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 future outbreaks.
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 guidance counsellor).
“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.