“Instead of fighting on ten fronts, you can just fight on one front with better results!”
I still remember where I was standing when I heard those words of advice from a distinguished mentor. As with many young people, I was ready to give up. I thought I would never succeed, and I knew it was all my fault. That is very often the warped thinking of younger people. Instead of looking at the complexity of any given situation, they look at it very one-dimensionally. Instead of trying to think out of the box to minimize difficulties, they somehow get overwhelmed and, in some ways, magnify the problem into something bigger than it really is. That is the way I was at the time.
Let me start at the beginning. It was many years ago. I was younger and probably a bit dumber, too. I was very frustrated…about middos, my bad middos. I had a very low threshold of tolerance for the faults and foibles of others, and I also had another major deficiency. I angered easily. Thus, when someone did something that was, to my mind, foolish, whether it was a friend or a chavrusah, I would become annoyed, angry, and sometimes even furious. Then, after I cooled down, I felt terrible and blamed myself and my bad middos for blowing it. Even if I was right about the issue, I was certainly wrong in my reaction.
At times, it was relatively small things that got me upset. For example, when someone would cut me in a line or cut me off while driving, something that in the larger scheme of things is not the end of the world, I would become furious at the person’s lack of middos, while simultaneously failing to see that being quick to anger was also a lack of middos.
I remember approaching a mentor who was older, much wiser and had seen a lot in life, and he gave me the piece of advice cited above: “Instead of fighting on ten fronts, you can just fight on one front with better results!”
Today, during the days of Sefirah, when we are supposed to work on tikkun hamiddos, his words resonate doubly.
Recognizing Hashem to Improve Middos
He explained, “Middos are not easy to change…not at all. In fact, Rav Yisroel Salanter once said that it is easier to finish learning Shas than to change one middah. We are all born with innate tendencies. Some of us are born with a very jealous nature, others anger easily, others are born with a tendency towards laziness, and the list goes on.
“However, generally, there is one thing that one can work on that makes things much easier. The solution to all this is to believe in Hashgocha Protis. You might think, ‘What does believing in Hashgocha Protis have to do with working on one’s middos?’ The answer is everything!
“Why are you so angry when someone who cuts you off? Because you think that he is culprit. If he wouldn’t have been so inconsiderate, then I would not have gotten cut off. Let’s say you are jealous of someone else. You feel upset or at least a sense of kinah because he has a bigger house, a nicer car, or maybe a bigger family or a more gifted child. You think he is the culprit and therefore you harbor a feeling in your heart against him.
“When we are upset, jealous or have any other negative feelings towards someone else, it is usually because we feel that that person wronged us. ‘That person is responsible for cutting me off, for ‘stealing’ my best chavrusah, for taking the job that I was supposed to get, for coming late…’
“If we would just change our pattern of thinking and say, ‘No, that person is merely a pawn in the Hands of Hashem. I believe in Hashgocha Protis and I believe that I was supposed to arrive at this and this time, and even if that person had not cut me off, I would have been late. I believe in Hashgocha Protis and I was not supposed to get that chavrusah or that job. It doesn’t matter who did get the job. It was Hashem who decided that this job was not what I needed.’
“The same applies to bigger and more important things – he/she has a bigger family, better children, or better shalom bayis. It is all because that is the situation Hashem put me in. It has nothing to do with them and everything to do with Hashem and what He knows is best for me.”
This was the advice the mentor gave. “Instead of working on anger, jealousy, and so many others middos,” he said, “work on one thing. Bring Hashem into your life every day, every second of the day.”
Pawns in the “Game” of Life
People are merely pawns in Hashem’s Hands. Hashem is sending you a message. These people are merely His messengers. There is no reason to get upset with them or upset at all. Rather, try to analyze the message and see if there is anything you can improve. Even if you determine that you are perfect and there is nothing you can improve, still, we do not know Hashem’s cheshbonos, and for some reason this is the role that Hashem is giving you now.
In truth, if we look at negative middos such as anger or jealousy as signals from Hashem, not from those He sent, it is much easier to work on them. Do we get upset when Hashem tells us that we cannot eat that delicious-looking steak because it happens to be non-kosher? Of course not. We don’t want to eat non-kosher. If I am a kohein and I cannot be in the same room as a dead person, am I upset with Hashem because I cannot become tamei? Of course not. On the contrary, we know that we receive a tremendous amount of s’char if we prevent ourselves from becoming tamei.
We don’t get angry that we are the Am Hanivchar who has been commanded to remain pure. When we think about it, we actually recognize that it is a privilege.
If Hashem sent a nisayon in middos, it is an opportunity. If someone took something away in a way that was wrong and that was cruel, but I realize that it was actually Hashem Who took it away and that person was merely a pawn in His hands; if I realize that Hashem knows what is good for me and loves me and gives me infinite reward for overcoming my first instinct to lash out at the person who wronged me; if I internalize that this was Hashgocha Protis, Hashem’s plan that I should not get what I thought I should get, then I am creating a crown of glory for myself that Hashem cherishes more than almost anything else.
Creating the Crown
In fact, the Sefas Emes stresses this point in this week’s parsha. Parshas Metzora, which explains many of the laws of tumah and taharah, ends with a general warning: “Vehizartem es Bnei Yisroel mitumosom – And you shall separate the Bnei Yisroel from their impurity.”
The Sefas Emes points out that the root of the word “vehizartem” is neizer, which means a crown. What does a crown have to do with tumah?
It is not easy to separate oneself from tumah in this world. After all, tumah doesn’t only refer to a dead body or a dead insect, but rather any manifestation of lack of purity, and lack of purity is everywhere, wherever we might go. The surrounding world is full of impurity, whether it is a culture of tumah, the culture of the goyishe street that has infiltrated, tumah in dress, tumah of the lips, or tumah in middos.
The Sefas Emes explains: When Yidden make a conscious effort to separate themselves from tumah, whatever that tumah might be, that separation, that effort to restrict and restrain ourselves, is a crown of glory that we wear on our heads. It crowns us with malchus, true malchus, not the overt pomp of malchus but the restrained, true beauty of the melech or malkah who is so powerful that they know how to control themselves even when it is really hard.”
The Sefas Emes concludes, Hashem has so many malochim in Shomayim. Those malochim are so much purer, so much holier than we, but it is not in those malochim in whom He takes pride. It is in us! We are the source of His pride! Why? Because unlike malochim, we have a yeitzer hara. When we willfully restrain and restrict ourselves, we are in actuality crowning ourselves with magnificent crowns of glory.