Monday, December 18, 2006

Recreating Oneself: Born to be Good

    "Let me give you a personal example. I am not bragging about myself, but I cannot draw on the experience of someone else. I have to draw on my own experience. I was very envious as a child, very envious. I was envious of my friends, because I was not a bright child. It is true. Some called me stupid. This impression was created because I was intellectually honest. I would declare that I did not understand a topic when I did not truly understand it. I was very envious of another chilkd in the heder, who was reputed to know one hundred pages of the Talmud by heart. In truth he was a faker, "Izak the faker." I was terribly envious of him. I remember my father called me in once and told me that envy is a middah megunah, a deplorable trait, a bad habit. This emotional enemy is known as lo tachmod, "you shall not covet" [Exodus 20: 14] and lo titaveh, "you shall not desire" [Deuteronomy 5:18]. These emotions have been forbidden by the Torah.

    "I began to train myself to overcome it, and I succeeded. Now there is no kinah, no envy, in my heart. I mean, I am bad enough, but there is no envy in my heart. On the contrary, I rejoice in the success of my fellow man. The Torah demands from man a disciplined inner life. On the contrary, we know of constructive cathartic emotions, such as sympathy, love, and gratitude, which should be integrated into one's personality. One has freedom not only to control his physical acts but also to control his emotional life."

~Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

from The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2, page 192

This is one of my favorite quotes, one of the most meaningful quotes I've ever read.

I respect those people whom I can relate to, those people whom I can see and understand. I respect human beings, flawed people, people who create themselves and recreate themselves and strive to be better.

From them, I draw strength.

Because if Rabbi Soloveitchik admitted to having flaws, and was able to work on them and rectify them, how much the more so I! His personality is one that I can feel close to because it reminds me of my own. He is literary, thoughtful, romantic, a pragmatic idealist. He is obviously far more learned than I am. He is also a great leader.

And yet, there's something that unites us both. And that's our humanity.

Who would have suspected he could have felt envy, such a low feeling? To be envious of another? To be envious of another child?

And yet he was.

And the fact that he is able to take himself into his own hands, to decide what he would like to be like and work on himself so that he can achieve that goal impresses me and fascinates me. Because that means I can do it, too.

When I look at myself, truly, behind the grand performer that I like to play, I see the flaws. I see my self-centered nature, I see the arrogance, the condescension that I do not mean, my almost idolatrous worship of intellect and intelligence. I see how judgmental I am. I see how little I care about other people, how little I do for them. I see, in other words, who I really am.

I also see, if I truly am looking at myself without hiding, without flinching, that I like to force a difference between me and others, that I like to pull apart, to remain aloof, in order to make myself feel special or different. I like that sense of difference, but I have yet to learn how to create it from within myself, as opposed to without. My self-conscious individuality is only a mockery of what individuality truly is, and when I look at myself truly, I know that, too.

But it seems so hard to change oneself into what one wants to become. It seems so hard to try to care about people when you have no patience, when you have never had any patience. It goes against your nature. It goes against your instincts.

But then the question becomes- well, who is in control here? Me, the maker and creator, or me, the instinctual response that dismisses people because I've decided they are worthless? Obviously, I want it to be the former.

So the way it must work is not to get caught up in the daunting path that lies ahead of me, but simply to throw myself forward and to endeavor to be like all those people I most respect and admire, all of whom have some similarity to me and my personality, but have taken it to far greater lengths, are much kinder and nicer and all around better than I am.

The most effective teachers are those who teach out of love. Not those who teach to impress, to force others to respect them and admire them, but those who teach because they truly feel an empathic connection with their students and want them to do well. The most effective teachers are able to speak to bright students and not-so-bright students and treat them equally, because they speak to them out of love.

I cannot do that. I do not have the patience, and I resist changing by simply claiming that I am superior. When I look at myself truly, I see this. It's not a pleasant thing to see.

It's Rabbi Soloveitchik and people like him who give me hope. They admit this exists. They admit that we are born with bad qualities or propensities or penchants toward a certain kind of behavior. But they take it further- they make us into masters. We are the masters, we are the creators, we can create ourselves as we'd like to be. All we need to do is to want to do it, and then to work at it- work hard, perhaps harder than anything I've ever done, but then succeed.

I know who I would like to be. It's not who I am now. I know that I am going to be frustrated, impatient, angry, irritated and infuriated before I ever get there. Nobody likes remodeling their personality. And yet, that is what is needed here; that is what is commanded of me.

I began with a quote, and I will end with a quote:
    "My late father told me that before he left to accept his first rabbinical post in the city of Raseyn [Raseiniai], he visited his father, Reb Chaim of Brisk. Reb Chaim instructed him as follows: "Like all Jews, a rabbi must be charitable and compassionate. Not only when he is a good person by nature, but even if he is naturally not like that. I myself was born with an impersonal and insensitive nature, but I worked on myself until I developed good character traits" (Volume 1, page 251).

I was not born a good person.

But I was born to be a good person.

And that is what I need to do.


Anonymous said...

I confess. I saw what you wrote on Ezzie's wall. Here's a comment. :)

Lela Harbinger said...

i'd make a derisive comment about brainwashing at this point but i'm too impressed

Scraps said...

Wow. Not everyone can look at themselves so honestly and see what they have to work on. It is also in human nature to deny one's bad traits, to ignore them, to self-promote. I'd say that, just by being aware of your own inner nature, you're ahead of the game already. Yehi ratzon she-telchi me-chayil el chayil. :)

Anonymous said...

Quote on envy: "Kinas sofrim tarbeh chachma." If utilized competitively toward a constructive goal, it can be positive.

Charlie Hall said...

Beautiful post.

I went to college with three people who are now billionaires. I envy them not at all. They earned their money honestly.

A non-Jew who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous wrote about the danger that resentments bring, and how important it is to look at them honestly and deal with them effectively:

'It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically. In dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. We listed people, institutions or principle with who we were angry. We asked ourselves why we were angry. In most cases it was found that our self-esteem, our pocketbooks, our ambitions, our personal relationships, (including sex) were hurt or threatened. So we were sore. We were "burned up." On our grudge list we set opposite each name our injuries. Was it our self-esteem, our security, our ambitions, our personal, or sex relations, which had been interfered with?'

The entire section is at

scroll halfway down the page for the quoted paragraph. It is in the public domain in the United States. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has written extensively about these principles from a Jewish perspective.


i once read that the rav's younger brother 'shmuel'(?) said that he was not as accomplished as RJBS because when rav mosha solovietchick asked a young RJBS if he understood RJBS would say "no" get a smack and relearn the topic with Rav Mosha.And so when Rav Mosha asked shmuel if he understood he always said "yes" to avoid the corporal punishment, and the chazara with RMS would be lost to him as well.

Anonymous said...

Ok, now I did read the whole post.

I think it's great that you can look into yourself and see flaws. But still, I don't see all the flaws you claim you have. Arrogance? Little care for others? That does NOT sound like you at all.

daat y said...

It is not the feeling that is the problem but what we do with the feeling.
I do not know if your assessment of yourself is correct but I do know it is courageous-it is how we grow.

Anonymous said...

Well put.

To echo Scraps, acknowledging your flaws, entirely and unflinchingly, is the first *huge* step towards fixing them. Sometimes, even, just thinking about them often, and keeping them in the back of your mind can cause you to change in tiny ways, almost imperceptibly, until you become the person you want to be.

I know this is how I work.

Anonymous said...

It's helps me, making up myself.