“There was a fortified wall surrounding them. It faithfully shielded its constructors from many attempts to breach inwards. The constructors were secure for a long time. But one day, the wall was breached; the enemy entered, plundered, and destroyed their security. The constructors faced reality. They deserved to be exposed. Their sins brought this on them.”
If you think I am describing the Jews and Jerusalem’s Wall during the three weeks, you are mistaken. What I describe is every single human being.
When given constructive criticism, people opt to defend their words and actions, instead of listening, reflecting, and objectively determining if they are in fact wrong. The reason is simple: ego. No one wants to hear they are wrong. Man’s ego is as a fortified wall, constantly seeking to shield the person from any realization of his errors. But just as with Jerusalem’s Wall, once breached, it made the Jews aware of their sins, and why G-d abandoned them. So too, if we let down our own “walls”, only then can we learn what we try so hard to ignore; our faults. Without self-reflection, observing how our egos operate and lead us towards harm, we will continue to respond to all matters by defending our delicate self-image.
Maimonides taught that haughtiness and anger are the two traits we are never to vent. In all other areas, we are to seek the emotional mean, which is equidistant from two poles. For example, we should not be miserly, but also, no be a spendthrift. We must not be morbid, but also, not euphoric. Why must we seek a middle ground? A Rabbi once explained that every emotional category has a spectrum, with two poles at either end. By tempering ourselves to remain equidistant from either pole, we diminish the “magnetic pull” of the polar emotions through being as removed from them as possible. This weakening of emotions is not its own ends, but is a means: leaving us in a state where our intellects are as free as possible from emotional draw, enabling us to operate with minimal, emotional pull. In such a case, our intellect is untainted, and knowledge of G-d and Torah can be achieved in the greatest and purest fashion. This is the goal.
We gain immeasurably by abandoning harmful behaviors. But to do so, we must sometimes listen to another person who advises us of emotional errors that we never see. Instead of striving to maintain a false, pristine self-image, listen to the truth from whoever speaks it, and love their rebuke, as King Solomon teaches. (Proverbs, 9:8) Maintaining an impeccable self-image for others to applaud during your short life must not outweigh your perfection, which is eternal.
“Reflection” is an unpopular activity, and never attracts “lines wrapping around the block”. People do not want to face themselves. Distractions of “city life”, culture, recreation, and numerous other excuses serve to keep our mind’s eye directed outward, not on our perfection. But now, during these Three Weeks, when our Temples were destroyed along with other tragedies, it is a time, which demands our reflection. It was only due to our crimes that G-d sent us His punishments. And as we remain with no Temple, we must realize that we have not corrected our errors. The Rabbis state that Messiah could arrive, but does not, due to our sins. Not to minimize the importance of the Messianic era, but even without the Messiah’s arrival, our own purpose of Torah adherence to perfect ourselves is indispensable. Pirkey Avos teaches (4:1), “Who is a strong man? One who conquers his inclinations.” Maimonides also teaches that just as we are to repent from evil actions, we must also repent from poor character traits.
The correct morals and actions are not hidden from us – the Torah is replete with moral instruction, and prophetical rebuke. (I strongly urge your reading of King Solomon’s “Proverbs.”) The problem lies with our failed recognition of the gravity of the situation, that we have flaws, that perfection is our goal and not impressing man. Our willingness to face ourselves is avoided at all costs.
The good news is that we have a great role model who G-d selected and appointed as our first forefather. Abraham also had flaws: he was an idolater. But he did not fear reflection. His goal was to know what truth is. If this truth included realization of errors, he embraced them. He rejoiced in each new stride made towards truth.
“Truth” is something, which is consistent by nature, never changing, and fully complying with how the world operates. As more truths are learned, a greater harmony fills us, a sense of ease overcomes us, and a conviction in a real system presents itself to our minds. We are only then offered glimpse at G-d’s harmonious design of the world, and man’s synchronism with this world. But I refer not only to the physical world - I mean in the worlds of justice, truth, morality, and Torah. G-d created all of these systems, so by definition, they all fit together seamlessly. When we have troubles in life, it is not the external world that is turbulent, but it is our deviation from the calm nature of G-d’s orchestrated systems of nature, justice, Providence, Torah, math, science…and every other law G-d structured. It is far easier to blame everything but ourselves, but it is dishonest.
If we can make the first step of managing our egos instead of the reverse, we have made a large step towards our perfection. Simply following G-d’s commands, His mitzvos, with no appreciation for their perfecting aspects, with no regular self-reflection…we miss the boat. The Torah offers no refinement to our souls, if we follow the commands like robots. G-d rebuked the people, that their sacrifices meant nothing to Him, if they lead corrupt lives.
Force your self-pride to have no control over your actions. When you see opportunities to show how great and smart you are, keep silent. Get used to passing on honors, don’t take credit for things you have done, for if they are truly good actions, that alone should suffice. Help others in a modest, and even in an anonymous way, as charity laws prescribe. Once you have accustomed your ego to avoid satisfaction, you will find it easier to continue.
You will have also made a great in-road: you have shifted your focus from the internal world of the self, to the external world where you will obtain knowledge and happiness. Your need to satisfy your ego will no longer be strong; it will not obscure new areas of insight, once overshadowed. Your attention will become more engrossed in observing G-d’s wisdom, contained in, and glaringly displayed like fireworks in every aspect of nature and Torah. You will experience enjoyments never before realized, as you are now free from bolstering your fantasy of your greatness. More energy will be freed to invest in appreciation of G-d’s wisdom – the true area of human happiness. Your perfection will now become a reality, as perfection requires the unhampered attendance of your mind towards the appreciation of knowledge and G-d’s justice, and the performance of such justice. But if your ego is the primary goal in your life, you will not adhere to justice when your ego is sacrificed. The foolish person will sacrifice justice and other important concerns, all for the sake of salvaging how he “thinks” others will view him. In truth, the endeavor to bolster our egos takes place only in our minds. It is a fantasy. We only assume it has meaning for someone else. And as all fantasies, we must accept them as unreal. Additionally, living for someone else is such a pity, for you are not living for “you”. And if everyone lives for the accolades of others, it ends up that not one person is living his life for himself.
Perfection is not possible simply by learning and performing many of G-d’s commands. If our internal values go unchanged, then our external actions are useless. We must focus our energies on truth, and then valuing this truth. The real barometer that we accept an idea as true is our follow-though in action. So we require learning to comprehend truths, but we also require management of our emotional world, so internal obstacles and false notions are removed completely. Only then can our actions be true to absolute Torah truths. Only when we control our emotional world, do we permit our knowledge to fully decide our actions.
Let the Wall which was tragically destroyed during the Three Weeks, enabling many murders, remind us of our own “wall” we have constructed to maintain our self image, which attempts to deny our wrong at all costs. We must destroy our impregnable, invisible barrier - our egos. If we are to enjoy the best life, the one granted to us through Torah ideals, then our focus must not be to protect the self, but to redirect our eyes on the great wisdom afforded by learning. To learn, one must be able to say, “I didn’t know that.” To learn, one must be humble. And if we were a society of humble people, all striving to attend the next shiur, to focus more on what we utter in our prayers, and to be less demanding, and more patient with our fellow man, imagine how much more we would all come to learn. We learn that Moses was the most humble man ever to exist, and he was the greatest prophet too. Moses’ great humility opened doors of knowledge, which in turn afforded him the greatest insight into G-d’s wisdom available to man. He saw he was nothing by comparison. However humbled he was, he also had the most enjoyable existence. It is clear: humility is essential if we are to admit our errors, correct our ways, and give knowledge a chance as our primary focus. We must admit we have been wrong.
The Prophet Jeremiah says in Eicha, (3:40) “Let us search out our ways and examine [them], and return to G-d.” Our sins and poor character traits remove us from G-d. Introspection, objective examination and repentance are required if we are to improve our state of affairs as individuals, and as the Jewish nation.