Sometimes the everyday details of life point the way to profound concepts. I had that kind of moment the other day, while standing at the most ordinary of household items: the sink.
A sink has two taps: hot and cold. Let’s call the moment when you turn on the water Point Zero, that neutral place when the water is a lukewarm temperature. The more you turn the right-hand tap, the colder the water gets. The more you turn the left-hand tap, the hotter it gets. A simple concept, but one that accurately reflects something that’s far from simple: the inner working of the human psyche.
We all know the famous Chazal about the roads we choose to walk. “On the path that a person wishes to take, there he is led.” This has implications that are both encouraging and frightening.
Suppose you are inspired to stretch yourself spiritually in some vital area. You undertake to devote more time and commit more energy to enhancing that area. Day by day, you work on turning yourself into a person who is on a higher level in that particular area. Day by day, you succeed. As you achieve comfort with the new practices and the new level, reverting to the previous level feels unthinkable. You’re happy and satisfied with your heightened spiritual awareness, and those positive feelings reinforce your forward momentum. The hot-water tap keeps producing water that is hotter, more passionate, and ever more dedicated.
Sadly, the process works the other direction as well, perhaps even more efficiently. You let yourself slide a bit in a certain area of your spiritual life. Slides tend to be slippery. The farther you let yourself fall, the harder it becomes to halt the slide and reverse direction. The cold-water tap has been turned on, and the water grows progressively colder.
The new, lower level begins to feel comfortable for you. It begins to feel like it is you. Someone will make a comment about the area in which you’ve allowed yourself to become weak, and you’ll respond with an abashed quip or a rueful acknowledgement. The whole subject gradually turns into fodder for resigned or quasi-humorous comments. “Oh, you know me. I’ve never been good with details.” Or, “I guess davening’s just not my thing.” The weakness you’ve allowed into your life becomes a part of your identity. The water just keeps getting colder…
All of which goes to show how crucial it is to notice when we’ve started turning the taps.
We can take the analogy further. We turn on the hot water when we want to wash away dirt and grime, an apt description of turning on the zeal that will polish up our neshamos. The hotter the water gets, the cleaner things get. Lukewarm water splashes merrily and gives the illusion of getting the job done, but at the end of the day you’ve still got more-or-less the same sticky hands, pots or plates with which you started.
On the converse side, we run the cold-water tap when we want a drink that’s cold and refreshing. The longer the water runs, the colder it gets. We may start out experiencing whatever lapse in spirituality we’ve allowed into our lives as a refreshing change. Cold water feels pleasant going down the throat on a hot summer’s day. There’s a sense of lightness that comes with casting off a burden. We blithely ignore the risk we run of becoming so light that we’re liable to be blown away by the slightest breeze.
We start at Point Zero, and we use our free will to turn the taps of our spiritual striving in one direction or another. The ensuing changes can happen abruptly; more often, they are gradual. This is especially true of the cold-water kinds of change.
I can clearly remember the moments in my life when I made a decision to enhance certain areas, to be a more connected Jew. The areas in which I slid back have a far murkier trajectory. They happened gradually. I turned the water incrementally colder until I had an “oops!” moment, when I realized how far I’d fallen and how hard I needed to work to get back on course.
The less self-aware we are, the more likely we are to unconsciously let the cold water flow. It takes more concerted effort and more focused intent to produce hot water, the enthusiasm and spiritual devotion that’s needed to perform mitzvos properly. A moment, or a year, of unconscious living is tantamount to handing the cold-water tap a blank permission slip.
The same idea applies to middos. The Rambam spoke forcefully about the need for moderation in middos. The word middah means a measure; we have to mete out the proper measure of each trait as needed in any situation. Think of your personality as a sink. Which tap are you going to turn on, and how far?
Everyone knows the famous saying: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There’s a parallelism here that works in every area of life. A bit of a certain middah can be good or bad for you; a lot of it can be respectively wonderful or awful. For example, a person who tends to be a little bossy at home may, if put in charge of an entire staff, use her newfound power unwisely. Ditto for the individual with a tendency toward anger, envy or any other negative trait.
On the other hand, there’s no such thing as too much genuine humility, as we see from Moshe Rabbeinu. We can never feel too small in comparison to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. In contrast, other positive middos, such as chesed and generosity, can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. Our lives are a balancing act as we strive to maintain the proper measure of all things, and embrace the moderation that the Rambam espoused. We must constantly adjust the taps to achieve the perfect balance between hot and cold.
The more you turn the cold tap, the colder the water gets.
The more you turn the hot tap, the hotter it gets.
It all starts the same way, with a twist of the wrist.
Let’s make sure that we turn the taps the way we truly want them, so that Hashem can help us continue moving in the direction for which our neshamos yearn. This calls for the conscious exercise of free choice. It calls for a proper balancing of our middos. It calls for wisdom, decisiveness and restraint.
None of these are simple to achieve, but all of them fall within the realm of the possible for everyone. That’s Hashem’s promise to us.