Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great sage of mussar – ethics – taught that it is easier to learn an entire tractate of Talmud than it is to change a character trait. Remember the story of the cat that was trained to walk on two legs, carry a tray, and serve as a waiter? It became a wondrous example of how an animal can be trained to shed its “cat calling” and emulate a human. Everyone was amazed. Then one day while the cat was carrying its tray it saw some mice scurrying by – and immediately it dropped the tray and ran on all fours in pursuit of its prey.
The painful moral of the story is self-evident. We can train, we can make resolutions, we can make promises – but to overcome our nature is an altogether different matter. When push comes to shove, people tend to revert to their old selves, their old habits, their old temperaments. Yes, perhaps for a few weeks or even a few months we think change has been made – but when our buttons are pushed, everything erupts all over again.
How do we become people of chesed and rachamim? The answer is clear: we must only follow the dictates of our Torah. Instead of philosophizing and making empty promises we must start doing, and through our actions train ourselves to become different people. At Sinai, when G-d charged us with His Commandments, our immediate response was “we shall do it.”
Let us give ourselves a neshamah test to see how we rate, and let us respond to the questions with honesty. We can fool other people but it’s really dangerous when we fool ourselves. So let us examine our hearts and minds and see how many of these questions we can answer with an emphatic yes.
Is there fighting, shouting, or cursing in our home? Do we speak to our spouse and children with respect, kindness, and consideration?
Do our children see us relating with respect to our own parents? When our parents come to visit, do we rush to welcome them? Do we rise in their honor? And do we teach our children to do the same? Or do we allow them to stay glued to their cell phones, computers, and other diversions? Do we allow them to grunt under their breath a “hi” or “hello” or do we insist that they eagerly embrace Bubbie and Zaidie with love and warmth?
Do we teach our children to lie? “Jack, tell Ben I’m not home.” “Don’t tell anyone we’re going on vacation; just say we’re visiting Bubbie.” “Don’t tell anyone what we did over the summer; I can see the school raising the tuition and pressuring me for another donation.”
Do we encourage our children to be selfish and mean? “Don’t help him with his homework, he didn’t help you when you asked.” “Don’t invite him to your party, he didn’t invite you to his.” Or do we say the following: “Do what is right, don’t hold any grudges against anyone. Be a Torah Jew.”
Did we ever teach our children how to cry? They know how to cry for toys and candy, and as they get older, cars and vacations and credit cards. But did we teach them how to cry for the pain of another? When we hear or read that a family or individual has, G-d forbid, been killed in a terrorist attack, do our children see us expressing our pain? Do our children see us praying for those who are ill or hurting – and do we instruct them to do the same? Do we encourage them to share, give tzedakah, and reach out with a helping hand?
When guests come to our home, do our children welcome them? Have our sons and daughters ever seen, even in miniature, the hospitality that marked the dwelling place of Abraham and Sarah?
Do our children see us praying with concentration and feeling? Or do they see us gossiping in shul or carrying on conversations about business, sports, etc.? Do our children see us studying Torah with sincerity or do they see us jumping away from our studies as soon as we hear our cell phone ring?
If we’ve failed this test, does that mean we are branded forever? Or is there hope we can change? Not only is there hope; as Jews, change is our reality. Chesed and rachamim are an intrinsic part of our nature. These values were engraved on our souls at Sinai when we heard the electrifying words “I am the Lord thy G-d.” At that moment, the image of G-d was etched for all eternity on our hearts and souls. We must only bring it forth and possess it.
It is our heritage, and in an instant we can reinvent ourselves and our homes can be places where the light of Torah shines and peace and harmony prevail.