When I was a young man I was learning in blatt shiur (Talmud lecture) and the Rosh Yeshiva zatzal encouraged us greatly to create mussar vaadim. What’s a mussar va’ad? A mussar va’ad is a small group of young men, typically the same age, and each week one fellow would present. It would be a chiddush (original Torah thought) maybe from a Da’as Zekeinim, maybe from a Gemara (Talmud). He would present a chiddush in mussar (character development), and then as a group we would discuss how to develop that within ourselves, how to apply it, how to use it.
I was invited to join a very exclusive mussar va’ad. The first week someone showed up with a chazal (statement of our rabbis), very deep, wonderful, presented the concept and we all discussed it. The next week someone came in with a Rashi on Chumash (Bible), also a mussar concept. We discussed it. The third week similarly. And then it was my turn to present.
I walked into the room, but I was not carrying a Gemara, nor a Chumash, nor a mussar sefer. I walked into the room carrying a picture sports book. Now, I got some pretty dirty looks, as in what’s with the picture sports book. I took this picture sports book and opened it to the center section, and there you saw the picture of Muhammad Ali holding up the heavyweight championship belt. And those looks turned pretty dirty, as in Shafier, what do you want? I said uh-uh, tell me what you see. Alright, we get it. Frazier had been the world champion, Ali just won the fight — what do you want?
I said exactly. When you look at that picture what do you see? You see victory, you see glory. What you don’t see is a Muhammad Ali who was driven from that fight directly to the hospital. You see, the world champion got so beat up in that fight, that for 21 days after he could not get out of his hospital bed. But you don’t read about that in the sports sections. You read about his victory, you read about his glory, but you don’t read about the punishment, the pain. You don’t read about how beaten up he got in that fight.
And what I wanted to share with my friends that day was that if you want to be a champion, if you want to become someone, you have to know how to take a punch. Because I don’t care how much talent you have, I don’t care how much natural ability you have, if you don’t know how to take a punch you will fail.
As a matter of fact, I was a fan of Muhammad Ali as a kid, and he was golden. Every fighter, every boxer has scars, noses that are mangled, ears that are bent out of shape. Muhammad Ali was Pretty Boy Ali. He used to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. You could watch the punches coming, he would duck, he would move out of the way. It seemed like he never got hit. Muhammad Ali estimated that in his professional fighting career he got hit in the head at least one million times. That means at least one million times some 220-pound chaya ra smashed him full force in the jaw. That’s Pretty Boy Ali, the cleanest fighter in boxing.
Knowing how to take a punch means knowing that I’m going to get hit, I’m going to get knocked down, but I’m going to get back in the fight time after time. And that yesod (principle) is a principle for success for any endeavor in life. Surely when it comes to personal growth; surely when it comes to personal battles.