Growing Each Day: Tammuz

Transgressions against a fellow man are not forgiven by Yom Kippur until one makes amends (Yoma 85b).

Prior to the High Holidays, a man asked his rabbi for guidance in doing proper teshuvah. Among other things, the rabbi instructed him to make a list of all the people he had harmed, because unless one obtains forgiveness from those whom one offended, teshuvah is incomplete.

Before Yom Kippur, the man returned and showed the rabbi the list he had made of people he had harmed. "Your list is incomplete," the rabbi said. "Go back and finish it."

The man was bewildered. How could the rabbi know whether the list he had made was complete or not? Nevertheless, he gave it greater consideration and indeed added several names to the list. To his surprise, the rabbi again rejected the list as being incomplete.

"What is it that you want of me?" the man asked. "You forgot to put yourself at the top of the list," the rabbi said. "When you do improper things, you harm yourself. Not until you realize that improper behavior is self-destructive can your teshuvah be complete."

This is an extremely important point. Indeed, Moses stressed this in his final message to the Israelites. I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse ... to love your God, obey him and cleave unto him, that is your life (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Moses made it clear that fulfilling the Divine will is life, and deviating therefrom is self-destructive.

Just as we might be considerate of others not to harm them, we should also show the same consideration for ourselves.

Today I shall...

realize that transgressing the Divine will is self-destructive, and make a commitment to preserve my life.

What are we? What are our lives? ... What can we say before You? (Siddur).

One way to read this prayer is to see the last phrase as an answer to the series of questions posed earlier. Read it: "What are we, and what are our lives and traits? Only that which we say before God." In other words, I can only know that much about myself which I have the courage to reveal to God. That which I cannot own up to, that which I keep so concealed that I cannot verbalize when I communicate with God, remains alien to me.

The Rabbi of Kotzk interpreted the verse, There shall not be a foreign god among you (Psalms 81:10), to mean, "Do not let God be foreign to you." To the degree that we alienate ourselves from God, we also alienate ourselves from ourselves.

Tachanun, the practice of daily soul-searching and teshuvah, is more than a ritual. By disclosing ourselves before God, we become aware of ourselves. While tachanun does contain prescribed prayers of confession, it is highly commendable that following them, we enter into a spontaneous conversation with God, telling Him all our innermost thoughts. In this way, we remove the barriers of denial and repression that both cause us to disown part of ourselves and put our correctable character defects out of reach.

Today I shall...

try to confide in God, and tell him, both in silent and verbal expression, all my innermost thoughts and feelings.

Do not curse God (Exodus 22:27).

I frequently heard my father quote this verse and interpret it to mean, "A person with Godliness does not curse."

Few things were as absolutely forbidden in our home as uttering a curse. I know that my father was severely provoked many times, but even when angry, no malediction ever crossed his lips. He would tell us that when someone would provoke his mother beyond tolerance, she would say, "May he have soft bread and hard butter." That was the strongest curse Grandmother could utter, but from my father I never heard even that.

How often have we regretted harsh words that were spoken in rage? Such remarks may cause as much pain to the speaker as to the one to whom they are said.

Since we are vulnerable to rage, perhaps we would be wise to provide ourselves with an array of expressions that we can draw upon so that when we are provoked to fury, we will be able to discharge our emotions without being malevolent. One tried-and-true example? "May he have soft bread and hard butter."

Today I shall...

scrupulously avoid pronouncing a curse in anger, regardless of how furious I may be.

The words of the wise are heard with pleasantness (Ecclesiastes 9:17).

The Talmud states that on Friday afternoon, a person must alert his household to prepare the necessities for Shabbos. However, he must do so in a soft voice, so that his words will be obeyed.

Many late Friday afternoons, people feel themselves under pressure while rushing to prepare for Shabbos. If one sees that some things have not yet been done, it is easy to lose composure and scream at other members of the household. The Talmud cautions against doing so and implies that shouted instructions are less likely to be carried out.

A politician who had concluded an address inadvertently left a copy of his speech on the lectern. In the margins were comments indicating manners of delivery, e.g. "gesture," "clap hands," "slow and emphatically," etc. At one point he had written, "Argument awfully weak here. Scream loudly."

If we have something of substance to say, the message will be adequately conveyed in a soft tone, because the content alone will carry it. Only when our words have little substance do we seek to make an impression by delivering them with many decibels.

Even in situations of great urgency, we have no need to lose our composure. I can attest that when life-threatening emergencies presented themselves in the hospital, greater efficiency and more rapid response ensued when everyone kept a cool head.

The words of Solomon are correct. The wise speak pleasantly, and those who shout may not be wise.

Today I shall...

keep my voice soft and pleasant at all times, especially when I have something urgent to communicate.

Let your home be open to all (Ethics of the Father 1:5).

I have traveled to many communities to lecture on various subjects. I have also attended other guest speakers' lectures. Invariably, after the lecture, the speaker is invited to a home where a small group of people gather for an informal chat, while hors d'oeuvres are served.

It has been very distressing to me that even when my audience appears to receive my talk well, no one may invite me to a post-lecture gathering. Why? I keep kosher, many of these people do not, and they find it awkward that the guest would not partake of their refreshments.

This baffles me. If my lecture was not well received, I could understand people's reluctance to invite me. But when the response is virtually ecstatic, and I receive immediate requests for repeat performances, why, then, am I shunned? If I were a person of any other faith or nationality, I would be welcomed in everyone's home. Why are the doors of my own people closed to me? The abundance of kosher foods available no longer makes keeping kosher an inconvenience.

Observant Jews adhere to kosher laws as a matter of conviction. Even if someone is not of that mindset, he or she can at least maintain a home where every Jew can be welcomed (or at least have a cup of coffee!).

So many doors are closed to Jews. We should not be closing our doors to our own.

Today I shall...

try and make my home a place where every Jew can feel welcome and comfortable.

And you shall inscribe them on the doorposts of your home and gates (Deuteronomy 6:9).

Some people seem to have two personalities. Some are very gentle, polite, and accommodating during the workday to clients and customers, but when they come home they become demanding and unyielding tyrants. On the other hand, others are loving, considerate, and patient at home, but in business affairs are ruthless, letting nothing stand in the way of gaining profit.

Neither behavior pattern is acceptable. Our lives must be governed by principles that apply everywhere, and we must practice them in all our affairs. For the Jew, these principles are found in the Torah, which includes not only the Scriptures, but also the Talmud and the various works compiled by Torah scholars throughout the ages.

In the portion of the Torah inscribed on the mezuzah, we read that one should converse in Torah while in the home, on the road, when one arises, and when one retires. This message is to be inscribed on the doorposts of our homes. In other words, from awakening until bedtime, both within the home and outside the home, the words of the Torah are to direct us in our actions. There can be no dichotomy.

The mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost so that it should be noticed both when we leave the house to enter the world of commerce and when we return home after the workday. While it is a beautiful custom to kiss the mezuzah as a sign of endearment, this gesture should not be perfunctory. The words of the mezuzah should influence our behavior everywhere.

Today I shall...

observe the mezuzah as I enter and leave my house, and remember what it is meant to teach me.

Accept truth from whomever speaks it (Maimonides, Kiddush HaChodesh 17:24).

Some extremely choosy people will accept guidance or teaching only from an acknowledged authority, because they consider accepting anything from anyone of lesser stature a demeaning affront to their ego.

Among my physician colleagues, I have observed this phenomenon when a patient requests consultation. Those doctors who have self-esteem and know that they are competent have no problem accepting consultation, but those who are less self-confident may interpret the request for consultation as an insinuation that they are inadequate. They may be insulted by this request, and if they do comply with it, they will accept as a consultant only the chief of the department at a university medical school or some other renowned personage. Any other consultant constitutes a threat to their ego, an admission that "he may know more than I do."

Physicians are not the only guilty party; professionals and artisans of all types can also show a lack of self-confidence by displaying this intellectual snobbery.

The Talmud states that truly wise people can learn from everyone, even from people who may be far beneath them. Limiting ourselves to learning only from outstanding experts is not only vain, but it also severely restricts our education. Humility is essential for learning, and we should accept the truth because it is the truth, regardless of who speaks it.

Today I shall...

try to learn from everyone, even from someone whom I may consider inferior to me in knowledge.

Hatred arouses strife, whereas love can cover up for all sins (Proverbs 10:12).

What are facts? What is reality? Often they are what we think they are, much like an optical illusion, such as a diagram that can look like the upper or lower surface of a staircase, depending on how we view it.

We often demonstrate our subjectivity when we make evaluations of other people. For example, if we do not like someone with a personality trait of rigidity, we may consider him "as stubborn as a mule." If, however, we admire him, he becomes "a person with great integrity who will never yield on a principle." In both cases, we sincerely believe that we are being thoroughly objective.How we feel towards others can profoundly affect how we interpret their behavior, yet our true feelings may be repressed and hidden even from ourselves. This phenomenon is most likely to occur with people who are closest to us. Although parents, children, spouses, and siblings may feel profound affection for their family members, they may be unaware of some repressed negative feelings which may manifest themselves with their finding fault with these family members. They may be unaware that what they are critical of (which they assume to be "fact") is actually a distorted conclusion due to a misperception, which is itself brought about by repressed negative feelings towards their loved ones. In fact, their love itself may cause them to repress negative feelings, which then find circuitous ways of expressing themselves.

Today I shall...

be hesitant in criticizing faults in others and be aware that the fault that I see in others may be due to my misperceptions.

He created him [Adam] in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Since God is not corporeal, the term "image of God" obviously refers to humanity's capacity for Godliness, i.e. to share in the Divine attributes of rational thinking, spirituality, sanctity, creativity - attributes that distinguish us from all other living things.

The serpent seduced Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge by convincing them that doing so would enable them to become God-like (ibid. 3:5). Why did they succumb to this argument, since they already knew that they were created betzelem Elokim, with the capacity to be God-like? Today, sadly, we have found one answer.

Misguided proponents of drugs claimed that certain drugs would create new senses of perception, and that users would thereby be able to perceive the "real truth" of the universe. As a result, millions of people, many of them young people with minds still in the delicate formative stage, have had their brains poisoned and their thinking distorted.

The tragic mistake of the Sixties bears great resemblance to the first sin. God bestowed humanity with a mind fully capable of participating in Godliness in its most comprehensive sense. Artificial substitutes proffered were treacherously deceptive; far from granting new vistas of truth, the forbidden fruit was described by God as something that would bring only death and destruction. We have witnessed an analogue of Adam and Eve's sin.

We are fully endowed to be able to know the truth. All we must do is make the effort. Chemicals are not a shortcut to truth, but a sure road to destruction.

Today I shall...

utilize my God-given mental capacities to search for truth and not be misled by false promises for instant spirituality.

[Man was created in God's image, and the Israelites are children unto God.] It is an extra measure of love that man was informed that he was created in God's image ... it is an extra measure of love that they [the Israelites] were informed that they were called children unto God (Ethics of the Fathers 3:18).

It is one thing to be gifted, and another thing to know that one is gifted.

A woman who was admitted for treatment for alcoholism insisted on test after test to determine whether she had suffered brain damage because of her use of alcohol. When she could not be reassured, I became suspicious that some- thing was preventing her from accepting this reassurance.

A long psychiatric interview revealed the reason for her reluctance. This young woman wanted the test to prove that she indeed had sustained brain damage.

Why would anyone wish to have such a terrible diagnosis? The answer is that this young woman feared taking on the challenges of life, and brain damage would have provided her with a lifetime of excellent excuses: "Stop trying to help me stay sober. It's too late. Sobriety is difficult enough to achieve for people who have a properly intact brain. I am beyond recovery - I am brain damaged! You expect me to go to school or hold a job? I am too brain damaged for that."

As horrible a diagnosis as brain damage may be, for this young woman it had a redeeming feature: it would absolve her of responsibility. Knowing that one has talents and abilities makes one responsible to use them.

We have been informed that we have God-like attributes and that we are the children of God. It may be more comfortable for us to make believe this is not so, but we should not deny the truth.

Today I shall...

confront myself with the realities of my abilities and avoid taking refuge in a delusion of inadequacy.

I will teach the defiant Your ways, and the sinful will return to You (Psalms 51:15).

Every human being craves happiness. People are more than willing to spend great sums of money in the hope of achieving happiness. Unfortunately, their efforts are usually in vain, because happiness cannot be bought. Luxurious homes, sumptuous feasts, and lavish occasions may provide transitory pleasures, but never true happiness.

Living with faith and trust in God can deliver the sought-for happiness. The reason more people do not achieve happiness is because they fall short of the requisite degree of faith and trust in God. We may worry about our financial future and the ability to provide for our families the way we would like, especially during economic downturns. When adversities occur, we are likely to become deeply dejected. A profound and unquestioning faith and trust in Divine benevolence will provide the serenity, security, and convictions that could eliminate these worries and sadness.

People have varying degrees of faith and trust. The higher their level, the lesser are their worries and sadness. If we were able to achieve complete faith and trust, our dispositions would be such that happiness would radiate from us.

Today I shall...

seek to strengthen my faith and trust in God so that I may achieve true happiness and be an example for others.

Be courageous as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion to do the will of your Heavenly Father (Ethics of the Fathers 5:23).

Numerous traits comprise the character of a human being. We tend to consider some traits as commendable and others as undesirable.

Traits per se are neither good nor bad. They acquire a value according to the way they are applied. Hate is generally assumed to be a very loathsome trait, but when one despises evil and injustice and seeks to eradicate them, it becomes a constructive and admirable trait. Love, on the other hand, is generally looked upon as a very positive trait. Yet, when misapplied, love can transgress the boundaries of decency and result in grossly immoral behavior.

Rather than seek to eradicate an undesirable trait, we might consciously redirect it so that it serves a useful function. While redirection can happen with some drives at an unconscious level (which constitutes the psychological defense mechanism of sublimation), we have no control over what happens in the unconscious. Preferably, we should avoid dismissing a trait which is generally considered unacceptable and consciously redirect it into a positive channel. It is obviously to our advantage to redirect energy, rather to have to repress it, since maintaining that repression requires expenditure of energy.

Today I shall...

try to direct all my traits in a way that will serve a constructive purpose.

And it shall be if you will heed the commandments that I command you (Deuteronomy 11:13).

The Talmud teaches that the evil inclination - the insatiable desire within each of us to experiment with the forbidden - is not so foolish as to entice a person to commit a major transgression. It does not tell an honest person to shoplift; that would certainly meet with fierce resistance. Rather, "First the evil inclination tells you, `Do this,' then `Do this,' until it gradually works its way up to the point where you may entirely reject God" (Shabbos 108b).

The usual interpretation is that the first "Do this" is a seduction to commit a minor transgression, and then it gradually works its way up to more serious ones. The armed robber began by stealing a chocolate bar. Rabbi Yosef Schneersohn said that the yetzer hara is even more wily than that. He may begin by recommending "perform this commandment, because it is a perfectly reasonable thing to do," by urging the person to perform commandments because they are logical. "Observe the Sabbath because you need a day of rest after six days of hard work. Give charity because it is only right to help the needy. Keep kosher because kosher foods are healthier." A person thus trains himself to follow the dictates of his reasoning, rather than to do something because it is the will of God. The evil inclination's next step is, "This particular commandment is obsolete. It no longer has any logical validity."

The only way to avoid this trap is to avoid its first piece of advice. We do the right thing because it is right, not because it accords with our personal likes and desires. Therefore, we preface the performance of a commandment with a blessing that states, "I am doing this in order to fulfill the Divine command." While we should try to understand the commandments, to the best of our ability, our understanding of them should not be our main motivation for performing them.

Today I shall...

observe all commandments because they are the Divine will, rather than only because I understand their purpose.

Which is the good way of life to which a person should adhere? Rabbi Eliezer says: A benevolent eye (Ethics of the Fathers 2:13).

"A benevolent eye" or "a good eye" is the Hebrew expression for not begrudging people that which they have. The corollary is that the way of life to avoid is having "a malevolent eye," i.e. begrudging people what they have.

In Yiddish, the equivalent of "a benevolent eye" is "to fargin," as in the expression "I fargin him with all my heart." There is no equivalent word in English for fargin, and it can only be translated in the negative, i.e. to fargin is to not begrudge. As noted in 23 Adar, the absence of a word in a language may be a clue about something in that particular culture. Is it possible that much of the English-speaking world knows only how to begrudge, but does not know how to fargin?

Be that as it may, Rabbi Eliezer considers "a benevolent eye" much more than just a desirable trait. He considers it an all-encompassing feature that constitutes the optimum adjustment to life. Other people may possess more material wealth. Their children may have achieved more. They may enjoy better health. In whatever way other people may be more fortunate, Rabbi Eliezer sees farginning them as the character trait that will make all other traits fall into line. Conversely, not farginning is a trait that so permeates one's personality that everything one thinks, feels, or does will be negatively affected.

Perhaps not everyone can rejoice in what others have, but we can all fargin.

Today I shall...

try to fargin everyone what they have and avoid begrudging anything to anyone.

Blessed are You, O God, King of the Universe, Who created everything for His glory (The Marriage Ritual).

The surging divorce rate in recent years is appalling. While the Torah indeed provides for dissolving a relationship, there has never been in Jewish history anything like the current number of failed marriages.

Perhaps the problem stems from the partners' primary goals as they enter marriage. In Western civilization, what is called "love" has been accepted as the cornerstone of marriage. Unfortunately, this "love" too often refers to an attraction for the partner because of how he or she can gratify the other's physical and emotional needs. If this primary goal is not adequately met, the cement of the relationship disintegrates, and secondary factors alone cannot maintain it.

In the past, the primary focus of a marriage was the establishment of a family. [The first mitzvah found in the Torah is be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28).] While physical and emotional needs were important, they were not primary, but secondary. Hence, when problems of this nature did develop, the relationship was still held together by the primary binding forces, and these secondary problems could be rectified and resolved.

Today I shall...

try to realize what the true primary goals of my relationship with others should be.

The Jewish people are My servants, and not servants to servants (Bava Metzia 10a).

As a host and his guest left the apartment building, the doorman greeted them in a belligerent tone of voice. The host responded in a gentle tone of voice and with a very pleasant smile.

"Is he that grouchy all the time?" the guest asked.

"Sometimes even worse," the host answered.

"Then why are you so pleasant in your response to him?" the guest asked.

"Because," the host answered, "I am not about to let him dictate how I am going to act."

If we react to others' provocation, we are essentially allowing them to control our behavior. A sign of slavery is being deprived of the ability to think for oneself, so here, if we react reflexively rather than rationally, we are at least temporarily in involuntary servitude. How foolish to allow ourselves to become enslaved, even momentarily.

The antidote is to avoid reflex reactions. We can make it a point never to respond when provoked until we have stopped and allowed ourselves ample time to think rationally about what has happened and to plan what would be a rational, well-calculated response.

One might think that delaying a response to provocation is out of consideration for the other person, to protect others from one's own wrath. This is true, but secondary. The primary reason is that we maintain our own freedom and do not become puppets manipulated by others.

Today I shall...

avoid reflex responses, and maintain my freedom and dignity as a rational person.

On the seventeenth day of Tammuz, the Tablets [of the Ten Commandments] were broken [by Moses] (Taanis 26b).

Today the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf and on this day, therefore, Moses broke the Tablets of the Law. Jews initiate a three-week period of mourning which ends on the Ninth of Av, the day on which spies sent by Moses to scout Canaan returned with a report so pessimistic that the Israelites wept all night. (Both days also become days of mourning for other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, e.g. both Sanctuaries were destroyed on the Ninth of Av.)

The two events - the worship of the Golden Calf and the despair of the Israelites - are closely related. The Torah relates that the Israelites despaired of entering the Promised Land because they lacked faith that God would enable them to conquer it. Their worship of the Golden Calf and their despair of entering the Promised Land both came from a lack of faith in God.

Some people would be horrified to think of themselves as idolaters, yet their behavior may manifest a lack of faith and trust in God. For example, Torah law requires that a certain percentage of one's income be given as tzedakah. Reluctance to do so shows a lack of faith in the Divine promise that those who give tzedakah will be rewarded manyfold. Failure to refrain from conducting one's business on the Sabbath displays a lack of trust in God, Who decreed that the Sabbath be a day of rest and has promised that those who observe it will gain much more by obeying him than they could through human effort.

The mindset of those who worshiped the Golden Calf and thereby repudiated the true God led directly to the disastrous reaction to the libel of the spies, which caused the loss of an entire generation in the desert and delayed the acquisition of the Promised Land for forty years.

Thanking God requires more than lip service; it must be made manifest in our daily lives.

Today I shall...

strengthen my faith and trust in God, and not allow any doubt in Him to affect my actions.

Everyone will say that [piety] is a major principle ... but why they do not study it is because it is so obvious and certain (Introduction to Path of the Just).

We take many things for granted. Is justice important? Of course! Is morality vital? Without a doubt! Are honesty and decency essential character traits? How can one even pose a question when the answer is so obvious?

In Path of the Just, a monumental work on ethics, Luzzato points out that some people exert a great deal of effort in order to try to gain greater understanding in various subjects, some of which are abstract and have little practical application, but they neglect investigating concepts which are important in everyday life. These people don't minimize the value of the latter; to the contrary, because these subjects are so important, everyone takes for granted that they understand them as well as they can figure two plus two equals four.

What is justice? What constitutes morality? What does it mean to be honest and decent? Who determines desirable values? To what degree is a particular trait commendable? In Luzzato's time, like today, these subjects were relegated to pundits in ivory towers who had nothing better to do than spend time analyzing and deliberating these "intangibles." People who were occupied in business, homemaking, labor, and professions had little time for such luxuries. Too many still think they don't.

Luzzato points out that unless we make a concerted effort to understand the values that we espouse, we may be grossly derelict without being aware of it.

Today I shall...

turn my attention to understanding those values that I consider important in proper living.

These are the precepts that have no prescribed measure: the corner of a field [which must be left for the poor], the first-fruit offering, etc. (Peah 1:1).

This portion of the Talmud is recited in the introductory prayers of the morning service, in order that a person begin the day with a portion of the Oral Law. Of the hundreds of thousands of passages of the Talmud, why was this one selected?

This passage lists five items that have no prescribed measure. The implication is that other than these five, everything has a limit. With this important concept, we should begin our day.

Some people know no limits. Many behavioral excesses have joined the category of "olics," so that we now have not only alcoholics, but workaholics, foodaholics, chocoholics, sportaholics, worryaholics, etc. Any activity can be over done.

More of a good thing is not necessarily better, as people with obesity, for example, have discovered. Unfortunately, many people who do something to excess are not aware of their error. They believe that they are still acting within the normal range.

As with alcoholics, people who are affected by any excessive behavior are generally unable to set limits for themselves. Outsiders must make objective observations to recognize if reasonable limits have been exceeded. We would be wise to seek the appraisal of competent and interested people to help us determine whether we are functioning within the range of accepted norms.

Today I shall...

be aware that I may be exceeding limits in some aspects of my behavior and seek a competent outside evaluation of myself.

If the court awards the garment to your adversary, sing a happy tune as you leave (Sanhedrin 7a).

Someone who loses even a substantial amount of money as a result of a drop in the value of the stocks that he or she owns will not be upset as intensely or for as long a time as if he or she had lost a much smaller amount of money in a court. The reason? In the first instance, although he lost, no one else won. In the latter case, his loss resulted in his adversary's triumph, and that hurts more.

Here, two plus two does not equal four, but much more. If one's loss and the other's gain had occurred independently of one another, the reaction would not have been as great. The fact that another person gains something should not be distressful, since one should be able to fargin (see 14 Tammuz). The fact that one has lost, while unpleasant, usually does not provoke so extreme a reaction. But if the two come together, and the other person's gain comes as the result of one's loss, two plus two suddenly equal a million.

Competition exists in law, business, sports, and many other events. Life is full of situations where one wins and the other loses. Unless we learn to restore the equation to its arithmetical equivalent, so that the whole should not be greater than the sum of its parts, we are in for trouble. Inability to gracefully accept a loss in competition may result in severe emotional stress and cause not only interpersonal and behavioral consequences, but may also take a severe toll on one's health.

The Talmud is right. If you lose at competition, walk away singing.

Today I shall...

try to develop an attitude of acceptance when I lose in competition.

I created the yetzer hara, and I created the Torah as its antidote (Kiddushin 30b).

Many commercial products that we use both at home and in industry are toxic. We use them because they serve a particular constructive purpose, but we are also aware that they are dangerous chemicals. Indeed, they usually contain a warning, such as "not for internal use" or "avoid contact with eyes," followed by an antidote with instructions of what to do in case the precautions were not heeded.

Rational people will be very cautious with these chemicals, using them only as directed. If someone accidentally swallowed one of them, he or she will immediately use the specific antidote recommended by the manufacturer. Trying something else instead would be foolish at best and suicidal at worst. The manufacturer obviously knows best what the most effective antidote is.

So it is with the yetzer hara. Our appetites and other physiological drives have their source in the yetzer hara, so they must be used only as directed. Misuse can be dangerous and even lethal. Fortunately, the manufacturer issued precautionary instructions (to be found in books of mussar) and provided an effective antidote: Torah. How foolish would it be to ignore the manufacturer's instructions or to try to find an antidote other than the one prescribed!

Our physical bodies are very dear to us, and we scrupulously follow instructions on products to avoid physical harm. If there are no instructions on the product package, we will immediately call a poison control center for instructions from the experts on how to avoid harm. Our spiritual selves should be treated with equal respect. We should follow instructions and whenever in doubt, promptly ask the experts.

Today I shall...

give my spiritual life serious consideration and protect it as I do my physical self.

The ear that listens to the admonitions of life will rest among the wise (Proverbs 15:31).

An actor once approached the gates of heaven and asked for admission. "What worthy deeds have you done in your lifetime?" the angel asked.

"Why, I portrayed the futility of materialism and the tragedies that result from dishonesty. People would cry and become remorseful while watching my acting."

"Very well," said the angel. "You sit here at the gate, and as soon as the first person who did teshuvah as a result of your acting will appear, you may enter."

People who are interested in refining their characters must ask themselves what they are doing to bring it about. To what sources are they turning to derive teachings on correct values and how to achieve them? Clearly, they are not available on television; those who spend their after-work hours glued to the television screen can hardly claim to be working on self-improvement. Nor are the variety of pastimes, in which many people indulge, sources for character betterment.

Those who truly wish to improve themselves will seek the company of the spiritually wise who are able to teach them.

Today I shall...

examine myself to see which steps I have taken to bring about the character improvement that I desire.

One who is needy and refuses to accept help, it is as though he shed innocent blood (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 8:8).

Maimonides extols what he calls the golden path, the middle way which a person should follow in life. He states that every trait has two opposite but equally undesirable extremes. The proper degree of any trait is not necessarily the median; it may be more toward one of the two poles, but it is never the extreme.

Self-sufficiency is certainly a desirable goal, and striving for independence is commendable. Some indolent people do not even try to carry their own weight. Their parasitism may be so reprehensible to other people that the latter may react by going to the opposite extreme and refusing to accept help when they need it. They may sustain physical injury by starvation or exposure, rather than accept a helping hand.

While accounts of great tzaddikim who subjected themselves to extreme degrees of deprivation do exist, these people had reached a level of spirituality so high that this deprivation would not harm them. For the average person, Solomon's caution, "Do not attempt to be too much of a tzaddik" (Ecclesiastes 7:16), should prevail. To do so may simply be an "ego trip." Some bridges can support vehicles of any tonnage; other bridges have a limit on the tonnage, lest they collapse under excess weight.

In this trait, like so many others, people may not be the best judge of their own capacities. Their best move is to seek competent spiritual guidance.

Today I shall...

allow myself to accept legitimate help and be cautious of over-reacting in any extreme.

You shall honor it [Shabbos] by refraining from your usual weekday practices, nor pursuing your business, nor speaking thereof (Isaiah 58:13).

The observance of Shabbos and the festivals is characterized by not only abstinence from work, but also from all types of "weekday" activities, including even how one converses. "Your conversation on Shabbos should not be similar to your weekday conversation" (Shabbos 113b).

A personal incident illustrates that by properly honoring the Shabbos and festivals, one achieves the respect of others.

As a resident in psychiatric training, I explained to the program director that I was unable to work on the festival days, and that these should be considered vacation days and deducted from my allotted vacation time.

The director shook his head. "No need for that," he said. "Non-Jewish people can do anything they wish on their holidays. If they can wash the car, paint the garage, or go to the theater, then they can just as well come to work. In your case, you are not permitted to do anything, so obviously you cannot come to work, and this need not affect your vacation time."

It has been said, "Even more than Israel has kept the Shabbos, the Shabbos has kept Israel." If we honor the Shabbos properly, the Shabbos will honor us.

Today I shall...

dedicate myself to a full observance of Shabbos and the festivals.

What is lashon hara? One who speaks disparagingly of another person, even though he may speak the truth (Orchos Tzaddikim, Chapter 25).

One mussar spokesman said that there should never be any need to speak about another person. "If you wish to speak of someone's praises, praise God instead. If you wish to find fault with someone, you would do better to focus on your own defects."

The second statement takes on additional significance in light of what psychologists have learned about lack of self-awareness. Some have suggested that when people talk about other people, they turn the conversation away from themselves and, by focusing on other's shortcomings, they avoid the need to focus on their own. Slandering other people thus sets back the struggle for self-awareness, which is essential for optimum emotional and psychological health, because it directs one's attention away from oneself and onto the defects in others. One thereby does not have the information necessary to improve.

The Talmud states that lashon hara adversely affects three people: the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the subject of the conversation (Arachin 15b). We can easily understand how it hurts the last two, and we now have another insight into how gossips actually hurt themselves.

Today I shall...

assiduously avoid talking about other people's faults, and instead try to find my own, so that I can improve upon them.

They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I shall dwell among them (Exodus 25:8).

The Midrash notes that God did not say, "I shall dwell within it" (the Sanctuary), but "I shall dwell among them" (the Israelites), i.e. the Divine Presence will be within each person.

There are two types of possible relationships. A person may relate to an object, which is a one-way relationship, since the object cannot reciprocate, or a person may react to God and to people, which should be a two-way relationship. Another difference between relating to objects and to beings is that things should be used, whereas God and people should be loved. Unfortunately, the reverse may occur, wherein people fall in love with things but they use God and people. People who behave this way perceive God and people as if they were objects. Inasmuch as the love of oneself is an inevitable fact, love of God and people can occur only when they are permitted to become part of oneself, because then one loves them as one does one's own eyes and ears.

If my relationship to God is limited to going to the Sanctuary and praying for my needs, then I am merely using Him, and God becomes an external object. But when I make His will mine, then His will resides within me and He becomes part of me. This is undoubtedly what the Zohar means by, "Israel, the Torah, and God are one unit," because the Torah, which is the Divine will, is inseparable from God, and when one incorporates the Torah with one's own code of conduct and values, one unites with God.

Today I shall...

try to make my relationship with God more than an object relationship, by incorporating the Torah to be my will.

One who withholds grain will be cursed by the nation (Proverbs 11:26).

This verse refers to people who have knowledge and refuse to share it with others. Our Sages strongly criticize these people. The Talmud states that prophets who did not convey their prophecies to the people committed a grave sin. The Sages extend this principle to one who has gained insights into the Torah and does not make them available to others.

This principle applies to skills and talents. In the Sanctuary, those Kohanim (priests) who possessed certain talents were soundly condemned if they guarded them as family secrets.

Exclusive economic rights such as patents and copyrights pose no problem; inventors and authors should enjoy the profits of their labor. However, when the question is not one of income, but merely one of pride in being the sole person to possess information that others could use and enjoy, the Talmud spares no words in its condemnation.

We pray to God to grant us wisdom, and if we possess a particular skill, we should recognize it as a Divine gift. We should be grateful for having been chosen as the recipient of this gift, and so we should never be selfish and claim this gift as our exclusive property. Rather, we should make our talents and knowledge available to everyone.

To the degree that people can teach, they are obligated to do so, regardless of their status in life. If others fail to take advantage of what a teacher has to offer, that is their misfortune.

Today I shall...

refrain from keeping to myself any knowledge or information that can be helpful to others.

Every clever person will act with good sense, whereas a fool will declare his folly (Proverbs 13:16).

The Malbim interprets this verse to mean that the clever person will find ways to resolve doubts, but the fool will create new ones.

The doubts to which the Malbim is referring are those that relate to Torah and mitzvos. A person who feels that observance of the mitzvos is an imposition may look for ways to justify non-compliance, and may do so by casting doubts on their validity. He may find what he feels to be inconsistencies, or argue that science challenges Torah principles. However, he succeeds in deceiving no one other than himself. Everyone else knows that he is not motivated by a search for truth, but merely by a desire to avoid any inconveniences.

A clever person, who may be subject to the same arguments, will realize that all of the objections of which he can think were known to greater minds than his. Our history is replete with intellectual giants and philosophical geniuses, whose absolute dedication to Torah and mitzvos was not affected in the least by all the challenges which may appear so cogent. One can safely rely on their conclusion that after considering all arguments, they concluded that the teachings of Torah were correct.

The person who uses arguments to evade Torah observance is placing his mind above that of the intellectual giants of our heritage. Only a fool would do that.

Today I shall...

rest assured that the teachings of the Torah are the correct way of life.

The king of Egypt died, and the Israelites sighed in their enslavement, and they wailed (Exodus 2:23).

One commentary explains that the enslaved Israelites had feared to sigh or cry, because their ruthless taskmasters would punish them for "complaining." When the king of Egypt died, the entire country was in mourning, and the Israelites exploited this opportunity to cry, since at that point, crying was socially acceptable as a sign of mourning the death of the king.

There is a Yiddish idiom: "to look for a badekens." A badekens is that part of the marriage ceremony where the parents cover the bride's face with a veil and give her their blessing. A highly emotional moment, it generally brings all present to cry. Therefore, if people are reluctant to cry for fear of revealing their emotional pain, they will "look for a badekens"; i.e. find an opportunity where crying is the norm, so that their crying will not indicate any personal pain.

Why should we need any subterfuge? What is wrong with showing our emotions? Why is crying equated with character weakness? Why should brave people not cry when they feel hurt? Where is the benefit in being an unemotional stone? We may read an account of a person who "cried unashamedly." Why should there be any shame in crying?

Our ancestors in Egypt suppressed their emotions because they feared their oppressors' retaliation. Whom do we fear when we suppress our emotions? Perhaps only our friends and peers, who are also suppressing their emotions because they fear what we will think of them. How foolish!

Today I shall...

feel free to express my emotions and not restrain myself for invalid reasons.

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