Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

Retreat into Smallness

There’s something waiting for every person when he or she leaves this world, and that something is called a “din v’cheshbon.” In simple terms, this will be a Heavenly accounting for how we spent our lifetime. The Vilna Gaon, however, takes this concept a step further. He makes a distinction between the two parts of that awesome judgement: namely, the “din” and the “cheshbon.”

The din, he says, will assess everything that we did during our lives, both positive and negative. And the cheshbon will be an accounting of all the things that we could have done!

All of which leads me to ponder the reasons why we sometimes choose to step away from opportunities to add to the positive side of our ledgers. It seems illogical. When we have a chance to add to our bank accounts, most of us waste no time snapping it up. But when it comes to actualizing spiritual possibilities, there’s a certain resistance or reluctance. Why?

Why, when we are continually poised for greatness, do we so often opt to retreat instead into… smallness?

Afraid to Fly

No one can deny that the opportunities are there, and that they are endless. And yet, we don’t exactly see ourselves seizing every chance to climb the ladder. Most of the time, we limit ourselves to the status quo. We prefer to settle in on the rug that we’ve already reached. Spiritual growth stretches out a beckoning hand, but we don’t take it up on its offer.

I think the reasons are twofold. One of them is fear. More specifically, fear of failure or loss. And the other is plain old, garden-variety laziness.

Example: an acquaintance is going through a hard time and you want to call her up to offer support or encouragement. But because she is not a close friend, you feel intimidated. Apprehensive. “Suppose she thinks I’m being pushy and interfering? Suppose she doesn’t react well? Suppose she… doesn’t like me?” Whether we’re aware of these thoughts or not, they can be very forceful persuaders urging us to enroll in the Do Nothing school. Fear of failure, of embarrassment, of being rejected, of somehow losing out, is a huge deterrent in following up on our best and highest impulses.

Or how about this one: You’ve just listened to a really inspiring talk and are all fired up to take on a new level of spiritual commitment. Almost before the issue appears on your internal table for debate, however, your Fear of Failure lawyers are busy knocking it down.

“It’s too much. A nice idea, but way too hard for me to sustain. I’ll never be able to keep it up. And when I end up dropping the new resolution, I’ll be disappointed in myself. I’ll feel terrible. So I might as well spare myself the pain and not bother trying at all.”

So goes the thinking, sometimes consciously and sometimes less so. With the result that the nascent ascent to a spiritual mountain peak never makes it past the foothills. It’s like a baby bird being afraid to test its wings. Instead of focusing on the glorious possibilities inherent in flight, it shrinks back into its nest.

That’s what we’re like when we fail to heed the call of our own neshomah. Afraid to try. Afraid to fly.

Missed Connections

Now for the other powerful reason for turning our back on a spiritual opportunity. Here’s a typical scenario:

A neighbor is going through a rough patch, and we entertain the notion of doing something to help her out. But helping out in the abstract is far easier than actually putting in the work to make it happen. Our time is valuable, and our resources are limited. Our natural laziness curtails those resources even more… or at least, it feels that way. How many good impulses have you failed to follow up on through sheer inertia? Speaking for myself, I lost count a long time ago.

So much for bein adam lachaveiro. Looking at bein adam laMakom, every time we pick up a siddur, we have a chance to connect… really connect… to Hakadosh Boruch Hu Himself! And yet, all too often, we let the familiar words slip past our lips like so many empty bubbles, dissipating into nothingness. Instead of filling each syllable with meaning, a fuel to empower our tefillos to carry us to sublime heights, we too frequently take the opposite route. The downhill route. The easy slide to nowhere.

It takes energy to work ourselves up to genuine spiritual passion. With our brains flying in so many different directions, it’s hard to focus. Learning Torah is definitely demanding, but davening demands from us, too. Even just taking a few minutes to dwell intensely on Hashem’s awesomeness can be exhausting!

In this super-fast technological age, we’ve developed the habit of more or less bypassing thinking altogether. We’ll give Him a passing thought and leave it at that… even at the very moment when we’re standing before Him in praise and supplication.

I recently read an article by Rav Asher Ariel, of the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim, who used the term “spiritually comatose” to describe our generation. We know all the right things, and we want all the right things. But our ardor is asleep. Our passion is slumbering. Our best and most noble intentions are either tamped down by a vague sense of being inadequate to the task or diluted by lack of energy. What’s the solution?

What Do We Really Want?

When it comes to spiritual aspiration, there is a heartening insight: if you really, really want something, nothing can stand in your way. Hashem will open all the necessary doors. In that case, the question becomes obvious: do we want it enough?

Ideally, spiritual aspiration should attract us like bees to honey. In reality, though, the idea of climbing higher on the ladder of spiritual growth can actually be a bit off-putting because it demands so much from us in terms of time, effort and self-discipline. It would mean being a little less comfortable. It would cause inconvenience. In today’s climate of keeping busy, busy, busy, spiritual activity cuts into our valuable time and uses energy that we may wish to allocate to other things.

In other words, maybe the real reason we don’t seize every opportunity for spiritual growth is because we just don’t want it enough.

We were created as physical beings, which makes it hard to live up to an abstract spiritual ideal. By and large, we manage. Sometimes, we even manage beautifully. But it’s a constant struggle to overcome the natural human weakness that urges us to take the low road. To retreat into smallness, even when spiritual greatness beckons.

So let’s start with the little things. Just saying one brocha a day with real intention can be a great beginning. Choosing one brocha of Shemoneh Esrei to concentrate on. Listening to just ten minutes of a shiur each day. Smiling at one person you normally would have just passed by. And so on. Baby steps.

When tempted by spiritual greatness, it’s far easier to remain small. To curl up into a tiny ball and pretend that the opportunities for growth aren’t there. To mumble sleepily, “Go away. I’m fine.”

We may be fine… but we can be even better. And this is the moment to prove it to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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