Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

                   IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

Rightful Might

When you picture a strong person, what comes to mind?

A Genghis Khan figure, maybe, all rippling muscles and swinging sword as he cuts a brutal swathe through the enemy. Or someone closer to home, a ruthless dictator like Stalin who slaughtered hordes of his own citizens just because he could. A swaggering Napoleon who swept away his enemies in victory after victory, or a ranting Hitler using the strength of his elected position to commit the massacre of millions of innocents. Or even an ordinary guy who’s worked out enough to be able to lift astounding weights or bend a teaspoon with his bare hands.

Physical strength. It’s not hard to find examples; in fact, that kind of force and domination is hard to overlook. But there are some varieties of emotional strength that have much in common with the physical kind. Meaning that it is either an inborn trait, or a developed one, that has nothing to do with good character and everything to do with power.

For example, the CEO who makes ruthless decisions to grow his company, decisions that involve laying off many workers in dire need of the steady paycheck he’s been providing, may be said to be a strong person. So, too, may someone off whom insults bounce off because he just doesn’t care enough for your opinion of him to matter. We have to be careful not to confuse toughness with true strength. Ditto for overconfidence or a thick skin. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Have you ever met someone whose very conversation is enough to induce blunt force trauma? I’m talking about the kind of person who exudes an aura of dominance devoid of sensitivity. A person who never takes the trouble to wonder how his words may be affecting the person he’s speaking to. A person who treats each encounter as if it is taking place on a battlefield and he’s determined to emerge the winner. A person who, while indubitably powerful, is markedly lacking in his humanity.

Would you call such a person strong?

In Eliyahu Hanovi’s vision, the “small, still voice” of Hashem carried more weight than many far grander exhibitions of Divine might. Maybe we can extrapolate from this to suggest that our own strength lies not in ruthlessness, self-assurance or emotional bluntness, as the world sometimes makes the mistake of thinking. It’s something entirely different.

Dovid HaMelech, though a fearless warrior, was no brute conqueror. Rather, he demonstrated an exquisite sensitivity toward both man and G-d. His finely-honed sense of right and wrong led him to openly acknowledge his guilt when necessary. Though imbued with the tremendous power of royalty, he always subjugated himself to the Power above. I’d venture to say that took some real strength!

It could be interesting to look around us for examples of genuine strength. I’m thinking about the mother who responds to her bratty child with unfaltering respect, instead of descending to a level that’s equally bratty. Even in the throes of annoyance and frustration, she holds onto her vision of the kind of person she wants her child to grow up be… and the kind of mother she wants to be.

I’m thinking about someone who is unafraid to admit that he is in the wrong, even if his wrongness makes him lose face in front of people whose good opinion he cares about. Someone who can hold the knowledge of both his failings and his potential greatness in the cup of his hands at the same time, and never spill a drop.

The Hippie generation urged us to “let it all hang out.” They saw a certain strength in exposing one’s feelings and vulnerabilities, all in the name of being “unrepressed.” But that, I think, is like developing strong muscles simply for the sake of having muscles. It’s what you do with your strength that’s the important thing.  And your purpose in choosing to expose your vulnerabilities that matters, too.

Do you open your heart to others in order to grow closer to them, encourage them, or guide them through sharing the saga of your own mistakes? Or is it emotional exhibitionism for its own sake, the kind we unfortunately find all too often in today’s tell-all climate?

 

Heroic Living

Our Sages have defined strength for us. They taught (Pirkei Avos 4:1) that the truly strong person is one who can conquer his evil inclination. Anyone who’s ever tried to overcome their own inborn middos knows how very difficult it is, and how much inner fortitude it takes to succeed. When everything inside you is clamoring for release and you still manage to hold back, that’s nothing short of heroic!

But strength, on its own, is not enough. Emotional muscles are like physical ones: a tool that needs to be given a purpose. Just because you’re capable of restraining your darker impulses is no guarantee that you will. Having the fortitude to do what’s right doesn’t mean that you will necessarily choose the right path. For that, we need to add two more pieces to the formula.

First, we have to be able to discern the difference between right and wrong. This takes a certain amount of wisdom. Before Adam and Chava sinned, the evil inclination took an external form. Afterward, it became part of us, internalized and capable of fostering tremendous confusion. Something can feel so right and yet be so wrong! And the opposite can also be true. We may feel viscerally that a certain act is incorrect yet be instructed by the Torah that it is exactly what we’re supposed to do.

In this upside-down world, good and evil have a high old time masquerading as one another. In a generation of flexible morals, it’s not always easy to separate the lofty value from the lowly one. Developing the ability to tell good from bad, so that one can choose whether or not to incorporate it into one’s life under the specific set of circumstances that define that specific life, calls for some very real wisdom.

The second thing we need is not only to know what’s right and what’s wrong, but to care. To really care, deeply and sincerely, about being a good person. It’s tempting, and far easier, to simply go through the motions, satisfying ourselves with “good enough.” Pure, intellectual knowledge of what’s good or evil takes us nowhere unless we translate that knowledge into something we feel passionate about.

After we’ve identified the right values and worked to turn ourselves into people who genuinely identify with those values… that’s when we tap into the strength needed to act on them. It’s not enough to have a fine, shining value system, untarnished by action. It’s what we do with our values that defines us. We need to know what’s right, care about what’s right, and then be strong enough to do what’s right.

So how do we develop the inner strength required for proper living—which, for a Jew, means heroic living?

The formula seems fairly straightforward: if we learn in order to gain wisdom, and work on our yiras Shamayim so that we’ll want the right things, that will give us the motivational underpinnings to muster our inner fortitude and get the job done!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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