The Tightrope of Strengths

As the cryptic title implies, there is a delicate tightrope which we each must walk when balancing our personal strengths and assets with our challenges.  On the one side of the rope is the terrible abyss of despair.  Despair is the assumption that I do not have the skills nor the strength to confront the challenges of my life.  They are greater than I am.  That side of the abyss is associated with depression or, more commonly, endless complaining and a vague sense of irritation at the unfairness of the world whose challenges rest on my inadequate shoulders.  Someone needs to lift the load for me.  Even prayers, when they are offered (and often folks who have fallen on this side of the tightrope do not engage in genuine prayer), become a pathetic pleading co-mingled with angry accusations at the One Who has singled me out for challenges that are beyond my ability.

On the other side of the tightrope are those who are so convinced of their personal strength and skills that they need not apply themselves to the challenges of life.  The challenges will simply fall away as I carry on with my endless potency.  I need not give them any thought and I certainly do not need to invent any challenges in my state of well-being!.  And while I may not carry this all the way to imagine that I am invincible, I need not address the process of overcoming challenges with any more attention than most healthy people give to their digestion.  It just happens as I breeze along ‘doing my thing.’

The one side of the tightrope leads to paralyzing self-consciousness and the other, a lack of purpose and mission owing to a lack of regard and respect for the formidable tasks that are before each of us.  In their extreme forms they lead to depression or mania. As Victor Frankl has pointed out, depression is the sense that life’s tasks are bigger than I am, while mania is the sense that I am far bigger than life’s tasks.  But even without looking at the extremes, failure to properly regard one’s strengths and one’s challenges will lead to a tumble from the tightrope. 

The trick, if it can be referred to as such, is an internal concept of fit.  Fit implies that the resources and the challenges are in sync.  An inventory of resources will yield a discovery of personal challenges and an inventory of challenges will yield a discovery of personal strengths.  Let us imagine, for a moment, that I discover that I have a certain ability or strength.  Perhaps it is wealth or prowess or intellect, physical agility or creative juices, deep compassion or a sense of orderliness.  The list, with the unique combinations of skills both gifted and acquired, is as varied as there are people in the world.  (But let’s leave the whole world for a moment and focus on one person, oneself.  It is far too easy to pass this work on to someone else by noticing the fit between their strengths and their challenges.  ‘C’mon – you can do it!’ alternates with ‘you poor thing’ and no growth happens.)  Knowing that I have been given (or have acquired) a strength or gift means that I am summoned to put that asset to work.  An asset demands a challenge.  Just as one must keep a balance between what he eats and the activity of his lifestyle, so must we keep a balance between our assets and our challenges.  To have an asset is to be called by a challenge.  Asset without challenge is spiritual fat or lethergy.

The converse is also the case.  Challenges summon us to review our assets.  That does not imply that challenges can be overcome.  As Logotherapists we have come to learn that the asset which some challenges summon is the ability to accept and bow our head before the Righteous Judge.  However it is fair to say that every challenge is a call to revisit a resource.  When a person feels challenged, that is the time to recall his resources.  When he feels strong, it is the time to stretch the muscles and build resources.  Every instance of life, each meeting, each page of study, calls on us to sense our resources and to stretch them.  Without recalling our resources we are hopeless and without regarding the challenge we fail to stretch.

It has been said, correctly, that the place for Mussar and introspection must begin from an inventory of personal and trait assets.  That triggers a meaningful course of personal growth.  Others may start from the challenge at hand and the road leads back to resources.  After all, imagine someone who is facing a business difficulty who does not first think of the resources available to address the difficulty?!  It is natural to think this way when facing a challenge. 

Unless, of course, one has forgotten about the tightrope.

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In Celebration of Prophecy – Shavuos Metaphors

     As is evident from the verses that describe the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the take away lesson of the event is that Hashem speaks with people.  He does not only manifest His absolute majesty over the universe, as the People saw in Egypt and at the Sea, He has a will for mankind and He makes that will known to man directly – Hashem speaks to man.

     The content of the prophecy is, in this sense, secondary for Shavuos.  First and foremost is the celebration of the very fact that Hashem speaks to man.  In Shmos (20:19) we find Moshe summarizing the event of Revelation announcing to the People that “you have seen that from Heavens I [Hashem] have spoken with you.”  And again in Devarim (5:21) the People summarize the event by saying that “Hashem has shown us His glory and greatness, and His voice we heard; today we have seen that Hashem speaks with Man who can go on living.”  And further (ibid. 23) “For who among all the living who has heard the voice of the living Hashem as we have and are still alive.”  Hashem, as it were, is pleased with the take away lesson that the People have derived.  They got the message, and the message is prophecy.  Shavuos, the marking of the revelation on Mount Sinai then, is a celebration of prophecy.  We may not be on the level to receive prophecy but that is very different from saying that man cannot hear Hashem’s voice, orthat Hashem has no way to reveal His will to man.  He does, and He has, and the Torah that we have in our possession is the fruit of that revelation.  There are ‘moderns’ for whom the concept of prophecy does not quite work and there are quacks who insist that they are still receiving prophecy, but neither of those fringes can alter the fundamental factthat the revelation on Mount Sinai was meant to drive home – Hashem reveals His will to man.

     I would like to suggest two metaphors that might help us take the message of prophecy home beyond the belief in the simple fact that prophecy exists.  So, in the spirit of Shavuos, I would like to speak of the Spy and the Psychotic.

The Spy

     A spy has taken up residence in a foreign country.  He has established his identity in that place and he is living a normal life.  While he goes on with his life, anticipates that some day the boss who commissioned him to his job may send him a message indicating that he is needed in one way or another.  And one day, he receives a visitor at his store who, by use of the pre-arranged password, indicates that he has a message from the boss.  At once, the spy closes his store, lowers the shutters and begins to listen, very carefully, to the message from the boss.  Not a word of the instructions will fall to the floor forgotten nor will he hesitate to ask if some aspect of the instruction is unclear to him.  He is keenly aware of the significance of the instructions and he hears the words as though the boss were speaking with him directly.  This is meant to be our attitude towards hearing words of Torah.  We were witness to the event of Mount Sinai and we are aware that Hashem reveals His will to man.  Now a teacher, who can trace his teaching back to that event at Mount Sinai, is revealing some aspect of the content of the message from the boss.  Our attention is meant to emulate that of the spy in our story.  Now is not the time or place to concern ourselves with customers, calls, or bills.  For now is the time that the boss is disclosing a part of His message.  Shavuos is a time for reaffirming our relationship with the study of Torah in line with the metaphor of the Spy.

The Psychotic

     One symptom of schizophrenia is auditory hallucinations, or command voices.  The person hears an internal voice and often those voices are very sinister and self destructive.  A person who hears command voices cannot ignore them, and if those voices command the person to some act that is a danger to themselves or to others then the person will need protective supervision.  The power of the command voice makes us certain that the person will act in accordance with the command voice and hence its power and potential danger.  As regards the message of Shavuos, we are meant to internalize the message of that which we learned through prophecy to the degree that we feel absolutely compelled to carry out the content of the message, no matter what the obstacles that may stand in our way.  Others who look upon a person who deeply lives the message of the Torah as an internal command voice will be impressed with the power and certainty with which the person dedicates himself to the instructions of the Torah.  They are command voices for him and he will go to the ends of the earth to carry them out.  Auditory hallucinations are scary because the person did not choose them and they exert great power.  The Torah has power because the person has chosen to internalize the message of prophecy and he can drink in some of the spirit of Shavuos to move the message from voluntary (I’ll do it when the spirit moves me and leave it when it does not) to compelling – to a command voice.

     It might go without saying that there can be nothing more dangerous than a person who claims to have heard a message from Hashem but he has not, or is not transmitting the message with the precision that is needed for such a calling, but the Torah does not leave it go without saying it.  Such a person incurs the most dire consequences.  We rely (or, perhaps, have relied) on prophecy and let no one dare invoke the name of Hashem in promotion of some spiritual agenda of this nature or another.  As we commonly say, if Hashem wanted me to listen to you He would have told me, not you.  We are witness to prophecyand we can hold up with pride many examples of people who have related to the Torah with the seriousness of the Spy and the commitment of the Psychotic.  Shavuos is a time for each of us to take a small but meaningful step in the direction of prophecy and in the take-home lessons of prophecy.

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Mussar and the Blackberry upgrade

The following was written before Blackberry forgot how to make Blackberrys. The point is valid nonetheless (ed note)

I appreciate and use technology, probably a bit more than most, surely far less than many.  Every so often I realize that technology has a lesson to teach us and I try to learn it.  More often I notice the lesson, pass it on to someone else (who is usually quite pleased to hear it) and I thus fail to learn it myself.  So, at the risk of not learning this message, I’d like to share a thought about the recent Blackberry upgrade to OS6.

Some years ago, a dear friend introduced me to the Blackberry and while I didn’t become the ultimate power user, the convenience was quite clear for me.  A couple of years ago this same friend arranged for my Blackberry 8310 to be upgraded to the Blackberry 9700.  That was cute, but hardly a change that made a huge difference.  I won’t go into the benefits of the upgrade to the 9700, since that is not at all the point of this post, and since you can read about that in several million other places.  As a point of reference, though, for the uninitiated, the old Blackberry used Operating System (OS)4 and, later, OS4.5 and the new toy used OS5. 

Well, along came the iphone, and its graphical interface became quite the rage.  It seemed that the iphone was even making inroads into Blackberry territory to the extent that Blackberry lovers were having to defend their beleaguered friend and RIM (the Canadian folks who make the Blackberry) seemed rather slow in providing a suitable response.  All the while, conversations revolved around the iphone.  I noticed, without taking much notice, that the iphone users were being continuously lured into purchasing a new unit.  The iphone3, the iphone4, rumors about the features in the upcoming iphone5 and prophecies about what the iphone 6 to 60 will be like.  New ideas translate into new models and new models mean obsolescence.

Against that backdrop, RIM recently upgraded my Blackberry 9700 to OS6.  I chose my words carefully there (that happens at times).  They provided the upgrade for free.  I only had to plug my Blackberry into my computer and let RIM do the rest.  There was no discussion of buying the upgrade and I had no idea that this upgrade would completely revolutionize my old Blackberry 9700.  While you can find reviews about the upgrade elsewhere, permit me to say that they put my Blackberry on steroids, added features that I could only dream about (just imagine looking up a name in your address book and seeing below all of the conversations that you have had with that person as one example) in an interface that resolves any traces of iphone envy that a Blackberry user might suffer from.  But the most amazing part of the story is that I did not have to change my unit!  I did not have to buy another Blackberry!  They somehow figured out how to make use of the existing technology from a couple of years ago and make it run like tomorrow.  Now, while I’d love to send kudos to the development team at RIM for putting tomorrow’s ideas into yesterday’s technology, I don’t have access to them.  But what I do have is a Mussar thought (did you think that I’d never get there?).  There is a powerful message that is sent whenever an upgrade requires new hardware.  It sends the message that we cannot truly change and upgrade what we are about.  Perhaps our children will be new and improved, and theirs after them, but we are old hardware and the new software of growth and change does not run on us.

And then RIM introduced this revolutionary change to existing hardware and that sends a very different metaphor.  With thought and planning our old hardware can be upgraded.  We are capable of deep change.  It cannot be overnight, and it is a fantasy to think that we can just ‘plug in’ to change and it will happen, but deep change and growth is possible and it can be done by each of us, with the hardware that we were each born with.  We need not leave the task of growth to the upgrade of future generations, we can make the changes ourselves, using the strengths and challenges which are ours we can move forward towards the Torah’s ideal.

It’s very easy for our unconscious system to claim exemptions to the arduous task of personal change.  Perhaps RIM has helped us a bit with loosening the grip of one of those exemptions, that we are hopeless in the change process since that requires a hardware upgrade.  It requires heavenly assistance, that is true, but so does everything that we set out to do.  More than anything else it requires a deep belief that we can, are called, and must succeed.

Thank you, RIM.

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Pesach Class

I hope that this talk about Pesach is useful. Feedback is always welcome. Here’s a link to download.

Wishing each of you a Kosher and Joyous Pesach!

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Chanukah and Taryton (We’d rather fight than switch)

There is now a link to a class that I recently presented on Chanukah. It is suitable for all levels and is entitled:“Chanukah and Taryton – We’d rather fight than switch”

You may download the (free) class by clicking on the Audio link on the side of the page.

Wishing one and all an en’light’ening Chanukah!

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The Ingredients of Mussar: Critical Thinking, Self Help and Torah

`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’ 

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6

I have noticed over the years that the term Mussar is getting used more and more broadly.  It seems to have become much of what the authors want it to be, which is fine by me, I suppose, as long as they pay it extra.

What seems to pass as Mussar is anything Jewish-sounding which inspires me (or, more commonly, what I think will inspire you) to do or be more of what I think it is a good idea to do or be.

There are some ingredients missing from this definition, though.  I’m loathe to sound like Scrooge for pointing out the lapses in something that sounds as warm and fuzzy, nay, as ‘nice’ as the above definition of Mussar.  Nevertheless, I think that some clarification is in order.

Mussar lies at the nexus of critical thinking and self-help with Torah as the referee.  Here’s what that looks like:  First I must ask myself if the Torah source I am attempting to learn from really says what I think it says.  That requires all of the skills of critical thinking so that I am not quietly imposing my biases onto the Torah but rather allowing the Torah to teach me its message.  Most of what passes for Mussar unfortunately drops out right there.  It is just not compellingly drawn from the Torah source.  That’s not to say that it isn’t true.  If I testify that Abe stole from Sol on Wednesday, and it turns out that I was out of town on Wednesday, that does not mean that Abe did not steal from Sol.  It just means that I cannot be the one to say that he did.  So I am not saying that these well-intentioned thoughts might not have some basis in Torah.  They might, or they might not.  But a truism of Mussar is that we are only moved to change ourselves (which means finding out that our goals were not correct) when we are absolutely certain that the thing we are changing towards is, indeed, true.  The only folks who are impressed with something which is not solidly grounded in Torah are the folks who thought that whatever they are reading/thinking was true even without having read it in the Torah.  In which case they can be pleased to discover that they were right all along and can even demonstrate that to you if you are willing to buy.  Mussar is the tough process of finding out that I am wrong in my thinking, or at least in discovering that there is something here that I did not think of and would not have thought of had the Torah not taught it to me.  For that to happen, we need critical thinking, and lots of it. 

A difficulty arises because one of the key ingredients to critical thinking is fairness.  Here is an example taken from

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Now, the reason why critical thinking is such a rare commodity is because of that nasty last word, fairness.  We have to be able to transcend our biases in order to consider something honestly.  How are we to do that given that every one of us suffers from biases (here is not the place for the analysis of that statement, but let it suffice that Rav Yisrael Salanter is reported to have said that nobody is so influenced by his biases as the person who believes that he has none)?!  The answer is to have a standard or benchmark for what is true.  That’s where the Torah steps in.  Careful analysis of the Torah, to the point where the new insight I am learning from the source synthesizes with the rest of Torah, lends credibility to the new insight.  I now have a Mussar thought which can be relied on, studied, reviewed, challenged and struggled with until it is internalized.  It is now the Torah that is challenging an assumption of mine and that is not the same as one man, one vote.  If that does not sound democratic, that is what tends to happen when the Creator steps in and reveals His Will.  That’s why it is so dangerous when people challenge the Torah instead of learning from it.  In the end the intellectual honesty that they feel that they’ve gained (could G-d really have taken the Jews from Egypt and given them the Torah) they actually lost (now I’m back to believing what I always believed and I’m permanently enslaved by my biases because there is no standard to rescue me from them).

So, while critical thinking is good (and we must promote it whenever we can as the world is being held prisoner by those who fail to uphold its tenets) it will not produce Mussar, which requires being true enough to be useful in shaking my own beliefs.

If we are going to share ideas that seem to move us, that seems like a lovely conversation, and one surely worthy of praise.  But if it is not solidly grounded in the text (I can hear the groans and moans saying, ‘who has time to analyze rabbinic texts?’) and compatible with the rest of the text (a single statement which implies something contradicted in many other sources is suspect of being in error or of being misunderstood), then it will not shake me from my well entrenched beliefs (nor, I might say, should it).  Mussar is about shaking me, changing me, offering me the opportunity to rise above the noise of popular truths to attach myself to the attributes of the Creator.  If all I have is a good idea, then I may well be creating the Creator in my image, rather than aligning myself to His.

Next:  the other connection, self-help and Torah.

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