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The Battle of the Generation

testchart1 Monday, 19 October 2020
Part 4/141 (to see other parts of the article, click on the pages at the bottom)

Chapter 2 - “I Had To Do It Anyway, So Big Deal”

In life, we face many limiting beliefs that can become self-fulfilling prophecies. By convincing us that we can’t succeed, these feelings sap our drive to accomplish. We feel listless and lack the strength to persevere.

One particularly dangerous limiting belief is that anything we can accomplish lacks significance because it is “only” what we are obligated to do. Because we have to do it anyway, it feels like nothing special. We tend to feel this way especially about holding ourselves back from sin, because sin is clearly negative. Although we avoid harm by not sinning, it does not seem to be anything exceptional that we can feel good about, even if it is officially a mitzvah. This puts our focus on the times we fall short, while we discredit all our accomplishments . . . if we even notice them.

Because of this attitude, we don’t get excited about our upcoming challenges, viewing them as annoying obligations instead. What’s the big deal about doing what we’re supposed to do? If anything, we feel that we should be doing even better and are failing. By sapping our enthusiasm about accomplishing, the yetzer hara has us right where he wants us — unmotivated and susceptible.

In Avos D’Rebbe Nosson (27:3), Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai teaches that a person should not distance himself from a work that has no end. This “work” is the study of Torah. The Torah is so vast that nobody can know all of it, which could make a person feel overwhelmed.

Rabbi Yochanan illustrates with a parable. There was a man on a beach who was drawing water from the ocean with a bucket and pouring it onto the sand. After two days, the man looked at the ocean and noticed it was still full. This made him depressed. A wise man told him, “What do you care that the ocean is still full? So what if it looks like you haven’t accomplished anything? For every day you work, your employer is paying you an enormous sum of money!”

In the introduction to Sefer Shemiras Halashon, the Chofetz Chaim adds that this parable can help us in other areas as well. Whenever we try to improve, the yetzer hara tells us, “What are you putting in the effort for? Do you think you can act properly in this area for the rest of your life? No chance! Don’t waste your time and energy. Don’t even bother trying to improve.”

The yetzer hara’s argument is based on two points. First, he contends that we will be unable to succeed for more than a couple of days. Then, he follows up by arguing that since we can’t make it beyond those few days, it is not worth putting in the effort at all. He tells us that since we will not become great tzaddikim or even masters of that particular area, it is pointless to try. Because there will still be times when we give in, we will not gain anything and all our effort will be in vain.

The Chofetz Chaim explains that Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavai rebuts the second argument of the yetzer hara by telling us not to look at the situation and say, “I will never be perfect,” but to realize that every time we control ourselves is a phenomenal achievement. We receive tremendous reward for each moment of self-control, even if we give in one minute later. As the Vilna Gaon relates, every instance of exertion is an independent accomplishment that is profound in its own right. Putting up a fight against our desires instead of chasing them is impressive even if we end up giving in.

This is the message Rabbi Yochanan conveyed. We need to focus on how much we gain from even one minute of self-control instead of worrying whether we will mess up later. Like the man who failed to empty the ocean, we should focus on the immense reward we can earn and recognize how impressive our accomplishments must be since they merit such a lofty reward.

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