Improving Our Character
One of the greatest challenges we face in life is being trapped in the rut
of our personal shortcomings. As time progresses, we become more alert to
those flaws that despite our efforts, have resisted change. It may be a
propensity to anger or a lack of organizational skills. It may be a tendency
to be self-centered or jealous of others. These mindsets tend to lock us in
a viselike grip; as much as we try we simply cannot escape.
One of the underlying principles of both the mussar and the Chassidic
schools of thought is that we must never despair of improving our character,
even regarding traits that are so stubborn they seem to be genetically
The saintly Yesod Hoavoda once told his disciples that he asked a
professional horse jockey if his horse ever threw him to the ground. "Of
course," said the jockey. "Everyone, even the most professional rider, gets
thrown from time to time."
"What do you do when you get thrown?" asked the Yesod Hoavodah. "I hold on
to the reins and jump back on to the saddle as fast as I can. If not, the
horse will run away and I will be left with nothing," the horse jockey replied.
"Our body too, pulls in different directions. While we try to harness its
instincts, they are often times more powerful than we are, but that does not
mean that we must despair of ever changing. Admitting defeat should be
unthinkable-since striving for self-improvement and self-elevation is what
our task in this world is all about.
King Solomon says in Koheles, "Sheva yipol tzadik vekam," seven times the
righteous fall, but they will stand. Simply put, a righteous person will
fall seven times but will continuously struggle back to his feet and get
back in the running.
There is a classical homiletical interpretation of this verse that provides
an avenue to assist us in getting back on our feet after a fall. A great
Chassidic sage said we may fall seven times but if we know that deep down,
our most fundamental desire is to be virtuous, to cleanse ourselves of
unsavory instincts and elevate ourselves to be moral moral, giving and
unselfish, we will persevere.
Just as a child when severely criticized will tend to internalize the
judgment and feel he or she is incurably bad, we adults may also become
harshly self-critical and "throw in the towel" on trying to improve. Instead
of giving more power to our nature's darker side, however, our job is to
reinforce the belief that a human being can reach for-and attain-the stars.
We must stand erect and jump back in to the lifelong challenge of
self-improvement, relying on assistance from Above to help us in the struggle.
This theme is echoed n a verse in this week's Parsha. The Torah tells us,
Vehaya, im lo sishmiun bekoli," and it will come to pass, if you do not obey
my voice and you stray after idols, I warn you today that you will be
utterly destroyed and decimated, if you do not heed my voice. The word
"vehaya" always precedes joyous tidings, the Sages say. Why then in so
tragic a situation as the Jewish people straying from hearkening to G-d's
word should the Torah use the word "vehaya?"
Furthermore, the commentaries ask, why does this piece conclude with the
verse that all these terrible punishments will befall you since "you do not
listen to Hashem's voice" (present tense)? Would it not be more apropos to
write "since you have not listened to Hashem's voice" (past tense)?
The saintly Bnei Yisaschar explains that the Torah is alluding to the very
concept we have discussed above. Sometimes we stray very far from where are
supposed to be. A little voice inside of us tells us that we are doomed and
we might as well come to terms with our personal failure and embrace our
diminished and compromised status. We will never be able to regain our
footing and climb back up to spiritual heights.
It is that self-critical voice that is constantly buzzing inside of us,
declaring we are doomed. Yet "vehaya," -the joyous tidings associated with
this word teaches that the way to arouse Hashem's joy, so to speak, even as
our inner voice condemns us, is to resist that voice with all our energy,
and to choose self-affirmation instead. Bolstered by faith in Hashem's
helping power, we can boost our self-confidence and courage in tackling
life's ever-present challenges, and thereby succeed in realizing our inner
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos.
Rabbi Naftali Reich
Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.