Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
A Little Self-Control Goes a Long Way
We are fortunate to live in a time and region of the world in which human
freedom and civil rights are sacred values. Within reason, we are free to
live as we please, practice our religion, and express our views without
fear of censorship or discrimination. We have become so accustomed to
Western life that we tend to take these freedoms for granted, though not
that long ago our parents and grandparents were killed just for being Jews.
Good thing, though, can be taken to extremes. In what can only be described
as a free-for-all, contemporary wisdom dictates that basically anything
goes. We can not restrict, constrain, or even criticize any and every use
of these basic personal freedoms. Want to pierce your toes - go right
ahead. Refer to the leader of your country as an imbecile, and cartoon him
in the caricature of Mickey Mouse (or Stalin) - and you'll likely receive
accolades. It is attitudes and priorities such as these that lead to the
absurd self-absorbed agendas of "pro-choicers," who advocate what can only
be called the murder of a fetus (even into the third- trimester) in the
name of free-choice. "Free-to-be-you-and-me" means that we are all free to
do whatever we please, and never fear being taken to task over our choices.
"How dare you repress my basic right to freedom!" I love you and you love
me so just do as you please - it's your right!
The priority given to freedom and self-empowerment, however, carries a
price tag. We have become so accustomed to doing as we please that
self-control - the ability to control and restrain our desires and longings
in deference to a greater good - is at an extreme premium. In the not so
distant past, children were raised with a well defined set of do's and
dont's. When rules were broken, there were consequences (that is,
punishments - not mussar derashos or psychoanalysis to get to the root of
their problem, just good old-fashioned consequences).
Children growing up in today's society, as well as all who breathe its air,
are at an extreme disadvantage when it comes to observing Torah and
mitzvos, which demand a great deal of constraint and self-control (even
self-denial). We're just not used to being told what to do and how to do
it, and that permissiveness pervades all areas of our lives, even our
approach to Torah.
When, a few years back, there was an enormous deal of interest in the
"children-on-the-fringe" problem, the Jewish Observer was crammed
cover-to-cover with articles dealing with how to approach the wayward
child. The thrust of many of the articles was that these problems were the
result of over-strictness and a lack of tenderness and individual attention
in dealing with children who weren't conforming. There is likely truth to
this. What was under-addressed, in my opinion, was the root- cause of the
phenomenon: Why are there so many children recently that are having a hard
time conforming to a Torah lifestyle? Yes, it's important - critical - to
know what to do after the fact. This, so to speak, is medicine to treat the
illness. But we must address its source too, thereby perhaps mediating
A child raised in an environment of permissiveness and self-indulgence is
ill-prepared to deal with the reality of a Torah lifestyle. Self-control is
not a value, it's a habit. For one not used to always getting everything he
wants, it's not that big a deal. He's accustomed to the concept of having
limits placed on his freedoms, so when he's told that the Torah condones
this but disallows that, it feels natural. By allowing children, and
ourselves, free-reign in their personal lives, we are denying them the
chance to acclimate to self-constraint. The older they get, the more
apparent their self-empowerment (self-centredness) becomes, and the more
difficult it is to habituate this critical facet of psychological development.
A boy in a Yeshiva in Israel was in danger of being tossed out. The Rosh
Yeshiva had given him "one more chance," and based on his past record, it
would not take long before this boy would do something serious enough to
indeed warrant his dismissal. He approached his mashgiach (sort of like a
"I really want to be in Yeshiva. I like it here. But I have absolutely no
self-control. I know I won't be able to keep the rules; it's as if there's
someone inside of me that constantly pushes me to do things I know I
shouldn't do. My days here are limited."
The mashgiach responded by telling him to take something small and
insignificant to work on, not necessarily related to the Yeshiva rules.
"Work on stopping to crack your knuckles. It's small, it has nothing to do
with Yeshiva, but you'll see that even this small act of stopping yourself
from doing something you want to do will give your neshama the feeling of
what it's like to exercise self-control. Before you know it, you'll
experience a different sort of self-empowerment, not the type that says 'I
can have whatever I want whenever I want it,' but the empowerment that
comes from saying, 'I am in control, and I won't let myself constantly fall
prey to self-defeating acts that feel good momentarily but that end up
destroying me in the long run.'"
Overcoming this human shortcoming is what teshuva is all about. Sin is when
we put our own agendas ahead of Hashem, allowing our self- centredness to
lead us into compromises in our Torah observance and even outright sin.
Aside from addressing and dealing with our sins directly, it is important
as well to try and achieve greater self-control, countering the
ever-pervasive indulgence and limitless-tolerance and that surrounds and
envelops us. This can be achieved even by addressing small (yet
significant) issues in our personal lives; going on a diet or eating
healthier; keeping to a schedule and putting limits on our leisure time;
stopping biting our nails. Every effort we make to overcome the urge to do
whatever we want in stead of whatever we should is a step towards
self-control and ultimately Torah adherence.
One caveat: Sometimes people get sidetracked by the "insignificant" areas
and put all their energies into their diets, exercise programs, etc.,
misplacedly approaching these "side issues" with a level of dedication and
commitment intended for serving Hashem only. This concept is meant to be a
muscle-building exercise, not a new religion.
This week's Haftora, Shuva, begins: Return, O Israel, to Hashem your G-d,
for you have stumbled through your iniquity. The prophet gives us advice:
Ke-chu imachem devarim - take some things with you, and return to Hashem.
Perhaps these "things" are the little daily opportunities for self- control
that accustom us to focus on what's good, and not what we want. However,
the Navi warns, Never say 'Our handiwork is our god' - while its important
to practice constraint and discipline even in the mundane areas of life, we
must be careful never to allow this to become the focus and highlight of
our lives. It is Hashem we serve, and we must wary of creating a "religion"
out of other areas.
Wishing all our readers a G'mar chasima tova. Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.