Growing Each Day: Iyar

By virtue of the mitzvah of counting the omer of today, may my defects be rectified (Siddur).

The theme of correcting a defect each day is specially employed in the mitzvah of counting the omer, during the forty-nine days that begin with the celebration of the Exodus on Passover and end with the commemoration of the receiving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuos. On each of these days, we pray that we become better, more refined people.

While the emphasis of this book has been on character development and spiritual growth via daily improvement of personality traits, the mitzvah of counting the omer goes one step further. The above-cited prayer continues: "May I be purified and sanctified from Above; and through this, may there be an abundant outpouring of Divine bounty in all the universe."

The concept here tells us that the impact of a personal defect is not limited to oneself or even to one's immediate environment, but it impacts the entire universe. Just as a watch works only when all its parts are in good shape, the world functions optimally only according to the Divine law, part of which is people's developing good character traits. Any transgression can have a much greater impact than we think.

We therefore share a sense of responsibility. People cannot claim that their lives are their own private business, any more than a passenger in a boat can drill a hole under his or her own seat and tell others to mind their own business.

A vivid proof of this concept comes from today's exploitation of world resources and pollution of the environment. No one can say that an oil spill is a private matter.

Today I shall...

try to remember that my actions and behavior, even when they may seem to me to be a private affair, do affect others, and that I have an obligation to refrain from affecting others negatively.

It is better to go to the house of a mourner than to the house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

Progress and achievement in life come from identifying the challenges of reality and dealing with them effectively. Anything that constitutes an escape from reality is destructive, because an escape from reality is actually an escape from life itself.

The house of feasting which Solomon criticizes is literally "a house of drinking." In his era, like modern times, the participants at some social gatherings put themselves into an alcoholic stupor, talked senselessly, and made believe that the world was free of stresses and problems. Such "feasting" constituted an escape from reality and contributed nothing to the betterment of the participants.

The house of the mourner is a solemn place, which confronts people with the reality of their own mortality. There we recognize, at least momentarily, that our stay on earth has a limit, and that so many of the things that we spend our lives to attain are left behind when we die. Our only permanent acquisitions are our spiritual achievements, such as our good deeds and our positive effects on others. The house of the mourner actually brings us to an enhanced appreciation of reality.

Is it more pleasant to go to the house of the mourner? Of course not. It is "better," however, because it can contribute to our betterment.

Today I shall...

try to avoid activities that provide an escape from reality and realize that growth consists only of dealing with reality.

Where can I go that I will be away from Your spirit, and where can I flee from You? (Psalms 139:7).

The Psalmist goes on to say that there is no escaping from God because He is present everywhere and knows everything. The Psalmist then concludes: "Search me, O God, and know that which is in my heart" (ibid. 23). Once we realize that God is omniscient, we must abandon all efforts to escape or to hide from Him, since they are futile, and instead open ourselves up to Him.

Just as this concept applies to people's relationship to God, it is equally true of people's relationship to themselves. We cannot escape from ourselves, regardless of what techniques we may employ. We cannot run away to the next neighborhood, nor the next country, nor throw ourselves into our work. We cannot use alcohol or drugs to escape. We cannot even conceal ourselves with denial, repression, and other means of psychological self-deception. Ultimately, we must confront ourselves. It is therefore only logical to cease and desist from these futile efforts and submit ourselves to a thorough journey to self-awareness. Let us say to ourselves: "Search me and know my heart."

Facing ourselves may not be easy. Doing a thorough moral inventory may force us to look at parts of ourselves that we might prefer to disown. However, adjusting to reality requires a thorough self-knowledge. We can only adjust effectively to reality if we have not distorted it.

Today I shall...

try to realize that optimum living can only be with a valid self-awareness.

Tongs could only be made by tongs (Ethics of the Fathers 5:8).

The Talmud states that God gave man the first pair of tongs, because it is impossible to forge a pair of tongs without already having another pair to hold the metal in the fire.

A wise man said that the way to really make an apple pie from scratch is to first invent the universe.

These ideas should be sobering thoughts for people who consider themselves self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency is obviously a myth; we all must rely on others, in varying degrees.

Many people find it hard to accept their dependency. They see it as demeaning and a sign of weakness. They may take radical measures to prove to themselves and to others that they can stand on their own two feet. This rejection of healthy dependency can give rise to many problems.

Certainly, being lazy and expecting others to do everything for us is wrong, but going to the opposite extreme and denying our need of both emotional and physical support is equally wrong. We should be able to accept our dependence upon others, and their dependence upon us, as a part of life.

Today I shall...

try to realize that absolute self-sufficiency is an impossibility. Rather, I will be able to accept appropriate help without considering it demeaning.

I have placed before you life and death, blessing and curse, and you should choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Some people who commit improper acts defend themselves by insisting that the temptation was too intense to resist. They are wrong.

A law of human behavior states that when given two options, people can choose only that which they perceive as being the lesser distress. However, individual choice decides which distress is greater and which is lesser. For example, when a hungry baby cries in the middle of the night, the parents will get up. They naturally choose to forego the greater distress - staying in bed and listening to their baby - for the lesser - getting up and feeding the baby. Extreme cases come from martyrs who choose death rather than violate principles which are sacred to them. Here, death hurts less than compromised life.

People can evaluate for themselves what is good and what is evil. Everyone is responsible for his or her own evaluations, and so submitting to the temptation to do a forbidden or improper act indicates failure to evaluate properly.

Today I shall...

program myself with correct evaluations of what is right and wrong so that I may make the correct choices.

Accustom your tongue to say "I do not know" (Berachos 4a).

While no human being can know everything, some people cannot admit any ignorance about anything. For them, any admission of lack of knowledge threatens their fragile egos. Although they try to impress others with their omniscience, they accomplish the reverse, because the more they try to conceal their ignorance, the more prominent it becomes.

Furthermore, the only way we can acquire knowledge is by accepting that we do not have it. People who claim to know everything cannot learn. Therefore, many opportunities to learn pass them by, and their denying their ignorance actually increases their ignorance.

We do not have to know everything, and no one expects us to. Today, more than ever, with the unprecedented amount of information available, no one can be a universal genius. The simple statement, "I don't know," is actually highly respected.

We should also open ourselves to acquiring knowledge from every source. Learning from someone whom we consider to be inferior to ourselves should not be demeaning. As the Psalmist says, "I became wise by learning from all my teachers" (Psalms 119:99). A willingness to learn from everyone is a sign of greatness, while affecting omniscience actually betrays ignorance.

Today I shall...

admit that there are many things that I do not know. Instead, I will become willing to learn from anyone and everyone.

Do not feel bad in your heart when you give to him [the poor] (Deuteronomy 15:10).

When people come to collect charity, we may sometimes feel annoyed with them, especially if they come frequently. The Torah here is cautioning us not to bear any resentment when we give to them.

A recovered alcoholic, sober for many years, gave much of his time to help newcomers to sobriety. He therefore made himself available to them twenty-four hours a day, so that whenever they called, he could help them resist the urge to drink. Someone once asked him, "Doesn't it irritate you to be repeatedly awakened during the night?" "Of course not!" he answered. "I just have to remember that I'm not the one who is doing the calling."

This man knew that many years earlier, he himself had needed to call for help. Now that he was in a position to give help instead of receiving it, his deep gratitude precluded any irritation at being bothered at strange hours.

If we ever feel put upon by people who ask for charity, one need only realize that since we are in a position to give instead of needing to receive, we should be so overwhelmed with gratitude that there should be no room for annoyance. As we give charity, we might also give our blessings and good wishes to the recipients, that God should help them soon be in a position to give to others.

Today I shall...

give tzedakah with an open hand and willing heart, and be grateful that I am in a position to give instead of needing to receive.

The Mighty Rock, Whose deeds are perfect, because all His ways are good. He is a faithful God in Whom there is no iniquity (Deuteronomy 32:4-5).

These very sobering words are often invoked at moments of great personal distress to express our faith and trust in the Divine wisdom and justice.

People who have suffered deep personal losses, such as destruction of their home by fire or the premature death of a loved one, or who have observed the widespread suffering caused by a typhoon or an earthquake, may be shaken in their relationship with God. How could a loving, caring God mete out such enormous suffering?

It is futile to search for logical explanations, and even if there were any, they would accomplish little in relieving the suffering of the victims. This is the time when the true nature of faith emerges, a faith that is beyond logic, that is not subject to understanding.

The kaddish recited by mourners makes no reference to any memorial concept or prayer for the departed. The words of kaddish, "May the name of the Almighty be exalted and sanctified," are simply a statement of reaffirmation, that in spite of the severe distress one has experienced, one does not deny the sovereignty and absolute justice of God.

Our language may be too poor in words and our thoughts lacking in concepts that can provide comfort when severe distress occurs, but the Jew accepts Divine justice even in the face of enormous pain.

Today I shall...

reaffirm my trust and faith in the sovereignty and justice of God, even when I see inexplicable suffering.

[Joseph] dreamt another dream ... the sun, moon, and the eleven stars were bowing before me (Genesis 37:9).

Joseph dreamt of greatness, and he achieved it. Still, he paid a steep price for that greatness, suffering years of enslavement and imprisonment.

Some people are satisfied with their status quo and choose not to rock the boat. Others are dreamers, people of great ambition.

Dreams and fantasy are very different. Fantasy is mere wishful thinking, something we know is beyond reach, but a dream is something that may be in the remote future, yet is conceivably achievable.

Suppose Joseph had known that, in order to obtain the promise of the dream, he would have to endure years of suffering. Would he have foregone the greatness, or would he have accepted the pain? Since Joseph understood the dream to be a revelation of the Divine plan for him, he undoubtedly would have chosen to accept the suffering it entailed.

We may be frequently confronted with a decision whether to resign ourselves to the status quo or to try to advance ourselves at considerable cost. We should avail ourselves of expert counseling and pray for Divine guidance to know what the Divine plan for us is. If we feel secure in the knowledge that God wants us to advance to our optimum potential, we should not retreat because of the personal cost entailed.

Infants are fortunate; they do not have to choose whether to remain toothless or to accept the distress of teething. While we do have such choices, we also have the wisdom to make the right choice.

Today I shall...

pray for enlightenment as to what is God's will for me and for the fortitude and courage to achieve it.

Wrongdoers are referred to as having died even while they live (Berachos 18b).

Animals grow and develop until they reach physical maturity. Thereafter, animals do only those actions necessary to survive, but they do not grow significantly in any way.

Human beings are distinctly different. While they do stop growing at physical maturity, their minds have a limitless capacity to grow intellectually and spiritually. This difference leads to another. Animals survive by adapting themselves to the world, but human beings can change the world according to their desires.

We can thus subdivide human life into an animal-physical phase, where growth ends with physical maturity, and a human-intellectual/spiritual phase, which should continue as long as we live. If people neglect intellectual-spiritual growth and indulge only in physical needs and desires, their human phase of life has stopped growing and therefore has essentially died, and only the animal phase continues to live.

The Talmud's reference to wrongdoers is to those people who neglect their intellectual-spiritual growth and seek only to maintain their physical lives. They have therefore allowed their unique human aspect to die.

No self-respecting, rational people would ever degrade themselves to a subhuman existence. While we pray to God to grant us life, it is our task to make that life truly human.

Today I shall...

try to realize that abandoning myself completely to actions that merely maintain my physical self is degrading, and I therefore shall take pride in being fully human.

If you do not believe, it is because you are not trustworthy (Isaiah 7:9).

In these few pungent words, the Prophet explains why people may have difficulty in believing in God: they are not themselves trustworthy. In other words, if I am reliable, and I know that people can trust that I will keep my word as best I can to perform and deliver, then I will have little difficulty in having trust in God and in His ability to perform and deliver. Lack of trust in God is thus a reflection of one's own lack of trustworthiness.

Projection, a psychological defense mechanism, consists of attributing to others those attitudes and motives that we ourselves harbor. The Talmud summarizes this concept in the dictum that those who find defects in others must themselves be defective in the same way. Isaiah is simply applying this principle to trust and faith.

Some people struggle with faith and therefore consult various philosophic works on the subject. The authoritative works - such as Duties of the Heart by Rabbeinu Bachaye, the Kuzari, and others - certainly deserve study, but while they define very well various aspects of faith, they cannot be expected to have much impact on someone who lacks the basic capacity to trust, because of his or her own lack of trustworthiness. One can fine-tune a radio, but the dial will not do much without an electric current.

Today I shall...

try to develop my integrity so that I should be fully trustworthy.

You open Your hand and satisfy all living things with will (Psalms 145:16).

This verse is usually understood to mean that God provides for all living things, satisfying their wills and desires. Another interpretation is that God provides all living things with will; i.e. with desire, so that all living things should have desire.

When we say the Grace After Meals, we thank God for the food He provides for us; we do not give thanks for being hungry. However, if we talk with people who suffer with any of the diseases which cause loss of appetite, we will discover that we must be grateful for the sensation of hunger as well as for the means provided for us to satisfy that hunger.

This concept applies to wants of all sorts. An ancient Chinese curse goes, "May all of your wishes come true." Why is this a curse? Pause a moment and reflect. What would we do if all of our desires were fulfilled? Since sensation of needs cause actions, without any sensation we would have no motivation to act. Satisfaction of all our needs would essentially mean an end to life itself.

As a physician, I frequently encounter people who are very depressed and who have no appetite at all. Other patients have diseases that affect their digestive systems, so that they cannot even tolerate the sight of food (let alone crave it). We must remember, then, that when we feel the pangs of hunger and thirst, we should appreciate them.

Today I shall...

try to be aware that feeling hunger or having other needs is a Divine blessing for which I should be grateful.

If you will go in the way of My ordinances ... I will give your rain in the proper time (Leviticus 26:3-4).

Rashi explains that "going in the way of My ordinances" means that one will "toil in the Torah." This toil and labor itself causes the abundant blessings that follow.

Our culture highly values achievement, and it confers various kinds of reward for academic and scientific excellence. But the world is interested in results, not in the effort expended. If one person of limited capacity were to labor continuously at a given project without achieving success, while another person who is extremely gifted achieves success in the project with a minimum expenditure of effort, the latter will reap the reward. This is not the Jewish attitude. The Talmud states, "Reward is commensurate with effort." In the study of Torah, in the performance of mitzvos, and in the development of character, God measures virtue not by how much we accomplish, but by how hard we try.

The Talmud further states that not only are people rewarded for extreme effort; they are also blessed with those very goals for which they have worked. They receive not only the many material blessings listed in the chapter cited above, but also the spiritual goals for which they strove, and which might not have been attainable through human effort alone.

Today I shall...

try to advance myself spiritually, and realize that God wants me to try - the reward will come from God.

All beginnings are difficult (Rashi, Exodus 19:5).

We are creatures of habit. Learning something new may take effort, but once we make something a part of our routine, it becomes not only effortless, but automatic. For example, when we learned to walk, it required conscious effort, as we can see when we observe children taking their first steps. Later on in life, walking takes no thought at all. The same holds true for many other behaviors. Whenever we begin something new, we are, by definition, initiating some new type of behavior. The body naturally tends to return to the old, effortless pattern. If the new behavior holds promises of significant gain (such as a new job, new business, or new learning), which we anticipate will be profitable, this anticipation of reward overcomes the resistance to change, and we make the adjustment to the new. When we see no tangible gain, such as in spiritual advancement, the ease of routine is likely to draw us back to well-established habits.

Let's face it. If we were offered a significant promotion at work which would necessitate arising half an hour earlier than usual, we would certainly set the alarm clock and get up promptly. If, however, we resolve to devote that half-hour to bettering ourselves, we would have trouble getting up.

We must value our spiritual goals so much that we will be willing to make the changes in our routine that are necessary to achieve them.

Today I shall...

try to overcome any resistance to spiritual growth that requires changing well-established routines.

If one brings peace to one's own household, it is as though one brought peace to all of Israel (Avos De R' Nosson 28:3).

A scourge has plagued our people throughout its entire history - internal strife. A unified Jewish people has such strength that the Talmud states that when there is brotherhood among all Jews, God overlooks even their worst transgressions.

How can such peace be achieved? The Talmud suggests a simple approach: start with the family.

Domestic peace is achieved only when husbands, wives, parents, and children learn to respect each other's wishes, to yield personal preferences, to listen to others' points of view, and to resolve differences amicably. Children who grow up in a family where there is no strife or envy and where everyone makes an effort to accommodate and maintain peace will incorporate these attitudes as part of their character. They will then practice them when relating to people outside the family.

Expecting people to behave in ways to which they have not been accustomed previously is unrealistic. Children who were raised in homes where there was frequent bickering, with no yielding and no compromise among the parents, and where sibling rivalry was not appropriately resolved are unlikely to build a harmonious and peaceful society.

Today I shall...

beginning with myself, try to establish peace within my home by avoiding harsh speech and actions, being tolerant of others' opinions, and being willing to compromise.

Their tongue is like a sharp arrow (Jeremiah 9:7).

Some people would never physically injure another person. The sight or even the thought of violence makes them cringe. They may not realize that their words can cause more damage than their fists ever could. A physical injury eventually heals and may even be forgotten, but an insulting word can penetrate to the depths of someone's being and continue to reverberate, long after a mere physical wound would have healed.

I have seen this phenomenon in my own practice. Many children are spanked by their parents. Still, with the exception of cases of severe abuse, my patients rarely, if ever, mention the spanking as a trauma. Not so with degrading words. After thirty or more years, patients will remember having been called "stupid," "rotten," or "a no-good bum." A child who was not spanked, but was instead disciplined with shame and made to feel that he or she was a disgrace, is likely to retain that feeling for decades and may harbor an attitude of shame that affects everything that he or she does.

While we are taught to refrain from striking out in anger, we are far less restrained when it comes to verbal lashings. Whether we direct them towards spouses, children, or peers, we should be aware of the impact that words can have. The verse cited above correctly describes the tongue as a sharp, penetrating arrow, which can be every bit as lethal as any physical weapon.

Some people have a wise custom. When they become angry, they clamp their lips tightly. The anger will safely dissipate and the words which could have stung for years never come out.

Today I shall...

try to avoid words that may be injurious to another person.

A person does not sin unless he is seized by a spirit of folly (Sotah 3a).

Some people try to defend a misdeed by claiming "temporary insanity." The Talmud is telling us that while all wrongdoing does result from temporary insanity, people are still held accountable for their behavior.

No sane person would do things that are self-destructive. Small children who do not know any better may eat things that are harmful, but when adults submit to temptation and eat things that are harmful, they have essentially taken leave of their adult senses. This form of temporary insanity accompanies every wrong act.

Civil law does not accept ignorance as a defense, and although Jewish law does consider ignorance a mitigating factor, it holds a person responsible for being derelict in not having obtained the requisite knowledge and information necessary to act properly.

Jewish law holds that while true psychosis may be an exonerating factor, a non-psychotic person is capable of overcoming the "temporary insanity" that leads to wrongdoing. The Talmud states that in evaluating any act, we should calculate the gain from the act versus the loss it entails. A reasonable person will conclude that a brief pleasure of indulgence is certainly not worth the price, whether it is in terms of negative physical effects or of spiritual deterioration. People are certainly accountable for failure to exercise their reason and come to correct conclusions.

Today I shall...

exercise my rational powers to avoid making foolish decisions, especially when subjected to temptation.

Do not make for yourselves gods of gold and silver (Exodus 20:20).

While the plain meaning of this verse is an injunction against making idols, it has also been interpreted to mean, "Do not worship gold and silver."

Rabbi Schneur Zalman once approached a wealthy man, a known miser, for a donation to redeem someone from captivity. He was given one penny. Instead of throwing the penny in the miser's face, as others had done, Rabbi Schneur Zalman thanked the man politely and turned to leave. The man called him back, apologized, and gave him a slightly larger sum. Again, the rabbi blessed him, thanked him, and turned to leave, only to be called back. This scene repeated itself numerous times with progressively intense apologies and larger donations, until the man donated the entire sum needed.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explained that when people had previously refused the one-cent donation, the miser, who had come to worship money as his god, took it as a personal insult and reacted as though his god had been disgraced. By thanking him for the penny, the rabbi set in motion an approach which allowed the miser to shed his defenses and respond with compassion.

This concept is important both in our relating to others as well as in developing attitudes of our own. Because money is so vital in our lives, we must remember that we, as well as other people, are at risk of deifying it. We must be both cautious to prevent ourselves from falling into this trap and also understand that others may have fallen into it.

Today I shall...

be on the alert to avoid money from becoming unduly important in my life and think about how to relate to others who may have developed this mistaken attitude.

There is no such thing as an agent for committing a wrong act ... if a master's instructions conflict with the student's, whom would you obey? (Kiddushin 42b).

With this principle, the Talmud places responsibility for any wrongdoing squarely on the person who carries out the action. "I was told to do it" is not a defense.

The same principle applies to projecting blame on anyone else in any way. Alcoholics frequently employ this device. "We drink because we've been harassed by our wives / jobs / employers / the police," they often say. We understand their motive; placing the blame on others not only exonerates them, it also gives them a way out of facing reality and changing themselves. Instead, they blame others. "If those responsible for our distress will change, the problems will be solved, and we will have no need to drink" is a frequently used line.

This phenomenon is not limited to alcoholics. People in general prefer to continue their accustomed behavior. If they hurt anyone, including themselves, they often try to both justify their behavior and avoid the need to make any changes which seem inconvenient by blaming others.

Regardless of what circumstances may be, we are fully accountable for our own behavior.

Today I shall...

avoid finding scapegoats and placing blame on others. Instead, I will do my utmost to make the necessary changes in myself.

You shall love your neighbor as you do yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

The usual translation is printed above and indeed is the way the verse is generally interpreted. As a result, the question is often raised, "How can people have the same love for others as they have for themselves? Isn't this demand unrealistic?"

If, however, we look more carefully at the original Hebrew, the question disappears. The Torah is stating here a definition of "love": ve'ahavta, the sensation or the experience of love, is lerei'acha kamocha, when you wish for another that which you wish for yourself.

What some people consider love may be nothing more than a self-serving relationship. They may "love" something because it satisfies their needs, but when the object cannot satisfy the need, or the need itself disappears, the love evaporates.

True love is not self-serving, but self-giving. We love only when we have as intense a desire to please the other person as to be pleased ourselves. Such an attitude calls for sacrifice, because it may be that we will have to deprive ourselves in order to provide what will please the other person.

As children, we are selfish. As we mature, we should develop a spiritual love, which is quite different from our childish physical love. This spiritual, other-directed love can withstand all challenges. As the Song of Songs says, Even abundant waters cannot extinguish love (8:7).

Today I shall...

try to avoid the self-centered love of my childhood and replace it with a true love for the person I claim to love, even when it demands great personal sacrifice.

May it be Your will ... that You lead us toward peace ... and enable us to reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace (Prayer of the Traveler ).

Before we take a long trip in a car, we first consult a map to determine the best route. If we know people who have already made that particular trip, we ask them whether there are certain spots to avoid, where the best stopovers are, etc. Only a fool would start out without any plan, and stop at each hamlet to figure out the best way to get to the next hamlet.

It is strange that we do not apply this same logic in our journey through life. Once we reach the age of reason, we should think of a goal in life, and then plan how to get there. Since many people have already made the trip, they can tell us in advance which path is the smoothest, what the obstacles are, and where we can find help if we get into trouble.

Few things are as distressful as finding oneself lost on the road with no signposts and no one to ask directions. Still, many people live their lives as though they are lost in the thicket. Yet, they are not even aware that they are lost. They travel from hamlet to hamlet and often find that after seventy years of travel, they have essentially reached nowhere.

The Prayer of the Traveler applies to our daily lives as well as to a trip.

Today I shall...

see what kind of goals I have set for myself and how I plan to reach these goals.

Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us ... (Siddur).

The above berachah (blessing) was intentionally left unfinished because it represents a blessing that does not exist: the berachah for the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). Why does this mitzvah, which ranks so high among the mitzvos, not merit a berachah?

One reason is that a berachah is supposed to be said with meditation and concentration on its words, reflecting on the infinity of God and His sovereignty, and the significance of our having been chosen to observe the mitzvos. Unfortunately, it is easy to mumble a berachah without giving it the thought that it deserves.

Tzedakah must be performed promptly, without any delay whatsoever. If someone needy requests help from us, we have no time for meditation. The needy person needs help without delay and should not be made to wait while we prepare ourselves to perform the mitzvah, and certainly should not be sent away to return at a later time.

But why did the Sages not formulate a berachah for this wonderful mitzvah and simply specify that it should be said quickly and without meditation? That kind of a berachah is hardly worth saying.

The absence of a berachah for tzedakah thus teaches us two things: (1) tzedakah should be given promptly, and (2) berachos require adequate time for meditation and concentration.

Today I shall...

react promptly when asked for tzedakah, and give much thought when reciting a berachah.

One who acts with compassion when firmness is called for will eventually act with cruelty when compassion is needed (Koheles Rabbah 7:33).

While mercy and compassion are highly valued character traits, sometimes they are inappropriate; instead, harsh discipline must be applied.

A young alcoholic woman who had been in several automobile wrecks related that one winter night, she totally ruined her father's new car because she was driving under the influence. She pleaded with the police officer to report this episode as a skidding accident, because she feared her father's wrath. The officer complied with her request.

This young woman subsequently was in another accident due to drunk driving. This time she sustained facial injuries; in spite of excellent cosmetic surgery, her former features were never fully restored. "That police officer thought he was being kind to me," she later said. "Had I been arrested for drunk driving, I might have been forced into treatment for my alcoholism, and maybe I never would have sustained the facial injuries."

True kindness which comes from our minds guiding our emotions will bring more kindness in its wake. Misguided kindness, brought on by our uncontrolled emotions, generally causes pain.

How can we avoid misguided kindness? One way is to ask others who are not influenced by our emotions for their opinion.

Today I shall...

try to be aware that even my highly commendable character traits, such as kindness, may be misapplied. I should look for guidance to avoid such mistakes.

One who flatters another person in order to win favor will ultimately suffer disgrace (Avos De R' Nosson 29:4).

The insatiable need to receive praise from others can be one of the most powerful, albeit destructive, motivating forces in human behavior. People who have the need for praise generally suffer from such low self-esteem that they need constant assurance that they are really worthy. Since this low self-esteem has no place in reality, measures such as praise or other affirmation can never counteract it. The pit of low self-esteem is bottomless; nothing ever fills it.

Desperately trying to receive external affirmation, people flatter and fawn to please others, so that they may react positively toward them. While giving false compliments may appear innocent, the attempts to win favor may snare this flatterer in relationships and obligations that are likely to backfire, so that they suffer embarrassment, not the expected admiration.

A healthy self-awareness would obviate the need for such tactics, and a devotion to honesty would prevent indulging in the falsehoods that initially bring about the desired response, but eventually result in further loss of both one's self-respect and the respect of others.

Today I shall...

avoid fawning and flattering. Instead, I will try to achieve a self-esteem which will render these unnecessary.

Abraham and Sarah were old, they came into days (Genesis 18:11).

"Coming into days" means making each day count.

Sometimes we feel "down" at the end of a day without really knowing why. Some people try to obliterate that feeling by drinking; others glue themselves to the television screen so that the inane dialogues can drown out their thoughts; and yet others find different escape routes. A few make a simple reckoning that could be constructive. Was the day spent doing something important? If so, there is no reason to be dejected. If the day was utilized in a positive way, we should feel good about it. On the other hand, if the day was spent doing unimportant things, and we are annoyed with ourselves for exchanging a day of life for nothing of value, then we should think about what we must do to keep tomorrow from being a repetition of today. What changes must we make so that tomorrow should be a day of substance?

The latter question should lead to specific answers that themselves lead to planning a more meaningful tomorrow. Having planned a constructive day, we can feel a measure of accomplishment. Even if anything should happen tomorrow to thwart our well-laid plans, we can then plan again how to avoid such pitfalls on the following day. Each day can thus turn out to be a profitable day either in its own right, or a lesson in which changes we must make to make the next day better.

Coping leads to progress. Escaping not only leaves problems unresolved, but it also adds to the previous problems by bringing about a negative attitude.

Today I shall...

try to make each day positively productive and analyze each unproductive day to enable me to make the next day better.

A person should always be flexible like a reed, and not rigid like a cedar (Taanis 20a).

Some people forget that they have the right to be wrong. They may see being wrong as showing weakness. They grossly misunderstand the true concept of strength.

In the physical world, many substances that are very rigid are also fragile. Glass, for instance, is hard but shatters into many splinters, and metals which lack resilience are apt to break under pressure.

Rigidity in people frequently shows ignorance. If people do something without understanding why they are doing it, they are likely to become very defensive when challenged. The reason is obvious: if they do not understand the reason for their actions, they of course do not know if they have any room for compromise. Since they can respond only in an all-or-nothing manner, they perceive any questioning of their principles or practices as a threat or even as a hostile attack. They therefore react defensively.

Willingness to listen to advice, to consider it, and to alter our opinion when the advice appears to be the correct thing to do are signs of strength, not of weakness. Honor means being honest, not being right all the time. As the Talmud says, "You should not say, `You must accept my opinion,' because the others may be right and not you" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:10).

Today I shall...

try to be flexible, to listen to other opinions, and not be obstinate in insisting that I am always right.

Akavia testified on four laws [that he heard from his teachers]. [The Rabbis] said to him, "Akavia, change your rulings, and we will appoint you Chief Judge of the highest court in Israel." He responded, "It is better that I be considered a fool all my life rather than an unjust person for even one moment before God" (Eidiyos 5:6).

Yesterday, we discussed the virtue of flexibility and the fault of obstinacy. In the above quote from the Talmud, Akavia is praised for his refusal to yield. Can these two attributes be reconciled?

The distinction should be obvious. If Akavia had been championing his own opinion, he would gladly have considered cogent arguments by his colleagues and even deferred to them. However, the Talmud states that Akavia testified; i.e. he conveyed the rulings that he had heard from his teachers and that therefore carried their authority. However convincing the arguments of his colleagues may have been, he held that he could not override the rulings of his teachers.

Public opinion was obviously in favor of Akavia conceding to his colleagues and thereby being elevated to the highest court in the land, which was certainly an attractive position. Certainly, no one would have criticized Akavia had he changed his position. Still, Akavia stood firm and was willing to forego the coveted position of honor rather than compromise on his principles.

While flexibility in one's own opinion is commendable, firmness in adhering to principles is essential.

Today I shall...

be unyielding when my basic principles are put to the test.

If the court finds [the thief] guilty, he shall pay twofold (Exodus 22:8).

The Talmud explains that an armed robber can make restitution simply by returning the stolen item. A thief, who steals in stealth, must return the object and pay a heavy fine.

Why is the thief punished more severely? By operating in stealth, he indicated that he feared being observed by humans, but was not concerned that God saw his deeds. In other words, he essentially denied the providence of God. While the robber's act was just as dishonest, he at least equated people with God, in that he operated in full view of both. Hence, although his attitude was one of defiance of God, it was not necessarily one of denial.

Sometimes we do things that are not ethically sound, and in order to avoid social sanction and to maintain a reputation of decency, we may act in such a manner that it appears to be ethically proper. While we may indeed succeed in this deception, we must remember that there is One Who cannot be deceived, and Who knows the truth of our behavior. We should realize that acting in such a manner is essentially a denial as well as a defiance of God.

It is evident now why the thief pays double. The robber pays only for defiance of God, whereas the thief must pay for defiance and denial.

People who think they are willing to sacrifice their very lives rather than deny God should reflect on whether they might not actually deny God for the sake of mere monetary gain. The acid test of loyalty to God is not just in martyrdom, but in living honestly.

Today I shall...

rededicate myself to honesty in all my affairs and realize that dishonest behavior constitutes a denial of God.

In order that God will bless you in all the work of your hands (Deuteronomy 24:19).

Sometimes we dream up a worthwhile project, but we hesitate to undertake it because it seems beyond our capacities. Obviously, people must be realistic and should not embark on something which is totally outlandish because it would require means or knowledge which they lack. However, we still shy away from many things that are achievable.

There is a folk saying: "The appetite comes with the eating." A person may not be hungry, yet when he or she sits at the table, and the food is served, the initial course actually stimulates the appetite. When we make a beginning and exert some effort, a Divine blessing may come. A composer may have but one melody in mind, but as he or she begins to write, one idea seems to inspire another, and an entire symphony comes to life.

I once heard a recovered alcoholic with many years of sobriety give instructions to a newcomer who was unable to comprehend how anyone could abstain from drinking for so many years when it was so difficult for him to abstain even for one day. "You just begin," he said. "It's like standing on the shore and wanting to get across when there is no boat. Someone says to you, `Start rowing,' and you say, 'How can I start rowing when there is no boat?' `Never mind,' the man responds, 'Just start rowing, and the boat will appear.' "

We must make the effort, and God will help us bring it to fruition.

Today I shall...

not hesitate in making a beginning of things that I know that I should do, even if they may seem formidable.

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