INSIGHT

5767 - #12

SELF-DEFINITION

Rashi, Bereishit 49:1 states that, in calling his sons around him at the end of his life, Yaakov Avinu wished to reveal to them the time of the coming of the Mashiach. Unfortunately, Rashi continues, the Divine Presence left Yaakov and so our forefather went on with other matters. Ibn Ezra challenges this understanding of the verse and says that Yaakov’s words were simply focused on the future. Torah Temima, Bereishit 49:1, note 1 points out that, even according to Rashi, Yaakov’s full prophetic abilities were not removed for the text is full with pronouncements about the future. To many, when they read the words of Rashi, they focus solely upon the idea that Yaakov was going to reveal the time of the end of the final exile. Such a focus precludes our ability to truly recognize the significance of Yaakov’s. He was describing the essence of each of his sons and projecting what will be, given the divergent natures of each of these founding branches of the nation. In our world today, whenever we encounter the uniqueness of personality, we attempt to look backwards to try and discover the root of this uniqueness and divergence. This is, in fact, the essence of psychology. Yaakov Avinu approached his sons from a completely different position. Their personalities are now developed; they are a given. Determining where these divergent characters came from would serve no purpose.1 But there was purpose in looking forward and projecting what will be. We cannot change who we are but we can determine how best to actualize who we are. This is Yaakov’s focus.

            Yaakov is therefore conveying to his sons, along with the individual direction given to each, a general, and most significant, guideline: know yourself. Know your strengths, know your weaknesses. Know your limits. A Reuven will never be a Shimon. A Dan will never be a Binyamin.2 To maximize your value, and the value of your family, in this world, understand that you are each unique and must, therefore, each fulfill a unique purpose. Even Shimon and Levi, who received quite an ominous report from their father, are known to have benefited from this recognition of self. Once Shimon and Levi knew who they were and had a grasp of their temperaments, they could rise above their instincts for violence and provide beneficial service to society. But this came only with recognition of self and a view of the future.

            Halachically, as well, the knowledge of self is essential. Even on Yom Kippur, when there is a question as to whether a person is physically capable of fasting, although a physician is often asked to make a diagnosis, the physician’s determination may not absolutely conclude the matter. If the patient still feels, even after a physician has decided that there is no health risk involved in fasting, that it would be unhealthy to continue fasting, the judgment of the individual prevails and the patient may discontinue fasting.4 This is based on the assumption that a person knows himself best. Similarly, there is no ‘general rule’ as to when a person is exempt from eating in a sukkah on Sukkot—it is only once the individual feels that he has reached his limit and can no longer enjoy the experience of eating in the rain or in the cold that he is exempt. Again, without a knowledge of self, it is impossible to properly fulfill this mitzvah.

            The unfortunate reality of such a directive, however, is that people usually respond in one of two ways: 1. default stringency, or 2. lazy humility. In the first case, a failure to have a full contemplation of self results in: always fasting, even when your body advises otherwise; always sitting in the sukkah on Sukkot, even when it might seem cold or uncomfortable.3 Although this seems logical, it is not a safe bet to simply err on the side of caution in Halacha. First of all, caution is rarely what it seems and what may seem to be cautious is, in fact, often foolish. Secondly, and more importantly, defaulting to stringency can often lead to an actual violation of the law. For a simple example, Halacha mandates that one not sit in the sukkah when it is uncomfortable. The command of dwelling in a sukkah is a command to make a sukkah your home; it is, by definition, not a home if it is so uncomfortable. As such, given that there is no halachic significance in remaining in the sukkah in such circumstances, if one continues to maintain this lack of comfort, one could be violating the command of simchat yom tov, being happy on the holiday. Thus, maintaining stringency and sitting in the sukkah could, in fact, be a violation of the law.

But the acquisition of knowledge of one’s self is never easy and this is why people default to stringency. It is sad that, over time, Halacha has been forced to adapt to a progressively declining communal self-knowledge. It is said that Rav Giddal would go and sit by the gates of the mikvah to ensure that the women were doing it properly. When asked about this risky, potentially tempting, interaction with a new bride, he would reply, “They are like geese to me.” A complete knowledge of self allowed Rav Giddal to act confidently in strengthening the observance of this mitzvah. Had he defaulted to stringency, he would not have been able to do so. Perhaps, we do not believe that someone, today, could maintain the control over self of Rav Giddal. Perhaps, though, people do not adequately examine themselves. The reality is that both are connected. It is only the one who knows himself/herself that is able to develop the control over self demonstrated by Rav Giddal. The decline in self-control over the generations may be a result of a lack of self-knowledge and toward this that we should work. In the end, a reliance on stringency in a case such as that of Rav Giddal is not only preferable in our generation, it is demanded. Halacha has adapted to our ignorance but we must still strive to lessen this weakness.

This leads to the second unfortunate possible result, lazy humility, meaning an overriding classification of self as ‘a nobody.’ In such circumstances people underestimate their capacity for fasting, for cold, for giving charity, etc. The obvious result is that people, for example, eat when they should fast or act stingily when they should give. Lazy humility also applies when someone ignores their strengths (humility) and relies on the status quo (lazy). The Torah scholar who, in expressing humility, allows others to denigrate him/her is a perfect example of this problem. It is not the person but rather Torah itself that is insulted. The greater problem, though, are the myriad of stories that praise such behaviour thereby teaching that the scholar who demands his dignity, and thus the dignity of Torah, is to be critiqued as a ba’al ga’aveh. Such stories sadly lead to individuals developing a sense of self-worth without confronting their own lack in Torah knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, in the pursuit of Torah knowledge.

The modern epithet given by parents to their children—“You’re special.”—although it may do well to minimize a child’s insecurity, truly leaves the child without a sense of self. Being ‘special’ (whatever that means) is an external approval. The child’s focus, and indeed the focus of all people, should be a realistic assessment of self, with flaws, with unique obstacles. To some, this may seem like giving in. Greatness, one might suggest, is only achieved when someone chooses to step beyond the obvious boundaries of self. But this is a mistake. A blind man must feel the walls that surround him before he attempts to move around the room. To get up and walk without any prior knowledge of his surroundings would just be foolish. And any success would be merely coincidence. Yaakov, as a good father, knew this.

. 4.

 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht and Chai Hecht e-mail

Footnotes

1 It is an academic exercise to attempt to figure out how someone became the person he/she became – and it may make for interesting reading. The question is what to do with this information. Perhaps it can give us insight into how to become a better person. However, just attempting to know the source of our present personality, really has limited purpose unless it teaches us how to affect the future.

2 See, however, Rashi, Bereishit 49:28.

3 The command to dwell in the sukkah demands, of course, a certain level of discomfort but there is clearly a threshold whereby it is improper to continue in the sukkah.

4 Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 618:1.

Nishma, 2007.


 


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2006 NISHMA