Once there was a king. The king had a servant to whom he entrusted a precious vessel. The vessel was somehow damaged. The servant's awe of the king was so great that he did not know what to do, where to turn. He found a wise man and sought his counsel. The wise man told him that he should not bring the shattered vessel before the king; it was not befitting. The servant decided it would be better to seek advice from one of the king's closest friends. The servant thought a person such as that would be more likely to have a deep knowledge of how the king would respond and would also know what course of action the king would take.
When he appeared before the king's trusted companion, he asked his advice and received the following reply: "I know the king's greatness and exaltation. A vessel such as this may not be placed before him. You must destroy the vessel completely."
The servant still did not know what to do and finally decided to go to an expert craftsman, hoping that perhaps he would be able to repair the broken vessel. He went to the craftsman, who told him that even if he succeeded in repairing it, it would still look damaged. Its appearance would remain marred; it would never be appropriate to take to the king.
The servant said to himself, I cannot act as though nothing has happened; I cannot absolve myself from responsibility. I will go before the king. Let him do to me as he sees fit.
The king said, "I will use the broken vessel. Those with whom you consulted responded as they did for the sake of my glory. I, however, choose to use the vessel as it is."
Fear Of Confronting One's Failures
God unveils His presence to those who are able to see. The awesome splendor of nature, the intimacy of Divine Providence, are visible to anyone who has not blocked his vision.
Feelings of spiritual inadequacy can be overwhelming."
When we seek to go beyond the blinders of ego, materialism, and escapism, we are still at times blocked. At times it's not what we don't see that causes our blindness; it's what we do see. When we let ourselves hear our deepest selves, the voices of inner wisdom of spiritual yearning, we are sometimes overwhelmed. We feel that "the vessel cannot be placed before the King." These feelings of spiritual inadequacy can be so overwhelming that we don't know what to do. We see our brokenness, and in sharp contrast we perceive the power and goodness of God. At moments of stark revelation, we tend to retreat. How can we possibly live with what we have become? The more honest we are, the less accessible teshuvah, repentance, feels.
Teshuvah, repentance, is a statement of God's very nature: His never-ending compassion.
The ultimate insult one person can give another is lowering one's expectations of him. The attitude "I would never expect any better from you" is not one of compassion. It is the most profound form of disdain. God does not give up on us. His exacting judgment, which we must face on Rosh Hashana, is real. We must not allow ourselves to be defeated by the dread this knowledge inspires.
God judges us, not because He wishes to punish us and see us get what we deserve, but because He believes in our ability to transcend our blockages. Even the most severe punishments ever meted out to humanity, such as Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, were given to enable personal rebuilding of that which was broken in Adam and in the world.
We must not be afraid to approach God honestly.
Teshuvah is the key to our rebuilding ourselves. We must trust God's compassion and not be afraid to approach Him honestly. The month of Elul is the time of year when the spiritual nature of the season moves us toward Him and Him toward us.
Seeing Ourselves As We Are
Examining where our lives have taken us is the first step. The purpose of this is not to generate self-hatred or despair, but to seek correction and ways of moving beyond our present situations. We must be willing to look, not only at the specific actions that may be less than perfect, but at the character traits that motivated errors in moral judgment. When we content ourselves with superficial self-examination, our efforts are doomed.
I am a fairly unsuccessful gardener. The verdant plants I bring home from the nursery live very uneventful (and unusually short) lives. Part of the reason is that my own urban childhood brought me to maturity without the ability to look at two green shoots and know which one is a weed. When the shoots grow tall enough to make it clear (even to me) which is which, I tend to cut the weed rather than uproot it. The re-germination of aggressive and unwanted weeds is an eternal, unpleasant surprise.
Similarly, when searching for the "real" self, one must ask the basic question: why? Why do I do this? Why do I want this? Which basic trait is somehow contorted? Until these questions are honestly answered, the root of the weed is left untouched. There is still little awareness of which middah, character trait, needs to be corrected. The "plant," therefore, is very likely to flourish again. The same deed (or its very similar first cousin) is likely to be a prominent part of one's soul-searching next year.
What To Do With The Flaws
Character traits don't disappear. One of the most irrational decisions that can be made is the rejection of one's essential personality. Finding new and appropriate channels for the traits that are the least desirable is a challenge. Denying their existence, or attempting to eliminate them, is escaping the challenge that is part of one's very being, for finding a positive outlet for them often has the effect of uprooting the negative aspect of the trait.
To understand the mechanics of change, let us look for a moment at one of the most striking examples of self-change I have ever seen.
Irene's parents never wanted a child. Perhaps they wanted a trophy to show others, very much as they collect art and hang it on the walls of their exquisite home. Irene never felt wanted. This was not a matter of unrealistic expectations; it was a realistic acceptance of her status. When her parents' marriage dissolved, the custody battle revolved around who would be "stuck" with the child. She was raised from the age of eight by various hired women.
By the time Irene was an adult, her insecurity was a very strong component of her personality. We all know the forms insecurity takes. No friend was loyal enough, and therefore she constantly "tested" them until they almost always failed to meet her expectations. No situation was stable enough, and she moved from lifestyle to lifestyle.
I, too, was a member of the society of failed friends. I liked her and admired her enormously; she is a woman of rare brilliance and refinement. However, I was unable to give her the kind of unconditional support she needed and therefore demanded.
We drifted apart. I heard of her occasionally. She is an artist, and her works are displayed periodically in various galleries. One Elul, I wrote her a letter in which I asked forgiveness for having allowed our friendship to disintegrate.
As God would have it, I met her on the bus the very day I put the letter in my purse. As I handed her the letter, I did not know what her response would be. Would she trust my sincerity or would she see this as a sort of cushion upon which I could lean to alleviate any guilt I might be feeling before the High Holidays arrive? She smiled at me warmly, gave me her address and phone number, and invited me to her home.
In the course of my visit to her somewhat isolated house on a remote Israeli settlement, I found myself feeling as though the body of the person to whom I was speaking was Irene, but the person inside the body must be someone entirely different. The warmth, security, and genuine interest she showed in me and my life were completely out of character.
To uproot her insecurity, she wrote an account of every good she experienced.
As the sun began to set over the desert, I felt comfortable enough to ask her how she had accomplished such a major achievement. She knew exactly what I meant. She had decided to uproot the negative side of her insecurity completely. In order to do this, she wrote a brief account of everything good she experienced every day. She opened her closet and showed me a collection of tens of school notebooks. Each one was full, and each one was a statement of its owner's longing to free herself from the limitations that enveloped her. This changed her view of the Creator and His world.
Simultaneously, she decided to use her insight to zero in on other people's fears and insecurities and make herself a friend to many people who would never approach someone less sensitive to their fears. I felt that I was in the presence of one of the authentic heroines of our generation.
Mitzvahs: Their Place in the Cure
The Maharal speaks about the difference between positive commandments, in which the Torah tells us how to direct our energies, and negative commandments, various actions the Torah tells us to refrain from in order not to diminish ourselves. Both are necessary for us to retain the integrity of our characters. Therefore, when one notices that a certain trait is the root of behavior that is self-destructive, reestablishing a commitment to the commandments that are most difficult is a first step. When performed with the consciousness that what is at stake is not just a specific mitzvah, but also a redefinition of how one's traits can be used, there is a world of difference.
We must use every day that is left to see ourselves as we are. We must see our histories, our choices, our potential, our habits and hereditary tendencies. We must not be afraid to see the flaws; rather, we must take our broken vessels to the King and let ourselves be healed.
From "This Way Up: Torah Essays on Spiritual Growth" by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, Feldheim publications.