Just released! Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom. Click here to order.
We all want to do the right thing. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to be bad." Even the criminal will try to justify his behavior as "good."
Yet if everyone claims to be doing "good," how do we know objectively whether we're doing good or not?
We can't simply look at the norm to gauge what's straight and not. We have to check it out for ourselves. We need a basic set of ethical laws for guidance. But that's not enough. Since circumstances constantly change, laws cannot be legislated to cover every possible case. So we have to cultivate an inner sense of the right thing to do.
Way #34 is Ohev et ha'mesharin – literally "love the straight path." Don't blindly follow society's idea of "what's right." People tend to the path of least resistance, and the more difficult approach is often the "true" one.
Getting in Touch With What You Know
The following story comes from the Talmud:
Before we're born, while in our mother's womb, the Almighty sends an angel to sit beside us and teach us all the wisdom for living we'll ever need to know. Then, just before we're born, the angel taps us under the nose (forming the philtrum, the indentation that everyone has under their nose), and we forget everything the angel taught us.
What does this story teach?
That truth and wisdom is "right under your nose!"
We can look inside ourselves to learn what life is about. Buried within the subconscious mind, in the farthest corner of our memory, lies the knowledge of everything we need to know: The purpose of life, how to love, how to reach our potential. Our task is to bring that knowledge to the conscious mind – i.e. to make the effort to remember!
That's Judaism's view of education. Nobody can ever teach you anything new. They can only help you get in touch with what you already intuitively know to be true.
"Education" means drawing out what is already inside the student. Beware of educators who try to impose their position on you.
Getting Off Track
We all have an inborn conscience, a natural wisdom that God programmed into us. That's why a person's first thought – "the gut reaction" – is often the true response.
But what happens? Amidst the confusion of life, we start applying our ego-driven "logic" to the situation. We rationalize and cloud our inner knowledge.
To avoid this trap, ask around to people who know you, "Do you think I tend to rationalize my way out of things?" Or, speak out your rationalizations, as if you were dealing with someone else's situation, not your own.
Look inside yourself. Pause for a moment and introspect. Actually ask yourself aloud: What's the right thing to do?
In Judaism, the Torah is our objective guide, steady throughout the generations, and always available as a source of reference. Jews have a simple and effective tool for keep straight; We constantly ask ourselves, What would God say about this?
Keep Your Record Clean
Imagine the satisfaction of asking yourself the question, "Am I completely honest?" – and being able to answer an unqualified "yes."
Being trustworthy is an important factor in self-esteem. Very often when we walk away from obligations, we feel our conscience saying, "Don't do that!" And even though we may have avoided a challenge, we know deep down when we are wrong.
Conscience is a powerful drive. It keeps us honest and walking the straight path. Don't squelch it. Listen to your conscience and let it help you to get the job done.
After you've reached any decision, pause. If you've chosen correctly, you'll find yourself feeling a thrill of pleasure. There are no nagging doubts, no hidden agendas. You feel clean.
Now utilize this power of conscience. Before making a decision. Ask yourself: How will I feel after I do it? Pleasure or disgust? This exercise will help focus you on distinguishing right vs. wrong.
"Can't" Versus "Won't"
One of the most prevalent rationalizations is the words: "I can't." How many times have you heard (or said) "I'd love to help, but I can't…"
If you switch "can't" for "won't," you also switch the responsibility for your decisions. "I can't" implies that I am powerless to do what's right. "I won't" means that I have the ability, but am choosing not to do it. In other words, "I don't feel like it..."
Watch out for the excuses (the "buts") that stifle your impulse to do what's right. Whenever you hear a "but" – a justification for not doing the right thing – instantly challenge it head-on. Demolish those "buts" and start taking control of your life.
When you catch yourself saying the words "I can't," say instead "I won't." Don't worry whether you really can or can't do it. Just saying the words will emphasize your control of the decision, and will expand your horizons to new opportunities for success.
Gauging Right From Wrong
The Talmud relates the following case:
Mr. A. hires a repairman to fix something, and while working on it, the repairman breaks it. According to Jewish law, the repairman has to replace the item. But since the repairman was poor, Mr. A. doesn't insist that he pay for the damage.
The next day, the repairman sues Mr. A., demanding to be paid for the time he worked. The judge's ruling? Mr. A. has to pay! The judge said that issue of hourly wages – to which the repairman was entitled – was separate from the issue of damage, which Mr. A. had forgiven.
This example shows how Mr. A. thought he was doing the right thing – by forgiving the damage – but really he was falling short of his obligation to pay the wages.
That's a rationalization!
Let's take the example of charity. The Talmud says you can give a poor person charity and yet destroy him. It all depends on how you do it. If a poor person comes to the door and you throw a dollar in his face and slam the door shut, then you've technically "done your duty." But you also shamed and humiliated him!
Whenever dealing with people, ask yourself: "What's proper?" Figure out the straight way to treat parents, friends, business associates, etc.
Don't Stand On "Rights"
Obligations are usually spelled out clearly, in the form of a contract or an agreement. But some things are the right thing to do, even though they are not technically an "obligation." That's a higher level of righteousness.
For example, parents work hard to raise their children, going beyond the minimum. And since they do so voluntarily, there is no "legal" obligation to pay them back. However, if your parents are elderly and need care, the right thing to do is to be there for them.
If you want to do the right thing, you'll have to go beyond the inclination to "stand on rights." Avoid expressions like "It's not my turn to take out the garbage," or "I'm not obligated to give up my seat on the bus." Adjust your attitude, and do what's right – even beyond your stated obligation.
Learn how to give in to others – and see how much farther it gets you. To begin moving in this direction, make a list of those to whom you have "debts with no contracts":
• the Jewish people
Just released! Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom. Click here to order.