Judge a nation by its literature: America is fixated on self-help. As far as obsessions go, this is not a bad one. We all wish to improve, and there are many out there who have developed methodologies and techniques to assist toward this goal.
Admittedly, for some (read most), a paperback or Kindle about good habits or self-esteem is more accessible than the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuva or a sefer mussar. Here is an example where the means are irrelevant as long as the goal is achieved – in other words, whatever it takes.
In truth, acquiring a good habit and dispensing with a bad habit is no facile endeavor; hence the volume of literature on the subject. The gurus suggest that people should learn to rate their habits and ask themselves the following questions: Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this behavior cast a vote for or against my desired identity? Habits that reinforce your desired identity are typically good, while habits that conflict with your desired identity are bad.
There is yet another poignant question that needs to be posed. When confronted with a situation where you are uncertain if what you are intending to do is correct, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics proposes that you ask yourself: What is motivating me to act this way? Is it my yetzer hatov (good inclination) or, in less rabbinic English, my conscience? Or is it my yetzer hara (evil inclination) or, perhaps more colloquially, a calloused conscience? Just answering this one question, Rabbi Telushkin asserts, will determine the appropriate course of action.
Before we recount a contemporary story which demonstrates how productive this analysis is, let’s remember an anecdote about the Chafetz Chaim that also corroborates how valuable it is to implement this approach.
The Chafetz Chaim once asked his disciple, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, far better known as the Ponevezher Rav, “What is more important – to achieve one’s personal maximum, or to facilitate the growth of students at the expense of one’s own personal growth?”
We can conjecture as to how this quandary arose. The Ponevezher Rav learned in the Chafetz Chaim’s yeshivah b’chevrusa with the sage’s primary disciple, Reb Elchonon Wasserman. Rabbi Wasserman would later become the most famous rosh yeshivah murdered in the Holocaust.
Someone approached the Ponevezher Rav and offered him a prestigious teaching position. It was a golden opportunity to influence and direct the minds of numerous students and guide them in Torah scholarship and moral sensitivity. Perhaps the position also entailed financial security and a respected future.
Then again, accepting this offer would mean curtailing learning b’chevrusa with Reb Elchonon, which represented a spiritual sacrifice for Rav Kahaneman. If he were to accept such a position 10 years later (assuming that the offer would arise), there would be so much more wisdom and mastery within him, guaranteeing that he would be an even more proficient educator.
Who could answer such a question? Who could ever know if learning with disciples was preferable to pursuing self-growth and attaining spiritual perfection at the feet of the generation’s most respected saint?
Who but the Chafetz Chaim, that is. The sage explained that the route to follow is whatever will result in a greater amount of kavod Shomayim (honor of Heaven). These few words provided Rav Kahaneman with a signpost that would guide him for the rest of his life.
From then on, whenever he had a dilemma, whether it concerned a personal matter or an issue that would impact upon the lives of the entire Jewish people, Rav Kahaneman plugged in this formula and was able to ascertain which path to follow.
And now a story a friend whom we shall call “Dov Stern” related. Years ago, the Sterns, who live in Jerusalem, received a phone call from a seminary on erev Yom Tov, asking if they could host “Judy” for the last day of Passover. Hospitable people, the Sterns would have readily agreed, but Mrs. Stern had just given birth one week before. Still, they reasoned, if the seminary was calling at this late hour, obviously they were desperate, and poor Judy needed a place to go. Accordingly, the Sterns agreed.
It became apparent late Yom Tov night that Judy was not well. The couple heard vomiting and moans indicating the need for intervention. As Mrs. Stern was right after childbirth, the unpleasant task of checking up on Judy’s welfare fell upon her husband, Dov.
What he saw, and what he heard, confirmed the seriousness of the situation. But just to be sure, he consulted with his wife, who is also a nurse. Mrs. Stern’s ruling was unequivocal: The girl must be taken to the emergency room at once.
Judy was a diabetic, and she shared that before departing for her hosts, the seminary’s madricha (dorm proctor) had locked up the young woman’s insulin in a closet and departed. The consequences of a diabetic deprived of insulin are so grave that medical attention may never be delayed. Judy was touch-and-go all night until the hospital managed to stabilize her insulin level.
Judy was profuse in her gratitude to her hosts and she was equally profuse in cautioning them that they may never reveal her condition to a soul. After Yom Tov was over in America, Judy’s mother called the Sterns to express her gratitude for saving her daughter’s life, but she too made them vow that they would not reveal the information that Judy is a diabetic.
Judy’s family insisted upon secrecy as they did not wish her medical condition to imperil the chances of her finding a match. Clearly the young lady is as entitled as anyone else to a fair opportunity to meet a suitable mate, but their withholding information nearly cost their daughter her life. Had the family asked themselves whether it was the honor of Heaven that was motivating them, Judy and the Sterns could have been spared the scare of their lives.