MY VERY GOOD, REALLY WONDERFUL WEEK
By Yonoson Rosenblum | APRIL 18, 2023
Overcoming one's ego is more pleasurable than conquering almost any other bad middah
Not so long ago (but before the hullabaloo concerning judicial reform began), I had a week of near-constant euphoria. Better yet, I was able to identify the two events that set off that euphoria and file them for future reference. Neither involved winning the lottery.
The first had to do with an early-morning disagreement with my wife. Not that the disagreement itself was the source of my euphoria. Indeed, it was so mundane that even Dov Haller, my go-to source for insights on middle-aged couples, could not have done much with it.
My wife asked me to do something that I was happy to do and to which I readily assented. My mistake, apparently, was asking her to reset the alarm clock accordingly. That was interpreted as having conditioned my assent on some reciprocal benefit.
That had not been my intention, and I balked at offering the requisite apology. After davening and a walk around the neighborhood, however, it occurred to me that my request to reset the alarm clock in such close proximity to hers could well have been understood as some sort of quid pro quo. And I was ready to offer a profuse apology, which was received with both joy and surprise.
Apparently offering apologies, especially when I feel unfairly accused, are not my strong point. But they should be. One of my walking partners shared with me something he had been told in his chassan classes over thirty years ago, in the name of Rav Meir Chodosh, the late Chevron mashgiach: If you have an argument with your wife and you were in the wrong, you must apologize. And if you were right, then you must surely apologize.
The second incident that triggered my weeklong euphoria was a suggestion from my superb editor, Mrs. Shana Friedman, on how to restructure an Outlook piece. I understood her suggestion, and had even considered it when writing the column, but for one reason or another had rejected it as making the weaving together of two loosely related threads too complicated. And besides, I had already finished the column, and was ready to move on to some other task.
But in the end, I went with her suggestion, and it dramatically improved the piece by making the opening much more attention grabbing. Since then, I have had several other occasions to benefit greatly from following her guidance.
Okay, but what do either of these incidents have to do with putting me in a weeklong good mood? The common element, I concluded, was that both involved overcoming my ego. Admitting that you were wrong is one form of subduing your ego. So is acknowledging that you needed someone else's help, or at least benefitted from it. Rav Chaim of Volozhin writes in Ruach Chaim on the Mishnah "Who is wise? He who learns from every person" that one who learns from everyone is a genuine anav, and therefore opens oneself to be a receptacle for chochmah Overcoming one's ego is more pleasurable than conquering almost any other bad middah, particularly, as our egos lie at the root of most other bad middos.
THAT DIMINUTION OF EGO is one of the reasons that older people are generally happier than younger ones — at least until the physical struggle to keep going becomes overwhelming. When we are young, we are filled with ambition to make our mark, and that inevitably involves a lot of competitiveness, comparison of ourselves to others, and an acute awareness of all that we have not obtained.
As we age, we become more conscious of all that we have, as opposed to what someone else might have more of. Our efforts are more directed to becoming the best versions of ourselves, as opposed to besting others; and we are less likely to evaluate our lives in terms of how many people have noticed us, and more in terms of the circle of those whom we love and who love us and the impact we have on their lives.
In general, we make peace, at a certain point, with all the youthful dreams that will not be realized. And that leaves us both calmer and happier people.
Each of these different stages of life both have their place. The ambition of youth reflects, at one level, the necessary recognition that we do have a unique mission to play in Hashem's plan, and we must discover what it is. Yet that ambition is too often misdirected.
The conspicuous consumption that has crept into our society, for instance, is a young man's sport. And it cannot end well. We come into the world to complete ourselves in three ways, writes the Maharal: with respect to our relationship to Hashem; with respect to our fellow man; and with respect to ourselves. No acquisition can become part of ourselves, and therefore cannot fill the emptiness inside, or provide the self-completion that it is our task in life to strive for. With every new bauble or extra thousand square feet of floor space, the gap between what one has and what one aspires to only grows. As Chazal say, if one has a hundred, he wants two hundred; if he has two hundred, he wants four hundred.
I'm acutely familiar with the ambitions of youth. In college, I was one of the top players on a truly mediocre tennis team, which proved only that any coach with sufficient determination could schedule a winning season. I won far more often than I lost, though few were the times I thought in warm-ups that I was a better tennis player than my opponent. I was far too slow for top-level tennis, my footwork was horrendous, and my most effective shot was a swinging mishit drop shot.
What I did have, however, was a burning desire to win. That often included such psychological ploys as ostentatiously strapping on a back brace before matches, lying down on the court to do back exercises during switchovers, even an occasional underhand serve. Opponents had no satisfaction when beating a semi-cripple, and experienced panic when they fell behind. But a few years later, after graduating college and giving up competition, I was left with just the poor footwork and slowness afoot.
My third semester in law school, I won the moot court competition, the biggest prize the law school had to offer. But the next morning, I woke up completely empty. The only question on my mind was: How will I get through the next three and a half semesters? What other competitions are there left?
I still remember that younger self well. But I don't identify with him, and certainly have no wish to be him again. Today, I might still get a brief ping when someone asks what book am I working on or when my next speaking tour is, if there are no current book projects and no speaking tours on the horizon. But that passes quickly. Been there, done that. Fewer books means more time for learning; fewer speaking tours means more opportunities to travel with my wife.
I have no desire to chill completely. I would despair, for instance, were this column to come to an end. And I'm forever making plans about how to increase my learning and retention. But I have no need to compete with anyone else to feel alive, and I savor the calm that follows from that.
Making the Omer Count
The period between Pesach and Shavuos, marked by the counting of the Omer, is a growth opportunity for us, just as it was for our ancestors, as they went from Yetzias Mitzrayim to Kabbalas HaTorah. Unfortunately, it is an opportunity too frequently missed.
If the period is meant to be one of spiritual ascent, then each day must make its own individual contribution. While each day is a rung on the ladder, those rungs are different from one another, as they lift us to a larger unity.
Further, a deeper focus on the process of the Counting of the Omer, as opposed to the rote act of counting itself, helps us internalize the preciousness of each unit of time and how those units of time can join together in dramatic growth.
To that end, tools to enable us to contemplate what is unique about each day of Sefiras Ha'omer and how to turn that contemplation into tangible actions can be of great use. Those tools must be concise and offer at least some tangible action items.
Sefiros: Spiritual Refinement Through Counting the Omer (Mosaica Press) by Rabbis Yaacov Haber and David Sedley treats each day as an expression of one of the 49 possible combinations of the seven lower sefiros. One of the work's virtues is that it provides an introduction to Kabbalistic terminology with which many of us are unfamiliar. But there is nothing esoteric about the authors' efforts to relate the central idea of the day's combination of the sefiros to action points relating to each of the Maharal's three forms of connection: with Hashem, with one's fellow man, and with one's self.
In recent years, a number of scholars have produced works connecting the days of Sefirah to the 48 means of acquiring Torah found in Pirkei Avos, with the 49th day serving for review. The idea has its origins in the Maharal.
One such effort by Rabbi Zave Rudman, 48 Ways to Acquire the Torah Through Sefiras Ha'omer (available through Amazon) provides a succinct summary of the major mefarshim on the day's kinyan, an illustrative vignette from his great teacher, Rav Moshe Shapira ztz"l, or other contemporary gedolim, and brief ideas on concrete ways to make the kinyan.
None of the seforim mentioned or others of which I'm unaware can do the hard work of spiritual growth for us, but they can remind us of the opportunity for building ourselves during this period of the year.