Anton Chekhov considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history. Chekhov had at first written stories only for financial gain, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story.
He was an unsuccessful Russian doctor who would eventually become one of the world’s great literary masters. Among the many aphorisms attributed to Mr. Chekhov is the advice that he once gave an aspiring dramatist, “If you hang a gun on the wall in the first act, you had better use it by the third act.”
Avid readers, or those who attend plays, watch movies, etc. can readily testify to the large number of writers that utilize this tactic. Thus in the spirit of true Chekhovian drama, chest pains are inevitably followed by heart attacks, life insurance policies by sudden deaths, and telephone rings by earth shattering news. In real life however most chest pains turn out to be indigestion, policies are the harbinger of nothing more than endless years of premium payments, and telephone calls end up being from some pre-recorded marketing service.
Simply put, life does not imitate art. Sadly enough, the reason for this is that most people do not seem to lead purposeful existences. Instead they allow events, meetings and opportunities to be rendered irrelevant. What could have been order becomes chaos, and what should have been sequential became haphazard.
Which brings us to the opening words in this week’s Ethics of our Fathers, “(Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi) Rebbe said: What is the right path (Derech Yeshara) that a person should choose for himself?”
It should be noted that Rebbe refers to a “Derech Yeshara,” which literally means “A straight path.” Every Derech or path, whether it on city streets, country highways or on the road of life requires three things: A starting point, an end point, and a way to get from the beginning to the end. A straight path or line is when all the points are a continuation of the previous point. With this in mind, Rebbe’s teaching can now be read not merely as a question, but its solution as well. Just change the punctuation to, “What is the Derech - path that a person should choose? The Yeshara – the straight one.”
A straight path is one in which every step is a continuation of the preceding one and leads to the step that follows. Thus, if the steps I take now are a natural outgrowth of the steps I took previously, then this path can be termed straight. And if the point I now occupy is both the jumping board and directional guide for my upcoming positions than this road I have embarked upon is, once again, straight.
This is completely unlike the path which zigs and zags all over the place, with no clear direction. At times you might be heading north, and moments later south. Rebbe’s instructive lesson to us then is, look for a Derech, an approach - especially in regards to Judaism - that has integrity. So if a person’s behavior at 7AM in the synagogue has no connection with his actions while working in the office at 10 AM , then while everyone, including you, are on a journey, it is not a straight-forward one.
A Derech Yeshara implies an integrated life. A life, where what we say in our prayers is manifest in our deeds. A life, that carries over the inspirational lessons of Judaism from our Hebrew School days into adulthood. A life that extends the promises we made to our spouses under the wedding canopy and to our children when they were first born....not obsolete, but continuous.
Such a life is straight. It doesn’t send out mixed signals. Such a life is easy to follow. Others will always know where you are and where you stand. Such a life is beneficial for our children, offering them clear goals to aim for. If we but had such a life, where our every step seemed planned, reading our diary would send Mr. Chekhov into paroxysms of jealousy.
Ernest Hemingway, was a modern day writer influenced by Mr. Chekhov.