I remember some years ago my encounter with a young man following one of my speaking engagements in London. “Rebbetzin,” he challenged, “I would truly like to be kinder and more considerate of others but I just don’t feel it. It’s not in my nature and I’m not a kid who can change, so if you give me a shortcut that could work me for I will take it on.”
I looked at him and saw he was sincere. “Let’s consider that for a minute,” I told him. “Have you ever analyzed exactly what constitutes your nature? Our sages provide us with profound insights into this subject. ‘A man is shaped by his deeds,’ they tell us, meaning that if you do something long enough, it becomes second nature and it is that which makes you ‘you.’ So, for example, if you become accustomed to nasty habits, you become a nasty person. If you become used to venting your feelings, you become an uncontrolled, angry individual. The converse is also true. If you act kindly, eventually you become kind. If you force yourself to give, in time, you become generous.
“The positive aspect of this teaching is reinforced in our Talmud: ‘Mitoch she’lo lishmah, ba lishmah’ – that which you initially do by rote, you will end up doing with sincerity if you persevere. The action will become so deeply imbedded in your psyche that it will actually transform your personality.”
He thought for a moment and responded, “But doing things by rote and without feeling or believing them sounds hypocritical to me.”
I then related a story written by the British author Max Beerbohm titled “The Happy Hypocrite.” It is about a gentleman named Lord George Hell, whose name mirrored his personality. His bad temper was reflected in his eyes, his face, his very demeanor. One day Lord George fell madly in love with a sweet, gentle, lovely maiden but she was so repelled by his appearance that she let him know that she could never entertain the thought of becoming involved with a man whose face was so cruel and angry.
So Lord George came up with a brilliant idea. He would commission a master artist to create a mask for him that would reflect a kind, benevolent, gentle person. Thus disguised, he called on the damsel, who immediately fell in love with him. They were married and lived happily together, until one day an old enemy came to visit and said to the woman, “You think that you are married to a kind, gentle man – I’ll show you who your husband really is!”
And with that he ripped the mask off Lord George’s face. But lo and behold, the face beneath the mask was identical to the mask.
Throughout their marriage Lord George had pretended to be gentle and generous so that his conduct would not belie his mask. This left a deep mark on his character and transformed him into the person he had pretended to be.
“A beautiful story,” said my new friend in London, “but it borders on the miraculous rather than on reality.”
“Miracles are our reality,” I replied – “if we so wish it.”
Do we not all become miracles when we change our nature? If you wish to find a shortcut to change yourself for the better, put on that “mask” and become the kind, compassionate person our Torah commanded all of us to be.