When a salesman calls to make a product recommendation, he wants to know that he is speaking with the person who can make the purchasing decision. He does not want to waste his efforts making his pitch to someone who might be interested but who cannot follow-up on that interest with writing a check. For the salesman, the only thing that matters is the person who holds the purse strings.
When Chazal make a recommendation, or clarify an aspect of our world and lives, they are assuming that they are speaking to the one who oversees implementing their recommendations or utilizing the clarification they are offering. They are only speaking with the owner; the person who can direct his mind, body, and soul in light of the new information that has been taught. Unfortunately, because we do not generally feel that we can decide and implement for ourselves, we are left wishing and hoping. We hear the message that Chazal are teaching us, but we do not feel the capacities to implement those messages. The only way to become ‘executive’ over our capacities is to learn what those capacities are and develop a sense that those capacities are ‘mine.’ Interestingly, every one of us is executive over ourselves, sometimes in surprising ways!
Imagine that a person inherited a company from his late father. On his first day at his new post, many officers of the company stepped into the office to wish him both condolences on the loss of his father and success in his new mission. After a few days, the nature of the visits changed, however. The officers were now stopping by to make suggestions and requests regarding very specific aspects of the operations of their divisions in the company. Unfortunately, his late father did not have the opportunity to train him into the job and he doesn’t know the ropes. His inclination was to say to yes to each suggestion and to each request since, after all, the officers are good people whom his father entrusted with the operation of their divisions. Sooner or later, though, he came to realize that some of the requests contradict one another. Saying yes to one officer meant saying no to another. There was no way to be the ‘nice guy’ and say yes to everyone. The problem was that he didn’t know the company well enough to know where it was important to invest and where it was best to hold off.
He thought that the solution might lie in consulting with someone who would make the decisions for him, but it became clear that the other person was running a similar, but not identical, operation, and that his advice was not always suited to the unique aspects of his company. There was no alternative but to set out to learn the details of the operation. It was a bit humbling, but he knew that it was the right move. He would learn from the officers who worked for him. He asked them each, in turn, to assign someone in the ‘trenches’ of that division whom he could shadow and observe, to learn the details of each aspect of the business. At times, when someone couldn’t come it to work that day, he would ask to be assigned to that person’s job, to fill in, and, at the same time, to learn the workings of that part of the business from the inside.
And so, slowly, he started learning the aspects of the business that he owned. His decisions were becoming more appropriate. He was still making some mistakes, but before long it became clear that he knew the business better than the officers of the divisions, and that his mistakes were because he was human and still learning, not because he didn’t know the business. Sometimes, an old loyalty to an officer who had been with the company for many years, distorted his perspective and he made decisions that he quickly realized were contrary to his better judgement; the result of a distortion that had crept in due to the old relationship. But, with time, focus, lots of consultation, and experience, he became a more reliable and appropriate decision-maker. His officers began to trust his judgement, even if they received a negative response to their requests. He was growing as an owner of the company, and he could sort through the various suggestions that were put in front of him to see which would advance the interests of the company and which would waste valuable resources of time, effort and money.
You are the owner in the story. When you came into the world, people gathered to congratulate you on your new job as owner of the company called You. Before long, however, those same people started making suggestions and recommendations as to how you should run the You company. And, since they were all good people, you would wish to say yes to all of them, but for the fact that their instructions were causing you to bump into yourself. When someone told you to concentrate on your prayers, you found that your learning suffered because you didn’t know how to strike a balance. And when you heard about character development, you were shown examples of great people who were quite different from you, their businesses were not your business and it was hard to know what aspects of their great lives you could emulate and what parts you could only admire. You were left without an option but to learn the details of the person/company called You from the inside. Only with an insider’s understanding of the company could you make delicate decisions about what is to be the focus of your efforts today and what will be placed on the back-burner. Those good ideas which are not to be the focus today are not forgotten, but they are not placed front and center. The ability to give a thought, especially a good idea, its proper place is part of the art of running the company called You.
We are often given the sense that we are not the owner of the company called You. Or, another way of saying the same thing, there are many messages which support the assumption that we are not in the driver’s seat. Some of those messages have a measure of validity, such as the power of the Yetzer Hara, the Negative Inclination within each person, and some of the messages come from sources entirely outside of the system in which Chazal operate. Those include the message that we are but the products of our upbringing and our environments and that free choice is impossible. By imbibing these messages, we are disconnecting ourselves from Chazal. We are causing ourselves to not be the audience to which Chazal are speaking!
Every insight and awareness that emerges from Chazal is intended to translate into a change in us. Getting to know and own our souls is the way to make ourselves the audience for Chazal. Knowing how and when to use the message of Chazal is a delicate interaction between the Chazal and the self. The more we learn about both the Chazal and ourselves, the better we can utilize the insights that Chazal provide for us.