Think, Ask, Internalize!

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer

I once heard a distinguished Rav delivering Mussar to his congregation. He urged them toward the obviously laudable goal of ridding their houses of televisions. The congregants, of course, have heard this particular message before, they will hear it again, and they almost certainly recognize the truth that underlies the Rav’s plaint. Yet we all know what both the Rav and the congregants know: That this is a never-ending, ongoing, ritual. The congregants who have televisions will not get rid of them (after all, they just installed satellite dishes!). The Rav knows that the congregants who have televisions will not throw them out because of the deroshos. The congregants know that the Rav knows this. Olam k’minhago noheig. Footnote What is going on here?

An apparently unrelated anecdote: My daughter once told me that a speaker that day had discussed how women merit the World to Come via their facilitation of their husbands’ and childrens’ Torah study. Footnote One of the girls present asked a question: What about women who never marry and/or never have children, or have husbands that cannot or do not learn? The speaker responded: “I get this question every year, but I do not answer it, because we do not encourage that kind of lifestyle.”

While these two vignettes may appear very different, the issue that underlies both these scenarios is the same; the latter case builds on the former: We frequently leave our Avodas Hashem to others, because that is more comfortable; if and when, finally, we do think about Avodas Hashem and how it is to be accomplished, we are may find ourselves admonished not to ask challenging questions about its direction!

Thus, we never develop a yetzer ha’tov.

Let us analyze that assertion, first vignette first: The congregants with the televisions have externalized their “consciences.” Footnote In this case, who is the external conscience? The Rav! Why is this a problem? Because then, the battle between their consciences and their drives takes place outside themselves.

Delving a bit deeper, we Torah-true Jews have a common perception of what is “good” and “holy.” We all know, for example: television = bad. We possess, however, great desires, drives and temptations.

Chazal tell us that we are born with our yetzer ho’ra; but we acquire our yetzer ha’tov only at the age of bar or bas mitzvah. Footnote Our conscience - our yetzer ha’tov - begins work late and comes from outside of us. In the meantime, we can identify internally with our drives and our own agendas - our yetzer ho’ra. Footnote

At that point - and often beyond - we are, in essence, stuck in the mode that some of us experienced in our school days: There is a system that we recognize, in some abstract way, as “good.” Often, however, we test the system, bend the rules, and exploit its weaknesses (a la the “naval b’reshus haTorah” Footnote ). All too often we adhere to the system as minimally as possible so as to not be expelled, suspended or otherwise punished, scraping by and passing to get “through.” I am what I want and what fulfills my desires; the school - or principal - is my external yetzer ha’tov.

As we progress through life, many phenomena may become parts of our externalized conscience. In the case of the Rav and the congregation, the Rav remains his congregation’s external conscience. We feel good being associated with the stratum of Yahadus that detests televisions - while we ourselves hide them deep in our houses, because we do feel guilty or ashamed. Rituals and forms of attire - that are not internalized - are often also part of this external conscience. Footnote The Mekkubalim call this an Or Makkif - an enveloping light that does little to affect the internal state of the soul. The yetzer ha’tov does not become an Or Pnimi - an internal illumination. Footnote

With a conscience that is outside and distinct, we can maintain a superficial identification with a good and holy system, yet simultaneously do as we please - as long as the system doesn’t “catch up” with us and castigate us. We are much like a fellow who will speed as long as he sees no policeman. True, we may feel somewhat guilty over our pleasures, but as Chazal note, guilt does not help very much in restraining us from negative activities. Footnote (We might even end up at non-gebrokts Pesach vacation in a Las Vegas hotel-casino!)

Internalizing the conscience is the process of becoming a fully developed Oved Hashem.

While it would be great to emerge victorious over our yetzer ho’ra, the reality is that most of us must battle our yetzer. If my yetzer ha’tov is still extrinsic to myself - embodied in my menahel, my rav, etc. - the battle is between my yetzer ha’tov and me. What if, however, my yetzer ha’tov is no longer outside of me, but inside me? If I have internalized my conscience, it is part of me, and it is ever present in my consideration.

For most of us, the internal balance between yetzer ho’ra and yetzer ha’tov is an ongoing struggle, the battle of bechirah. Footnote The first foothold of the yetzer ha’tov, however, is equated with the onset of maturity. Footnote I am beginning to go beyond my subjective agenda, the one which caused me to seek the the weaknesses I could exploit in the system. I have a component within myself that weighs matters objectively - and I need to make decisions. This of course, restricts my “fun.” A 19 or 20-year-old may express his resistance to this maturity thus: “Eventually, when I am 21 or 22 and get married, I will lead a full Torah life - now I’m young, I want to enjoy myself. Let me have my TV [or worse...].” The danger in this perspective is fairly obvious. An external conscience is a terrible nuisance. Since it impinges on my lifestyle, I seek to drown it out – at first, perhaps, with behavior that distracts me from its inconvenient reproaches (like watching lots of television). Matters then may deteriorate. “Ha’omer echtoh v’ashuv ein mapikin b’yado la’asos teshuva” - “One who says I will sin and then repent, they do not grant him the opportunity to do teshuva.Footnote Maturity, in the spiritual sense, will then tarry - perhaps never to arrive...

But now, what is the conscience, the yetzer ha’tov, that we seek to internalize?

This leads us to the second vignette.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter says that yetzer ha’tov is often a synonym for the intellect (“seichel”) while yetzer ho’ra is frequently identified with emotion (“kochos ha’nefesh”). Footnote Not, says Reb Yisroel, that intellect is always used for the good, nor that emotion is always for the bad. The converse can, and does, occur. Nevertheless, following intellectual conclusions will usually lead one to good; following emotional drives will generally lead elsewhere.

When a person internalizes emes, awareness and contemplation grant the objectivity necessary for a true Cheshbon ha’Nefesh. The Rambam tells us that the first test of Odom Ho’Rishon was not that of good vs. evil, but rather that of emes vs. sheker. If emes is external, then the kochos ha’nefesh - and sheker - hold internal sway, and then evil follows - extending gradually, imperceptibly, at first, then sprouting and growing beyond control. Footnote External awareness cannot do the trick. Footnote

But, indeed, how do we educate ourselves (and others) to achieve Emes?

We must think, we must ask, we must seek answers, we must demand of our Rav or teacher or seforim that they give us answers, which we must then contemplate and internalize. Footnote

(Here, of course, there is a difference between the case of the televisions and the case of the women and Olam HaBo. In the former case, the congregants know the answers - they try, mostly with success, to avoid thinking about them. In the latter case, someone actually asked a question - but was told not to ask. In both cases, the intellectual faculty is suspended - in the former, internally; in the latter, externally.)

So how do we go about doing this?

Let me answer on the basis of an experience. I once gave a Hashkofo Shiur, in which I presented all sides of the issue, even those that I was going to ultimately reject. Someone asked me: Why present positions that are against Mesorah even as an intellectual Hava Amina (premise)? Suffice it to say that the Gedolim oppose position X!

At first glance, this approach is tantalizingly appealing. It certainly saves significant mental exertion, which may then be devoted to mego, rov and chazoko [classic Talmudic concepts]. Furthermore, there is a strong emotional appeal in the simple citation of “Ru’ach Yisroel Sabbah.” Much literature in our circles is based on this approach. This apparent short cut, however, is not without potential pitfalls:

Declarative statements remain extrinsic. It is only by inculcating the quest for truth and meaning; by acquiring and imparting both the truth and its basis; by training ourselves and others to rigorously assess, analyze and critique, by thinking, that we internalize the yetzer ha’tov of emes, and we “mohn” (demand) of ourselves. It is only when we ourselves make demands of ourselves that they are truly inescapable. We (the congregation) will only change when we ourselves demand it of ourselves, not when the Rav demands it from us. Footnote

This is not to say that that there is no room for rote education. As Rabbi Dessler notes (Michtav Me’Eliyahu vol. 3, pp. 131-133), there is much that one can learn “by osmosis” - by absorbing values from the right environment and contact with the right people. Indeed, in the right environment, one can reach levels of outstanding piety. Footnote But, says Rabbi Dessler, one’s true level is what he has accomplished on the basis of habituation, but what he has accomplished in his personal battle with the unique yetzer ho’ra that Hashem has imparted to him. Footnote

The Maharal, Be’er Ha’Golah, end of Be’er 7 says it best. It is only when we fully explore and comprehend the truth that we will be able to best our enemy (he was talking about an external one, but in our discussion we are dealing with our internal adversary):

When an individual does not intend to scoff - rather only to state his belief - even if these positions stand against your belief and system, don’t say to him: “Don’t talk, seal your mouth!” For then the system will not be clarified. On the contrary, in such matters we should say: “Speak as much as you want, all that you want to say, so that you will not be able to say that were you granted permission to expand you would have spoken further [and convinced me with your beliefs].” If you do close his mouth and prevent him from speaking, that points toward a weakness in the system. This [approach] is the converse of the general impression, which is that it is not permitted to discuss the system, and that thus the system is strengthened. On the contrary! That approach undermines the system!... Thus [through the former

approach] a person comes to the inner truth of matters... For, any hero that competes with another to demonstrate his might wants very much that his opponent muster as much strength as possible - then, if the hero overcomes his opponent, he proves that he is the mightier hero. What might, however, does the hero display if his opponent is not permitted to stand strong and wage war against him?... Footnote


It is worthwhile to recall here Reb Chaim Volozhiner’s Footnote explanation of “Hevei mis’avek b’afar ragleihem” (literally translated as: “Sit in the dust at the feet [of the Sages]”). He explains misavek, based on Yaakov Avinu’s encounter with Eisav’s malach, as connoting wrestling: You must wrestle (intellectually) with your Rebbe (with respect, of course - “at his feet”) - ask questions, demand answers - not to test the Rebbe, Rav,, or teacher, but to get your own mind in gear so you can make your own cheshbon ha’nefesh (reckoning) and be your own conscience:“She’yisbarer v’yisames etzel ho’Odom mah chovoso b’olamo” - “That is should be clarified and become true to a person what his task is in his world.” (Hakdomo to the Mesillas Yesharim).

In taking our thesis to its conclusion, we might understand an interesting perspective of the Zohar HaKodosh. The Zohar calls the 613 mitzvos “Taryag Ittin” (613 suggestions). Footnote To be sure, although there are other interpretations, the simple derivation of mitzvah is from the verb tzaveh, i.e., command. Why does the Zohar depart from the simple meaning?

Perhaps the Zohar is pointing at the difference between the external yetzer ha’tov and the internalized yetzer ha’tov. At the earlier stage, the mitzvos resemble the rules and regulations that an external system must impose on its constituents. This is the level of Avdus - the impositions of a Master on His servant. Footnote For the immature individual - be he seventeen or seventy - a structure of rules is necessary - a system to confine him to the straight and narrow.

But it is not for that end that HaKadosh Baruch Hu created us: Bannim attem la’Hashem Elokeichem” (Devarim 14:1). The more we internalize “Hashem Elokeichem Emes the more we achieve that true Tzelem Elokim which is our innermost essence. Our conscience is then not imposed command but inner truth - no longer the directive of a Master to a servant but the loving advice of a Father to his beloved - and loving child.

I know it’s hard to think. My learning rebbe in camp a quarter century ago, Rabbi Hillel David shlita, challenged us: “You have no idea how many problems you can solve if you just think about the same thing for five minutes straight!” Many years later, I still find it next to impossible to focus on a thought for more than a few seconds at a time.

But just think... if we would just think...

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