In A Perfect World
The diamond sparkling on a kallah’s finger was not born that way. When it was lifted out of its home deep underground it was no more than a rock, grimed with soil and dirt, its glittering potential hidden. It took a great deal of careful cutting and polishing to smooth out the gem’s rough edges and bring out its breathtaking luster.
The same goes for a fine piece of hand-crafted furniture. The stately table that you see gracing someone’s dining room started out in a far more primitive state. Tree trunks are rough and bumpy things, and so is the lumber that comes from them. The master craftsman needs to apply all of his skill to produce a surface that is perfectly flat and smooth to the touch. A surface that glows with beauty.
People are also born with rough edges. Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with young children knows what uncivilized creatures they are. Babies are supremely self-centered; toddlers can be defiant and aggressive; youngsters of all ages may display traits that make their elders fear for their futures.
They could be greedy, or whiney, or lazy. They may show a dismaying tendency to lie or exaggerate or tell tales. Their interactions with others can be bumbling or even cruel. It takes years of upbringing and education to smooth down the rough spots and to coax forth the innate majesty of the human spirit.
But the job does not end there. We grown-ups, too, are engaged in a continual process of sanding down the lumps and bumps in our middos. An ongoing process of getting rid of the impurities and refining our characters. This process takes place out of sight, and so is not as obvious as it may seem. I’ll never forget the first time I heard someone refer to my father, z”l, as a man who was continually engaged in avodas hamiddos. I was stunned. You mean he wasn’t born perfect?
No, none of us were. We all need to do some heavy-duty lifting to become anywhere near that way.
We need to take the raw material that Hashem granted us at birth, and sand away the rough edges to let the light of our neshomah shine forth.
How does a person, of any age, absorb what he needs to know to become a civilized and perfected human being?
The first classroom, obviously, is the home. When parents serve as role models for the right kind of attitudes and behavior, constant exposure to those behaviors and attitudes will inevitably rub off on their kids. Merely lecturing youngsters about what’s right and wrong is ineffectual. It’s no use talking the talk unless you also walk the walk. Kids can sniff out hypocrisy and are quick to jump on inconsistencies. Good modeling is the best way to launch your child on his personal trajectory to righteousness.
As for us big folk, acting “as if” we’re already the people we long to be is a great way to model good behavior for ourselves! It may seem premature. You may feel like an imposter. But putting a smile on your face when you’re feeling grumpy, for example, is a great first step to becoming a more cheerful person. It’s not false when it’s done in service of truth.
Teachers are another kind of role model, as are older siblings, Pirchei and Bnos leaders and the like. Chip by chip, flake by flake, inborn negative traits are worn away as the child is subtly molded through the example of his elders. Though the process is usually quite unconscious, the positive effects can clearly be glimpsed over the long term.
Molding a human being can be done directly, or it can take place in a more indirect way. For example, when we read or see or hear something that inspires us to take a giant leap and rise above ourselves. A powerful shiur can provide the impetus for a change that we once believed impossible. Witnessing someone else’s struggle can serve as a fount of inspiration for our own journey. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a random comment overheard in the supermarket can penetrate our hearts and leave it quivering in the aftershock. Anything and everything can inspire us to grow—if we let it.
A more methodical way to civilize our untamed spirits is through the study of mussar. When we want to take our spiritual education in hand instead of hoping for moments of now-and-then inspiration, there’s nothing better than a regimen of introspection and active self-improvement.
Seek out the weak spots in your psyche, devise a strategy aimed at strengthening them, and then follow a day-by-day program designed to achieve your goal. It takes a big dollop of self-awareness, and plenty of consistent work. But the end result is well worth the effort: becoming a person that you’re proud to be.
The last and most difficult way of rubbing away our rough edges is through suffering.
We all love to feel happy and comfortable. Which is why, when all is well, we tend to shy away from the sometime uncomfortable task of looking inward and toiling to improve our faults. So Hashem, in His desire to help us become the best that we can be, will sometimes send a helpful jolt of pain or trauma to remind us of our true life’s mission. If we respond to that reminder in the right way, we can grow in leaps and bounds… and obviate the need to experience similar unpleasant wake-up calls in the future.
Painful though it is, suffering can literally help us jump-start our way to greatness.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, through each encounter, each conversation, each choice of word or deed, we are engaged in a lifetime process of smoothing out the rough edges of our personalities. In societal terms, the goal is to become a civilized member of society who knows what to say and how to say it. Who understands which behavior suits which occasion, and who acquires the polish that comes with being a cultured human being.
In divine terms, however, we must be wary of embracing the external “polish” while ignoring the rough stuff that may still linger below, in the unexamined spaces of the soul. It is all too easy to let appearances take the place of substance. To try to sidestep the arduous digging and sanding and scraping that are really the only way to ultimately set free the glow locked up in potential form within us. Let’s not be blindsided by superficial good manners. Let’s do the job right, from the inside-out.
Let’s take the raw material we were given, and serve as our own diamond-cutters and master carpenters.
Step by step, through meticulous thought and careful action, let’s rub away the lumps and grime we were born with. So that the glory inside each of us can shine forth unhindered—to light up the world!