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Parshat Tetzaveh: Channeling Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers


One of the main and most fundamental contentions of all moralists of all ages is that human nature is not basically unchangeable.Ask any teacher of religion whether change is possible in Man, and his answer is inevitably “certainly.” And yet, my friends, if you were to ask me that same question I would have to qualify that assertion. Is change possible? Yes and no. If by “change” you mean the transformation of the entire character essentials, the metamorphosis of the basic qualities of the soul, the God-given talents and personality attributes, the answer is “no.” there are certain properties of the soul with which you were born, and which you cannot change, willy nilly.

Yet that is not the end of the matter. Because if by “change” you mean not the basic change of the koĥot hanefesh, the powers of the soul, but the salvaging of them; not the scrapping and subduing of the fundamental drives of Man, but their redirection and channeling, the answer is a resounding and wholesome “yes.” A man may not be able to rid himself of the trait of stubbornness, but he can certainly direct his stubbornness to desired and beneficial directions. Simpler still, a man may not be able to cure himself of insomnia. But he can himself determine whether these waking hours be spent counting sheep or studying Torah.

The Jewish ethical literature has two names corresponding to these two types of change, and there are two schools propounding these opposing theses. One group claims that the highest goal is shevirat hamidot, the breaking and crushing of the evil drives of man. The objectionable trait must be broken and destroyed. The other group believes this unnecessary and impractical. Rather, it proposes tikun hamidot, the correction and redirection of these dark forces, the channeling of them from the destructive ends for which they had been employed to new and constructive ends. Redirection, not breaking and destruction, is the highest aim of ethical development. And Hasidim, who were great believers in tikun hamidot, used to object to the other school’s theory and say that shevirat hamida, the breaking of one evil trait, often results in two new evil traits.

It is a remarkable fact that considering the contemporary emphasis on education, our parents and grandparents, who were probably more successful than us in this field, rarely mentioned that word. Education in Hebrew is “ĥinukh.” And that word was uncommon in the homes and academies of the most learned and devoted elements of European Jewry. Rather, the emphasis was always on “hadrakha.” That word comes from “derekh,” which means “way,” and “hadrakha” therefore means direction, guidance, and channeling. Take, for instance, that characteristic known as kina – jealousy, or envy. In its usual manifestations it is a terribly destructive and antisocial expression. How many homes have been broken and how many reputations ruined all because of jealousy! And Solomon properly exclaims “kasha khiShe’ol kina,” “jealousy is as hard and cold as the grave.” And yet, surprisingly, the Talmud exclaims with equal conviction “kinat sofrim tarbeh ĥokhma,” “The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom.” Well, which one is it – leading to the grave or leading to wisdom? Obviously, it is a matter of direction. If you express it by envying your friend’s Cadillac or his home or his wife’s mink coat – then it is “kasha khiShe’ol.” If, however, you envy his learning, his piety, his sincerity, or honesty, then “tarbeh ĥokhma.” The same jealousy, the same envy. Only the direction has changed.

The Talmud tells a remarkable story which is a sharp illustration of our theme. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan one day when there suddenly appeared a man known and feared, by the name of Resh Lakish, a man who was the head of a gang of robbers. He was a man of uncommon strength and determination. With one huge leap he spanned the Jordan and came to the side of Rabbi Yochanan intent upon either robbing or kidnapping him. When the sage witnessed this remarkable demonstration of power, he exclaimed “ĥelekh le’orayta,” meaning, “O, if only such power were used for the study of Torah.” This Herculean bandit subsequently turned to Torah and, as the student and later the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, redirected and rechanneled this extraordinary might so that he ultimately became the great and beloved sage Resh Lakish, second only to Rabbi Yochanan himself. You see, Resh Lakish originally knew that he could never rid himself of this extreme expression of power, and thought himself doomed to a life of banditry. It was Rabbi Yochanan who introduced him to the idea of tikun hamidot, direction and channeling.

In more recent times there is also such a case. My teacher of Talmud at the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Soloveitchik, recently told of an interesting conversation between his grandfather, the worldfamous sage and eminent talmudist, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, and his son, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father, Reb Moshe. Said Reb Chaim to Reb Moshe, “My son, I was not always the person you know me to be. I was born with mean and destructive tendencies. I was granted diabolic powers, and I have had to struggle all my life to turn these very powers to constructive ends, to redirect these urges and drives from the evil to the good.”

And in a way, my friends, the holiday of Purim commemorates this very element of tikun hamidot. Mordecai, the hero of the Megilla, was not heir to pink-cheeked angelic qualities. He was a hard, practical man, a man who had tasted exile, who was intimately familiar with the intrigues of the court of Ahaseurus and who had a staunch, unbreakable spirit. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, his brilliant execution of the plan to ensnare the anti-Semitic tyrant and his adamant refusal to concede defeat mark him a bold spirit. Now boldness is a thing which is not always good. Mordecai’s boldness was an inheritance from his ancestor, Shimi. Shimi was the bold and disrespectful insurrectionist who disparaged King David to his face and publicly accused him of being a bloody murderer. It was boldness indeed, and a libelous, false, evil type of boldness, for he besmirched the good name of the saintly author of the Divine Psalms. Yet this same boldness which he transmitted genetically to his descendant Mordecai was used by Mordecai for entirely different purposes. It was used to vanquish a Haman, not to insult a David. It was not the boldness of empty invectives, not the effrontery of disrespectful vituperation; but it was nevertheless boldness. Only it was used in the service of God, in the saving of a persecuted people, in the altruistic service of a high and glorious ideal. No wonder the Rabbis applied to him the verse from Job, “mi yitein tahor mitameh,” “who can bring a clean thing from an unclean thing?” Mordecai was the clean one who came from the unclean. He inherited a certain set of dynamic qualities which had been used for evil, but which he redirected and channeled to holiness.

Our national scene today could learn a bit from Mordecai’s determined boldness in the right direction. The two paramount issues in our national capitol these days are the issues of Communism in government and corruption in government. The main ire of our elected representatives has been spent trying to dig up incontrovertible proof that certain individuals, who once were distantly related to the government, wrote poison pen letters of a leftist nature when they were in knee pants. The witch-hunt has been marked by the parallel features of uncontrolled boldness and increasing stupidity. Meanwhile, the search into vital matters of national morals and ethics has gone unattended except for occasional blasts of publicity. What is needed is a shift in emphasis, a redirection. We must switch our emphasis from the silly boldness of the McCarthys and the McCarrans² to the boldness of seeking out corruption, or, if I be permitted the pun, a new boldness supporting Mr. Newbold Morris in his determined drive to seek out the sources of ethical degeneration in our government.

And, my friends, not only destructive urges, but also talents and gifts wasted unnecessarily must also be channeled, must also experience tikun hamidot. Many of us, thank God, are not possessed of exceptionally destructive tendencies. But many of us have been blessed with natural abilities which we often allow to go to waste. These two must be captured and harnessed to productive ends. To our talents we must also say, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “ĥelekh le’orayta,” let this strength be for Torah. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and social critic, tells that he never plays chess, because when he was a child he was fanatically devoted to the game, and he came to realize that if he were to pursue it he would eventually become the world’s greatest chess-player. But then he pondered, and saw that his life would thus be wasted, for chess is, no matter how respectful a game, only a game. Harmless – but of no great benefit to humanity. And so Russell stopped playing chess and instead went into mathematics and logic and philosophy and so was ultimately able to become the co-author of Principia Mathematica. Modern man, because of his increased leisure time, has taken to hobbies on a grand scale. There is no doubt a criminal negligence involved in the human genius utterly wasted on golf, football, crossword puzzles, and bridge. A hobby is good up to a certain point. Then it becomes waste. Athletics is wonderful, hygienic. But after a certain limit it becomes a travesty. We must learn to channel and direct these forces and use them profitably and constructively.

The experience of Mordecai from Shimi is a universal one and an eternal one. Its message transcends the provincial borders of ancient Persia of that century and like a beacon whose rays are a blessing to those in the distance, we of today bask in the enlightening thoughts of yesteryear which prove an inspiration and lesson to us.