
I tell you this partially in the spirit of self-indulgent nostalgia, but mainly to describe what happened when John, comfortably ensconced in the right seat, excitedly spotted a large herd of elephants below. I immediately threw the P-32 into a bank and began carving a large circle through the clear African skies so we could keep the mesmerizing sight in view. I must have done two or three complete circles as we gazed in wonder at that herd of one of God’s most astounding creatures.
All of a sudden, I was jerked from my reverie by the startling realization that the elephants were far closer than they had been earlier. My eyes darted to the altimeter and to my shock we were only fifteen hundred off the ground. We had lost over three thousand feet of altitude! Needless to say, I wasted no time returning to straight and level flight and with adrenaline pulsing in my veins I began a climb to resume our proper altitude.
But how did that happen? Pilot error of course. My attention was on the elephants instead of on flying. More importantly, I had forgotten a fundamental principle of flight. Turning takes energy. When I banked into a turn quite a lot of energy that had previously been providing lift and keeping us in the air was now being redirected towards changing our direction. This meant that less was available for the task of keeping us airborne. This is why, like every pilot, I was taught to add power when starting a turn. While pressing on a rudder pedal and turning the yoke, push that throttle forward. Since my scare that day over Africa, I have never forgotten this lesson.
The same is true for a car. Should you ever lose your brakes, get into neutral and try to make as many turns as possible. The car will come to a standstill far more quickly than if you continue steering straight. Turning takes energy and drains it away from the forward motion of the car. The same is true for a boat. A successful yacht-racing helmsman knows that every single rudder movement costs speed.
Why do I tell you all this? Because everything spiritual has a physical parallel or as ancient Jewish wisdom puts it: the kingdom of heaven is mirrored by the kingdom of earth. Just as airplanes, cars, and boats require energy to change course, so do we humans need considerable energy to bring about a course change in our lives.
Ancient Jewish wisdom affirms how God blesses those who struggle to rid themselves of undesirable habits or to acquire good ones. Not many people do this successfully because it is hard. Changing course in life takes considerable energy.
Is there something about your life-trajectory that you’d like to change? There must be. It is so for almost everyone one of us fired up by the dream of Divine perfection and our innate desire to emulate it. Changing a life course is daunting. Starting it without realizing how much energy it is going to take can lead to discouragement. If you don’t know in advance how much work it will involve, when you hit the first challenge you assume it is impossible. Really, you need to push that throttle forward and pour on the power.
In Numbers chapter 32, we read about a man named Yair.
And the children of Machir the son of Menasheh went to Gilad, and took it and dispossessed the Amorites who were in it…and Yair the son of Menasheh went and captured the towns there and called them Chavot Yair
Three centuries later, we encounter another Yair, possessing strange similarities to his illustrious ancestor.
After him arose Yair of Gilad who judged Israel twenty-two years and he had thirty sons
who rode on thirty donkeys and they had thirty cities that
are called Chavot Yair to this day, in the land of Gilad.
Below is the original Hebrew text for the phrase, “and he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys and they had thirty cities.”
וַיְהִי–לוֹ שְׁלֹשִׁים בָּנִים רֹכְבִים עַל–שְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים וּשְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים לָהֶם
Reading from right to left, you’ll notice that words 3, 7, and 9 resemble one another. They are the three usages of the number thirty.
Furthermore, you’ll see that words 8 and 10 look identical, though word 8 means ‘donkeys’ while word 10 means ‘cities’.
Let’s examine three questions:
(1) Why the emphasis on thirty? (2) Why donkeys? (3) How are donkeys related to cities that they should share a word?
(1) Every number has unique significance in ancient Jewish wisdom. The number thirty means ‘poised on the threshold of a new life phase.’ To emphasize this point, chapter 4 of Numbers informs us no less than seven times that the Levites commenced their careers of Temple service at the age of thirty. Just as the Levites were poised on the threshold of something life-transforming, we see Yair doing his utmost to transform his life away from the pattern established by the two previous judges, Tola and Avimelech.
(2) Riding a donkey in Scripture means far more than transport. It always means employing the material, dominating it in order to rise to something higher.
(3) Both donkeys and cities suggest growth; one through material means and the other through social. Because we grow through interaction with other people, crowded cities allow greater personal growth than lonely rural areas. This is why, in an effort to atone and win his way back into God’s good graces, Cain built a city. (Genesis 4:17)
The previous judges, Tola and Avimelech, led Israel ineffectively and badly. Yair knew he had to change course, emulating not his immediate predecessors but rather the original Yair. Knowing how much energy change of direction takes, he employed three strategies that each of us can use to motivate ourselves.
(i) He lived significantly in the spirit of thirty—intensely convinced he was poised on the threshold of transformation.
(ii) He determined to use all his resources, family, material, and social to rise higher.
(iii) He kept in mind the image of success exemplified by the first Yair and drew inspiration just as we can draw inspiration from the success of others.