Character Development

Light for the Soul

A person who strives to improve his character traits and achieve a sterling character is often confused regarding the best way to purify his soul from all that sullied it in the past. How can he erase the sordid habits and memories ingrained in his soul from the negative experiences he had in his life?

The Jewish sages compared the evil inclination to oil and the Torah to water, which has cleansing power. If we take a full glass of oil, we would not be able to add another drop of oil, but if we would drip drops of water into it, the water would immediately sink to the bottom of the glass and force a drop of oil out of the glass.If we continue doing this, every drop of water that enters the cup would push more oil out until the glass is full of water and has no oil at all!

This is exactly what happens in the human brain. Even if it is full of evil memories and has a disposition for vices and negative traits, for every drop of Torah that enters, a drop of foolishness and vice leaves. Diligent Torah study clears out the brain from all nonsense and desire for evil, until a person becomes completely pure and pristine. There is a deep reason why this is so. Besides the large abundance which a person channels to the entire world with every second of Torah study, he himself benefits wonderfully from the light of the Torah which he learns. Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) explains this beautifully in his book The Way of God : “Among the influences bestowed by God for the sake of His creations, there is one that is higher than all others and whose essence is more excellent and significant than anything else that can possibly exist.” This means that it is at the highest spiritual level which is possible in creation. Ramchal then writes a sentence that is incredibly powerful: “This is the ultimate counterpart of God’s essence that can be found in creation, and its excellence and loftiness resembles God’s own to some degree. It is personally through this influence that God shares His glory and excellence with his handiwork. This influence however was bound by God to a concept created specifically for such a purpose. This concept is the Torah.” 

He goes on to explain the impact that the Torah has on shaping one’s personality and improving one’s character because of the great light inherent in its every word. He also explains why the Torah is not like other wisdoms which only increase a person’s knowledge but doesn’t change him. Here is his wonderful language: “The only reason why the Torah has any power at all is because God bound His most precious influence to it, making it dependent on the Torah. It is for this reason that reciting and comprehending it can transmit this influence. If God had not made it so, then the Torah would be no different from any other educational book involving the various aspects of natural inquiry. These books may contain accurate and valuable information but they do not incorporate any power and excellence in the soul of a person who reads, recites, or comprehends them. Books such as these, furthermore, have absolutely no power to rectify the creation.

The influence of the Torah, however, is a godly thing as mentioned earlier, and not only that, but it is the highest and most important of all the concepts transmitted and conveyed by God to man.” This means that the Torah is not like other wisdoms which add to a person’s knowledge of whatever field of endeavor he is studying, but in no way affects him or his character. The study of Torah, in contrast, has a beneficial effect on a person and his character, because God has connected a flow of spiritual enlightenment to the Torah. Just by talking and studying it, a person will draw down great influence and immense light to his soul. This is the meaning of the verse : “For a candle is a mitzvah and Torah is light.” Its light acts upon a person’s soul and uplifts it to spiritual heights in all areas of life. Imagine a person who was an idler, then took himself in his hands, began to contemplate the importance and preciousness of every moment in life, and undertook to study the Torah, Mishna, Talmud, Jewish law or any other form of Torah. When he begins reading even one single sentence, he has thereby connected himself at that moment to an exalted spiritual pipeline which permeates him with a supreme light which purifies and cleanses him. Every moment utilized for Torah study is a moment where he has done the most sublime thing that a human can do. If we would line up everything that exists in the world in a shape of a pyramid from lowest to highest, we would have the inanimate, vegetative, animate and human. Then if we divide up humans into another pyramid, beginning with the most depraved individuals to average people and finally to the most elevated humans, who would be standing proudly erect at the top of the pyramid? The person who spends all his time studying his Creator’s Torah! He is the epitome of a Torah personality who utilizes every moment to imbibe Torah. His soul shines with light, and the entire universe exists in his merit. This is true if all his manners and conduct truly reflect His Creator’s instructions. If he earnestly chooses to conduct himself and accustom himself to act according to it, how fortunate is his portion!

Now we can understand our sages’ statement “God said, ‘I would rather that they forsake Me as long as they observe My Torah. By occupying themselves with it, the light within it will bring them back to the good.” This is because “words of Torah are holy and have an automatic impact, so that those who study them diligently, will find themselves time after time a little more inspired until in the end, the light of Torah will prevail and bring them back to the good,” as the Ramchal says. Any moment that a man is engaged in Torah study, he is illuminating his soul, improving his character and rectifying himself, besides bringing immense abundance and sustenance to the world, and protection to the Jewish people. He benefits himself, his people and the entire world. Indeed, how wonderful it is to be secure in the Torah’s shade, to enjoy the sweetness of its words, and look forward to the great and immense reward that awaits those who learn it. It is hardly surprising that the great man who passionately yearned for his Creator and expressed it in these immortal words ““My soul thirsts for You, my flesh pines for You” , also put into words his great love for his Creator’s Torah: “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is faithful, making the simple one wise. The prescriptions of the Lord are upright, causing the heart to rejoice; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, existing forever; the judgments of the Lord are true, altogether just. They are to be desired more than gold, yet more than much fine gold, and are sweeter than honey and drippings of honeycombs.”

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