Growing Each Day: Shevat

You simpletons, understand cleverness; you fools, understand with the heart. Listen, for my words merit serious attention (Proverbs 8:5-6).

The simpletons and fools to whom Solomon refers repeatedly in Proverbs are not people born without intellect. Why would he demand understanding from those who cannot understand? Solomon is calling out to people who do have the capacity for wisdom, but who choose to behave foolishly.

People who have a limited amount of money, yet squander it on unnecessary incidentals and leave themselves without the means to buy food and clothing, are not necessarily feeble-minded. Rather, they place the pleasures of the moment above the more important things in life. These people allow themselves to be dominated by their desires rather than using their judgment. They do not lack the ability to make a proper judgment, but are lax in applying that ability.

Solomon is speaking to everyone. Few people are as wise as they can be. How often have we regretted doing something, yet we fail to learn from the experience and end up repeating the regrettable behavior?

We would be deeply insulted if someone called us fools or simpletons. We should have sufficient pride not to insult ourselves by behaving in a manner that would warrant such epithets.

Today I shall...

take pride in my intelligence, and be cautious not to do anything that would classify me as a fool or as a simpleton.

Acts of benevolence are greater than giving charity (Succah 49b).

The Talmud explains that charity consists of the giving of our possessions, whereas by performing acts of benevolence, we give of ourselves as well.

This teaching is of special importance in an era where everything is done by agencies. Agencies care for the needy, for the homeless, for abused and neglected children, and for almost any other cause we can imagine. Few people become involved in providing direct care. Most discharge their obligations by contributing to a community fund which supports these various agencies.

The problem with this arrangement is that such agencies are often grossly understaffed. They therefore cannot provide more than a fraction of the needed services. However, having made a contribution to the community fund, people generally feel that they have thereby discharged their obligations. Since those in need of help rarely confront us directly, we may not be aware that their needs remain largely unmet. One check to the community fund has placated our consciences, and we can sleep peacefully.

The Torah calls for a different attitude. While giving charity is indeed very great, becoming personally involved in helping those in need is even greater. Only in this way can we avoid deceiving ourselves that the job has been satisfactorily accomplished by the agencies that we fund.

It is, of course, easier to donate to an agency than to become personally involved, but the easy way is not necessarily the right way.

Today I shall...

try to familiarize myself with the actual needs that exist in my community, and take a personal interest to see that they are satisfactorily met.

This path is short and long, and the other is long and short (Eruvin 53b).

The Talmud relates that these were the directions a young child gave to Rabbi Yehoshua when he asked the way to the city. Rabbi Yehoshua first took the short way. Although he soon found himself in the city's outskirts, fenced-in orchards blocked the entrance, and he had to retrace his steps and take the longer route, which eventually brought him to his destination.

In our haste, we often look for shortcuts. Who hasn't driven to an unfamiliar area, found what looked like a shortcut on the map and taken it, only to discover that it really was a very slow route, and that taking the highway might have indeed been a few miles longer, but it would have brought them to their destination much sooner? As someone said, "A shortcut is often the fastest way to get to somewhere you don't want to be."

Two men were put into a maze, and one soon found his way out. He stated that whenever he came to a dead end, he retraced his steps and marked the entrance to that path, so that he would know which one not to take.

If this principle is true with road travel, how much more so it is with the paths through life, where the apparent easier way is so often misleading. Some paths in life lead nowhere. We can either discover them ourselves, or we can ask our elders and profit by their experience. They may have marked off those paths that they found led nowhere.

Today I shall...

ask for guidance from older and wiser people who have had experience in life, so that I may avoid mistakes that they have made.

God called unto man [Adam] and said to him, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9).

We read in Genesis that after Adam sinned, he tried to hide in the Garden of Eden. Was Adam so foolish to think that he could hide from God? Certainly not! He was hiding from himself, because it was himself that he could no longer confront. God's question to him was very pertinent: "I am here. I am always here, but where are you?"

Adam's answer to God describes man's most common defense: "I was afraid because I was exposed, and I therefore tried to hide" (Genesis 3:10). Since people cannot possibly conceal themselves from God, they try to hide from themselves. This effort results in a multitude of problems, some of which I described in Let Us Make Man (CIS, 1987).

We hear a great deal about people's search for God, and much has been written about ways that we can "find" God. The above verse throws a different light on the subject. It is not necessary for people to find God, because He was never lost, but has been there all the time, everywhere. We are the ones who may be lost.

When an infant closes its eyes, it thinks that because it cannot see others, they cannot see it either. Adults may indulge in the same infantile notion - if they hide from themselves, they think they are hiding from God as well. If we find ourselves by getting to know who we are, we will have little difficulty in finding God, and in letting Him find us.

Today I shall...

try to establish a closer relationship with God by coming out of hiding from myself.

When your enemy falls, do not rejoice (Proverbs 24:17).

The Torah explicitly forbids taking revenge, or when doing a favor to someone who had denied your request, to say, "You see, I am not like you. I am doing you a favor even though you refused me when I needed your help."

Solomon goes one step further. He states that passive revenge is also wrong. Even if your enemies have come to grief without your contributing to it in any way, you should not enjoy their downfall.

Solomon's father David was the victim of a ruthless rebellion led by another son, Avshalom, who drove him from the land. As David was in the process of quelling the rebellion, Avshalom was killed. Although the son had been his father's mortal enemy, David grieved bitterly for him, going so far as to say, "Would that I had died instead of you" (II Samuel 19:1). He was of course, feeling the paternal love which can prevail over all other emotions.

While it is not realistic to expect anyone to grieve over an enemy's misfortune as a father might grieve over the misfortune of a defiant son, we can have enough compassion for other human beings to at least not rejoice in their downfall, even if they were our enemies.

Today I shall...

try to overcome any natural tendency to passive revenge, and have enough compassion even toward my enemies to avoid rejoicing in their downfall.

When God will again rejoice in His benevolence to you as He rejoiced with your ancestors (Deuteronomy 30:9).

One young woman who had recovered from alcoholism wrote to me that after several years of sobriety, she had received a new car as a gift from her father. She added: "I am giving my father a chance to be a father."

During her years of drinking, her father had been forced to stop giving her things, because she used them in a self-destructive manner. It was clear from her letter that although she certainly enjoyed her new car, she had even greater pleasure from allowing her father to give it to her. It is most frustrating when a loving father must suppress his desire to give to his children, because of their improper behavior.

When we receive things from God and express our gratitude to Him, we should be aware how much He enjoys giving to us, and we should rejoice in His happiness even more than in our own gratification. Conversely, we should realize that when we transgress His will, we deprive our loving Father from being kind to us, and that we are causing God much grief when we make Him suppress His infinite kindness.

The Psalmist says, "The righteous rejoice in God" (Psalms 97:12), meaning that they rejoice in the Divine gladness, when they give God the opportunity to exercise His kindness.

Today I shall...

express my thankfulness to God for His kindness to me, and rejoice in the knowledge that God takes pleasure in providing for me.

Every place where it states: "It was in the days of" [the expression] is one of anguish (Vayikra Rabbah 11:7).

If someone is preoccupied only with nostalgia, dreaming about how idyllic the past was and seeing nothing good about the present, it is a sign of anguish. If someone looks toward the future, planning for and anticipating what can be, it indicates joy.

All our joyous festivals are tied to the future. Although we commemorate the historic Exodus from Egypt on Passover, the second half of the Seder relates to the ultimate Redemption, and we close the Seder with the declaration, "Next year in Jerusalem." While Shavuos does commemorate the revelation at Sinai, it is the commitment to observe the Torah given at Sinai in the future that gives the festival its importance. And the festival of Succos, which culminates in the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah, is also the beginning of a new cycle. We always rejoice with the future, not the past.

The past is sure, the future is uncertain. Whatever challenges the past had are behind us, while those of the future must yet be confronted. Yet the uncertain and challenging future should generate joy, because it holds the promise and potential of what might be.

If the past has been one of achievement, it is easy to bask in its glory. However, while comfort might feel better than challenge, challenge is constructive, and joy in life should be sought in what can be done, rather than in what has been done.

Today I shall...

concentrate on the future, and pray that God give me the wisdom, strength, and courage to confront the challenges the future holds for me.

The position which baalei teshuvah [penitents] occupy cannot be occupied even by tzaddikim [completely righteous] (Berachos 34b).

A surgeon once encountered difficult complications during an operation and asked his assistant to see if there was anyone in the surgical suite who could help. The assistant replied that the only one who was there was the chief of the surgical staff. "There is no point in calling him," the operating surgeon said. "He would not know what to do. He never got himself into a predicament like this."

As far as people's own functioning is concerned, it might be better not to have made mistakes. Still, such perfection makes them relatively useless as sources of help to others who have made mistakes, because they have no experience on which to draw to know how to best help them correct their mistakes.

A perfect tzaddik may indeed be most virtuous, but may not be able to identify and empathize with average people who need help in correcting their errors. The "position" to which the Talmud is referring may be the position of a helper, and in this respect the baal teshuvah may indeed be superior to a tzaddik.

Today I shall...

reflect on how I dealt with the mistakes I have made, and share my experience with others who may benefit from them.

Climb up the mountain and you will see what the land is like (Numbers 13:17-18).

These words are the instructions which Moses gave the spies when he sent them to scout Canaan for the Israelites.

On a visit to a salmon hatchery, I witnessed a wonder of nature. Salmon swim upstream, against the current, to reach the spawning place where they were born. To get there, they must jump against powerful cascades. It is fascinating to observe how they struggle to overcome both the pull of gravity and the force of waterfalls. Nothing stops the salmon from getting to where they "know" they must go.

While humans do not have an instinctual goal, we do have the capacity to discover our goals by the use of our intellect. We must often overcome many hurdles and obstacles to reach our goals, and we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the struggles we encounter. Those who do not have the courage to overcome the challenge are likely to rationalize their retreat by saying that the goal is not worth the sacrifice. Instead of admitting their reluctance, they devalue the goal.

Moses knew that the land which was promised by God to Israel was the spiritual goal of the Jewish people, but he knew that when confronted with the difficulties of acquiring the land, some people might retreat and rationalize their reluctance by disparaging the land.

"Only if you are ready to climb mountains," said Moses, "will you be able to truly see what the land is like." The truth can be appreciated only by those who are ready to sacrifice for it."

Today I shall...

realize that reaching desirable goals may require much courage and effort, and I should not let any challenge divert me from worthwhile goals.

Teshuvah [repentance] is so great that it can convert sins [of the past] into merits (Yoma 86b).

Sins become merits only when the teshuvah is done out of an intense love for God.

This type of teshuvah is not the average kind of repentance, in which people regret having done wrong and commit themselves to avoid repeating the forbidden act. While that level of teshuvah is certainly commendable and indeed may suffice to eradicate a sin, it is not adequate to convert that sin into a merit. We may polish a pewter item to cleanse it of accumulated dirt, and even give it a luster, but it still will remain pewter. If we could find a way to convert pewter into gold, we would be changing its very essence.

In ancient history, some alchemists spent their entire lives trying to discover the magic formula that would enable them to convert base metals into gold. While this task remains impossible for metals, it is not impossible with human behavior. We can turn base acts into virtues. The "magic formula" is to develop so intimate a relationship with God that we not only regret having sinned, but feel the anguish of having displeased someone whom we love intensely.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev once said to a person who was a known sinner: "How I envy you! When you will do teshuvah and convert your sins, you will have many more merits than I do."

Rather than allow the mistakes of the past to depress us, we should try to behave in such a way that we convert them into merits.

Today I shall...

try to strive for a relationship with God that will be so intense in devotion that my faults will be converted into virtues.

A righteous person eats to satisfy his soul (Proverbs 13:25).

When children have poor table manners, their parents will likely reprimand them and say: "You're eating like an animal."

While animals lack the finesse of Emily Post, we can say this much for them: they eat only for their bodily needs. Animals do not overeat, nor do they indulge in the pleasures of eating the way that humans do. Titillating the palate is a uniquely human obsession.

People who sincerely believe they were put on earth solely in order to serve God will eat in order to sustain life and to have the energy to carry out their assignment on earth. While they may enjoy eating, they neither indulge themselves nor constantly seek ways to enhance their food. These people are unlikely to develop obesity, because they would not consume more food than is necessary to maintain optimum bodily function.

In the twelfth century, Maimonides stated that the majority of human ills come from unhealthy eating practices. Modern medical science substantiates his assertion. However, modern people, instead of developing more body-conscious eating habits, apply their genius to seeking ways to stuff themselves without becoming overweight.

It is a humbling thought that if humans did eat like animals, they would live longer and be healthier.

Today I shall...

try to develop truly healthy eating habits by realizing that the true purpose of eating is to maintain optimum bodily function.

Aaron was ashamed [and was reluctant to assume the position of High Priest] because of his role in the Golden Calf episode, and Moses said, "This is why you were selected" (Rashi, Leviticus 9:7).

I was once asked to see a student nurse who was beside herself because she had made an error in medication. While this particular error was harmless, she felt that she lacked the competency to be a nurse, because she saw that she was capable of making even more serious errors.

I told the young woman that I did not know of anyone who can go through life without making any errors. Perfection belongs to God alone. If all nurses who became so upset because of a medication error would leave the field, the only ones who would remain would be those indifferent to making errors, and that would be the worst disservice to mankind.

We must try to do our very best at everything we do, particularly when it concerns others' welfare. We must not be lax, negligent, nor reckless. We should of course be reasonably upset upon making a mistake and learn from such experiences how we might avoid repeating them. However, if in spite of our best efforts we commit errors as a result of our human fallibility, we should not give up. Allowing a mistake to totally shatter us would result in our not doing anything in order to avoid mistakes. This non-action would constitute the greatest mistake of all.

Today I shall...

try to realize that the distress I feel upon making a mistake is a constructive feeling that can help me improve myself.

One who degrades another person is a fool, and a man of understanding will make himself deaf to his words(Proverbs 11:12).

When people feel good about themselves, they have no need to enhance their self-evaluation by berating others. Those who do so are exposing their own poor self-worth and to what extremes they will go in order to achieve any feeling of worth.

Solomon points out that the one who listens to such prattle is no better than the speaker. Why would anyone waste time listening to such gossip and slander unless it served some purpose? A person with good self-esteem would turn a deaf ear to such talk. Furthermore, one who listens to gossip provides the talker with an audience, thereby actually encouraging more gossip.

Solomon calls a wise person "a man of understanding." The wisdom here consists of understanding the psychology of gossips. They need to berate others for their own self-worth, and they are not above lying to disparage others. You can be certain that the person who speaks critically about someone else to you will eventually speak critically about you to someone else. The only approach, therefore, is to completely shun a gossip.

In his epochal work on lashon hara (gossip), the Chofetz Chaim states that the transgression of listening to lashon hara is every bit as serious as speaking it. If someone tries to make a listener out of you, leave, or at least politely say that you are not interested in the subject.

Today I shall...

make a point to avoid listening to gossip and slander as well as not speaking them.

Do not be hasty in spirit to be angry. (Ecclesiastes 7:9)

For what I believe are valid reasons, my home telephone is unlisted. However, this secret has been very poorly kept. While I have made peace with giving free psychiatric advice from my home, I have not been able to make peace with persons whom I do not know who make collect calls in search of free advice. Yet I do not refuse to accept charges. Perhaps the caller is in a desperate crisis and thinks that I can somehow help him.

One evening, a phone call interrupted my already long-delayed dinner. I thought I heard the operator say that it was collect. Although the caller was a stranger, I accepted the call, for the reason given above. The caller asked for some psychiatric advice, but since there was no emergency I expressed outrage for her calling me at home, and particularly for asking me to pay for the call. The woman responded that she had not called me collect, and the operator had perhaps erred, since she had asked that the call be “person to person.”

I realized that the mistake was mine; the operator had not asked me to accept the charges, but had asked for me personally. I had therefore reprimanded the caller unjustly, but since I did not know who she was, I had no way to apologize to her.

This incident demonstrates the wisdom of Solomon’s words. Had I not hastily jumped to conclusions, but instead had exercised a bit of patience, a gently worded question would have revealed the truth and would have prevented an unjustified reprimand.

Today I shall...

try to avoid erupting in anger when I feel offended and at least delay an angry response until I have more thoroughly evaluated the situation.

Do not destroy its trees. (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Although this verse refers specifically to the prohibition of destroying a fruit-bearing tree, the Talmud has extended this principle to prohibit all wanton destruction.

A rabbi and a student were strolling in the street. The student tore a leaf from a tree. “Think about what you have just done,” the rabbi said, “There is an ascending scale of matter that parallels each being’s function. God wants the inanimate to serve the vegetative, which should in turn serve the animate, which should in turn serve the rational. Our efforts should be directed toward the elevation of matter, and not to its degradation.

“When we cut a tree to fashion from it things that people will use constructively, the tree is elevated by being of service to humanity. But by tearing a living leaf from a tree for no purpose whatsoever, you have degraded the leaf from the vegetative to the inanimate, and you have reversed the ascending order of matter.”

If we guided our actions on this scale of elevation to a more sublime state, how different our lives might be! We might also then realize that there is one additional ascent, and that is from the rational to the spiritual. How wonderful our lives would be if everything were directed upward, culminating in the ultimate goal of spirituality!

Today I shall...

try to think of myself as one who should elevate even the physical items in the world, and certainly be cautious not to cause anything to descend in its status.

A mitzvah draws along another mitzvah, and a sin draws along another sin. (Ethics of the Fathers 4:2)

One day I received a panicky call from an alcoholic patient whom I had treated several years earlier. He had been at a gathering at a friend’s home, and although he had specified that he wanted a soft drink, his first sip told him that there was alcohol in the drink. He called me for instruction of what he might do, since he knew from past experience that one sip of alcohol sufficed to set in motion a chain reaction that would end in a drunken stupor. He stated that he was prepared to admit himself into a hospital if necessary in order to prevent this brief exposure to alcohol from escalating into a full relapse. Although he had only consumed a small amount and had done so purely accidentally, his fear was legitimate.

Let us suppose that a family which is meticulously observant of kosher laws discovers that a particular product that they ate under the assumption that it was kosher had lost its hechsher (rabbinical approval) because a non-kosher ingredient had been added. Although they certainly would regret having ingested something that was not fully kosher, they probably would not call their rabbi for instruction on how to prevent this accidental transgression from dragging them down to other forbidden types of behavior. This mistake may be more serious than their original error.

Doing wrong, even inadvertently, renders us highly vulnerable to further transgressions. Remedial measures, i.e. prompt teshuvah and an effort to do better in the future, must be undertaken to avoid deterioration.

Today I shall...

promptly correct any transgressions and not allow even the slightest improper action to remain uncorrected, lest it lead to my deterioration.

May no person be made to suffer on my account. (Siddur, Prayer on Retiring)

Although the Torah does not require people to love their enemies, it does demand restraint, in the sense of not seeking revenge (Leviticus 19:18). The Talmud extends this concept to forbid not only the act of revenge, but even a prayer that God should punish our enemies. “If someone is punished on account of another person, the latter is not admitted to the Divine Presence, for as Solomon says in Proverbs (17:16), ‘For the righteous, too, punishment is not good’ “(Shabbos 149b).

When Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev’s adversaries expelled his family from town during his absence, his colleagues asked Rabbi Wolf of Zhitomir to invoke the Divine wrath upon them for their heinous deed. “I cannot do anything,” Rabbi Wolf said, “because Rabbi Levi Yitzchok has anticipated us and is now standing before the open Ark, praying fervently that no harm come to them.”

Actions like this incident may appear to be the ultimate of magnanimity, but it is not necessarily so. To the contrary, they can also be understood as helping one’s own interests. If we pray that another person be punished for his or her misdeeds, we become vulnerable ourselves (see 3 Kislev), for the Divine sense of justice may then bring our own actions under greater scrutiny. After all, is it not reasonable to expect a high standard of personal conduct in someone who invokes harsh treatment of his neighbors? Consequently, it is wiser to seek forgiveness for others and thereby merit forgiveness for ourselves than to pray for absolute justice and stern punishment for others’ misdeeds and thereby expose ourselves to be similarly judged.

Today I shall...

try to avoid wishing harm to anyone, even to those who have greviously offended me.

All Jews are responsible for one another (Shevuos 39a).

The commentators explain the full extent of our responsibility for one another: If any Jew has been derelict in performance of a given commandment, every other Jew is considered to be derelict in that particular mitzvah, even though he or she may have performed it to one's fullest capacity. All Jews are considered to be a single unit. Just as the unit is incomplete if any part of it is missing or broken, so too, no one can consider oneself complete if any other part of the "unit" is incomplete.

A person who sustained an injury causing infection to one arm would not say, "It is only my arm that has been injured; therefore, no other part of my body has been affected." Since the body is a unit, anything that affects the part affects the whole.

People are physically distinct, and their spirituality is an intangible entity; that is why we do not readily perceive the spiritual forces that unite us. Nevertheless they are very real. However, just as it is possible for part of the body to be anesthetized so that experiences no sensation from what transpires in other parts of the body, so it is possible for there to be a "spiritual anesthesia" which renders us insensitive to the spiritual injury that may occur anywhere within the body of universal Jewry. We must overcome this insensitivity if we are to be a healthy and optimally functioning nation. We must learn the vital lesson that we are enhanced by the spiritual successes of our neighbors, and we are diminished by their failures.

To the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?", the answer is, "Yes!"

Today I shall...

try to be of assistance in whatever way I can to help other Jews in the fulfillment of their obligations as Jews.

Do not withhold good from one to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it (Proverbs 3:27).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the word that is commonly used for charity, tzedakah, really does not mean giving alms. It is derived from the word tzedek, meaning "justice." When people give tzedakah, they may feel that they are making a sacrifice by giving to another person from their own money. They may even resent the recipient of tzedakah for taking away from their assets. The Torah tells us that this attitude is wrong: "Do not give with a bad heart" (Deuteronomy 15:10), and the reason is in the verse cited above. What we give the poor is rightfully theirs, and the person of means is really only the trustee of the poor's property.

"Do not rob from the poor" (Proverbs 22:22). What do poor people own that we can rob from them? This verse refers to withholding tzedakah, because when people do so, they keep for themselves what rightfully belongs to the poor.

People who receive tzedakah should not feel humiliated, and people who give tzedakah should not feel magnanimous. It is simply an act of tzedek, of justly distributing what rightfully belongs to each person.

Today I shall...

respect someone who needs tzedakah and not behave condescendingly toward that person.

A voice from Heaven proclaimed, "There is one among you who is deserving of the Divine spirit, but his generation is not deserving of it" (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:11).

We often complain that we lack personalities as great as the leaders of previous generations. We may prefer not to realize that the opposite may also be true: that leaders cannot be totally disproportionate to their generation, and that if we do not have the caliber of leaders of previous generations, the fault may well be our own.

The Talmud tells us that even Moses was demoted when the Israelites sinned, because his greatness was in part for their sake, because they depended on him (Berachos 32a). The Baal Shem Tov explained that a leader is like someone who can reach a high place only because he is standing on the shoulders of others. Even the great Moses owed part of his greatness to the people to whom he was devoted.

Sometimes people who could be outstanding leaders never fulfill their potential because no one wishes to receive their message and be guided by them. Just as a nursing mother will soon lose her supply of milk if the infant refuses to nurse, so can the potential of great leaders be stifled if no one will accept their teachings. On the other hand, when people demand that their leaders teach them, the leaders must rise to the occasion, and thereby they gain in stature.

On a very practical level, the rabbi whose congregation demands frequent classes in Torah will learn and grow more, while one whose congregation is more than satisfied with sermons will not be stimulated to further study.

Today I shall...

examine whether I fully utilize people who could be my mentors, and whether I am willing to accept their counsel.

One nation shall be mightier than the other (Genesis 25:23).

These words were part of God's explanation to Rebecca, when she asked why her pregnancy was so difficult. God told her that the two children she carried, Jacob and Esau, were struggling within her, and prophesied that this struggle would be an eternal one. At some points in history, Jacob would triumph; at other times, Esau would triumph.

The Tanya (Chapter 9) states that this struggle is not only between the Jewish nation and its adversaries, but that it also exists within each individual. Within each person are a Jacob and an Esau - a Divine soul which strives for sanctity and an animal soul which strives for physical gratifications. Like wrestlers, one may have the superiority at one time, and the other at others.

I strongly disagree with the author of those books which assert that people can attain inner peace and be free of struggle in life. Those who do not attain this desired tranquility therefore feel deprived. They may try many ways - even alcohol or drugs - to attain this assumed freedom from internal strife and tension.

The truth, however, is that inner peace is not even supposed to occur during our earthly existence. Our lives are an eternal struggle between opposing forces. Like opponents in a boxing match, we may get only a brief respite between rounds, only to come out fighting again.

Today I shall...

try to realize that my mission in life is to make certain that the force of good within me gains mastery over that of evil, and that this struggle will continue throughout my life.

You shall remove the covering of your hearts and no longer be stiff necked (Deuteronomy 10:16).

The Rabbi of Kotzk secluded himself for a long period of time, and none of his many followers could visit him. Several sent in a petition pleading to the rabbi to open his door to them so that they might have an audience with him.

"They want me to open my doors to them?" demanded the rabbi. "Have they opened their hearts so that they will accept what I have to tell them?"

Sometimes we clamor for leadership and insist that if only we had the proper teaching and guidance, we would behave much differently. Let us be honest with ourselves. Are we ready to accept authentic guidance, or are we so set in our own ways that we will only hear that which pleases us?

Spiritual growth does not come easily. In many ways the desires of the body and those of the spirit are mutually antagonistic, and in order to achieve greater spirituality, we may have to divest ourselves of things that offer more immediate gratification. This deprivation may cause considerable resistance; we may even find arguments to refute the author and teachings of our spiritual leaders. Before finding fault with our leadership, we must do soul-searching to see if we are truly open to change.

Today I shall...

examine my willingness to deprive myself of some things that have been pleasurable if they stand in the way of spiritual growth.

"Master of the world, Who reigned before anything was created" (Siddur).

The prayer Adon Olam is the opening prayer of the morning service; some congregations also recite it at the close of the evening service. It is also included in the extended version of the prayer upon retiring.

Adon Olam's being both the opening and closing prayer is similar to the practice of beginning the reading of Genesis on Simchas Torah immediately after concluding the last chapter of Deuteronomy. There, we indicate that Torah is infinite; like a circle, it has no beginning or end. So it is with prayer, which represents our relationship with God. Since God is infinite, we never reach a finite goal in relating to Him.

Indeed, the cyclical natures of prayer and Torah not only indicate that there is no end, but also that there is no beginning. Secular studies have levels of graduation which indicate that one has completed a certain level. In Torah studies, we do not complete anything. Indeed, each volume of the Talmud begins with page two rather than page one, to teach us that we have not even begun, let alone ever finish.

Growth in spirituality has no limits. The symbolism in the cyclical format of Torah and prayer is that we cannot say that we have even reached the halfway mark in spiritual growth, much less the end. This realization should excite us, not depress us, because our potential is infinite.

Today I shall...

try to understand that regardless of how much I think I may have advanced in spirituality, I have hardly even made a beginning.

Arouse yourself, arouse yourself, for your light has come; arise and shine. Awake, awake, utter a song, for the glory of God is revealed upon you (Siddur).

An inspiring call to arousal is repeated no less than five times in this liturgical verse. The reason is that merely arousing people to action once may not suffice to bring them out of lethargy. A person whose sleep is disturbed by his alarm clock may simply shut off the alarm and return to sleep.

Just as people often resist being awakened from physical sleep, they are much more resistant being awakened from spiritual sleep. Many people have had moments of spiritual awakening, only to ignore them and return to the comfort of their previous routine. Inertia is a powerful force, and repeated urgings are necessary to overcome it.

If we knew that something extremely important or very exciting was awaiting us in the morning, we probably would not silence the alarm clock and return to sleep. Under such circumstances, we usually jump out of bed, anticipating the special event. Children won't get up easily to go to school, but wild horses will not keep them in bed on the morning of a school trip.

If only we knew and understood that spiritual arousal elevates people and makes them worthy of God's Presence upon them, we would welcome the arousal call for spirituality with the anticipation of something great. By failing to appreciate spirituality, we cause ourselves to linger in lethargy.

Today I shall...

look for experiences that can initiate or enhance my spiritual growth.

A man has joy in the utterance of his mouth, and a word at the right time, how good it is (Proverbs 15:23).

As a rule, silence is golden, and generally we do not regret having held our peace. But exceptions exist to every rule, and sometimes not saying the proper thing is wrong.

We often keep silent because we do not know what to say. Especially in cases where others have suffered great personal losses, what can we say? Every conceivable remark seems so inadequate.

Not only do we tend to remain silent, but the awkwardness of keeping silent may cause us to avoid the discomfort of such a situation. Suppose we hear that an acquaintance lost a child in a traffic accident or to a serious illness. What can we say? It is one thing to pay a condolence call to someone who has lost a parent and say, "Please accept my sympathies." It is the way of the world that parents die before their children. These words are so empty, however, to grieving parents who have lost a child. Since we do not know what to say, we may simply avoid the bereaved family and thereby add loneliness to their suffering.

May God spare us all from such experiences. But if, God forbid, we have heard of a tragedy, we should not stay away or keep silent. If we feel another's pain, we should not hesitate to say so. "I feel along with you" are simple words, and when said in sincerity, can support distressed spirits.

Words cannot restore anyone's loss, but there is truth in the adage that "A sorrow shared is halved."

Today I shall...

try to be of help to people who are suffering, if only to let them know that I sincerely feel along with them.

May the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart find favor before You (Psalms 19:15).

Why must we verbalize prayer? Since God knows our innermost thoughts, why don't we just meditate? Furthermore, why should we pray at all? Since God knows what is best for us, we should just trust that He will provide that which we need.

Let us consider the second question first. We do not pray in order to inform God of anything, for indeed He knows our needs better than we do. We pray in order to make ourselves aware of our dependence upon God. We are always at risk of deluding ourselves that we have control of our destinies. We may think that what we do and what transpires are indeed cause and effect. We therefore need to be reminded frequently that except where the principle of moral free choice applies, our destinies are controlled by God.

Why verbalize prayer? Speech alone characterizes us as humans and distinguishes us from lower forms of life. Animals undoubtedly think and feel, but only humans can speak. As we stand before God, we need to remember that we are human, and that as humans our goals and behavior should have the dignity of humanity. If we only pray for our physical needs and welfare, we have not advanced beyond the animal stage, and we are then what science calls Homo sapiens - intellectual animals, but animals nevertheless. We need to remember that we are much more than Homo sapiens, for we can aspire to spiritual achievements and goals.

Today I shall...

think about the meaning of prayer and realize that I am a being who is capable of spirituality, and that while my physical life is dependent upon God, I am responsible for my spiritual development.

May there not be anguish nor grief nor sighing on the day of our rest (Siddur).

It is noteworthy that the Hebrew words for these types of distress are all in the singular: an anguish, a grief, a sighing.

Many years ago, when my brother was gravely ill, I visited a rabbi in Israel and asked for a berachah(blessing) for his recovery. As I left, the rabbi said to me, "May you have many worries."

Noting my astonishment at this unusual berachah, the rabbi said, "When you have many worries, then things are in order. It is when you have only one worry that things are bad.

"You see," he explained, "life is never free of worries. Ever since Adam was expelled from Gan Eden (paradise), life has never been without problems, but these are the normal stresses of everyday life.

"If something extremely bad occurs, people forget all their usual daily worries and become totally preoccupied with this single, truly serious problem. For example, your worry about your brother's serious illness is pre-eminent and has displaced all other worries, because they all pale in comparison.

"My wish for you is that you have many worries, so that none be of such magnitude as to obscure all others."

Today I shall...

try to realize that the fact that I can list a number of things that are unpleasant is actually a favorable sign, because none of them is so severe that it obscures all the others.

Until now Your compassion has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us, and so, God, never abandon us (Siddur).

At a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, a man who was sober for several years stated, "I wish that I could tell you that since I have been sober everything has gone my way, but it has not. My wife has recently served me with divorce papers, I have lost my job, my car has been repossessed, and my house is up for sheriff's sale. But I am certain that God did not see me through so many ordeals only to walk out on me now."

I then realized that although I had recited the words of the above prayer many times, I had not grasped their full meaning. At moments of great distress and anguish, we may become bewildered and even lose hope. How foolish for us to think that after all that God has done to sustain us, He would now forsake us!

Perhaps the problem stems from our not realizing that God has sustained us until now. In the Amidah, we express our gratitude "for Your miracles that are with us every day." Still, we tend to take many things for granted as though they are natural phenomena rather than Divine miracles and we fail to see the protective and guiding hand of God, every day of our lives. A true faith and realization of God's watchfulness over us would reassure us that just as He has not abandoned us in the past, which is attested to by our very existence, He will not abandon us in the future.

Today I shall...

try to realize that God has looked after me in the past, and when things happen that cause me to have fear, I will find security in the knowledge that God will not forsake me in the future.

God considers a good intention as though one had performed a good deed (Kiddushin 40a).

Our time is finite, and therefore every moment is precious and irreplaceable. Yet sometimes we waste precious moments because we do not have something constructive to do.

Some people carry a small book with them, so that if they must wait for a bus or sit in a waiting room, they can use the time productively. It may be a book of Psalms or something to study. It may be a notebook to record an idea or jot down plans. While this practice is excellent, what about the times when we are in bed and cannot fall asleep, or are walking down the street and we cannot read?

An excellent idea is to think about how and when to perform a commandment when the opportunity arises. Plan how we can contribute more to charity or other benevolent deeds, or make mental inventory of the sick, lonely, and needy, and think about how we can bring cheer into their lives. One can reflect on the opening phrase of the Shema, and reassert one's belief in the unity of God and in His providence. One can dedicate oneself to serve God with all one's heart, soul, and might, as we declare when we recite the Shema.

One can also think about self-improvement and how to avoid doing things that one regrets having done. This is part of the commandment to repent, and can be fulfilled at least partially by meditation and concentration.

If one had idle cash and knew that it could be invested for great profit, one would certainly seize the opportunity to do so. We ought to do the same with idle time.

Today I shall...

try to utilize every moment of the day constructively.

In all my days I have never had to look behind me before saying anything (Shabbos 118b).

Lashon hara (gossip or slander) is not necessarily untruthful. The Torah forbids saying something derogatory about a person even if it is completely true.

One of the best guidelines to decide what you should or should not say is to ask: "Does it make a difference who might overhear it?" If it is something that you would rather someone not overhear, it is best left unsaid.

Sometimes the information need not be derogatory. A secret may not be saying anything bad about anyone, but if someone has entrusted you with confidential information, and you have this tremendous urge to share the privileged communication with someone else, you should ask yourself: "Would I reveal this if the person who trusted me with this information were present?"

Sometimes people want to boast. They may even fabricate their story to those who have no way of knowing that it may not be true. Still, they would be ashamed to boast in the presence of someone who knew that their statement was false.

Volumes have been written about what is proper speech and about what constitutes an abuse of this unique capacity to verbalize with which man was endowed. But even if one does not have time to master all of the scholarly works on the subject, a reliable rule of thumb is to ask, "Do I need to look behind me before I say it?" If the answer is yes, do not say it.

Today I shall...

monitor my speech carefully, and not say anything that I would not wish someone to overhear.

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