Fear and awe should not arise in anticipation of punishment and hard strikes, but because this is how we should feel as we contemplate the greatness of Hashem.
Such a complete feeling of awe drives a person to heightened inner control and self-awareness. At the same time, it allows a person to live with a pervasive sense of genuine joy, the kind of happiness we have seen demonstrated by Gedolei Yisroel in every generation.
It is wonderful to see the extent to which a person can be critical of himself, demanding of himself and unapologetic toward himself — while retaining such perfect joie de vivre. He doesn’t get anxious, frustrated or depressed, for he knows Hashem asks no more than he can genuinely give.
“HaKadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t come with complaints to His creations” (Avodah Zara 3a). Having said that, he also guards himself all times from sinning, ch”v, knowing that a person isn’t provided with a challenge he is not capable of withstanding.
This important concept is alluded to in Parshas Vaera. Moshe Rabbeinu comes before Pharaoh and says, on behalf of Hashem: “Shelach et ami vayavduni!” — Let my people go so that they may worship Me!
When Pharaoh asks Moshe to explain himself, Moshe says: “Nelcha shlosha yamim Bamidbar venizbach l’Hashem Elokeinu” — Now let us go on a three-day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God. We have a festival coming up. We need to offer sacrifices. Pharaoh says: “Offer them up here!” and Moshe responds by saying – “It is improper to do that, for we will sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to God our Lord. Will we sacrifice the deity of the Egyptians before their eyes, and they will not stone us?”
“Egyptians worship the lamb,” explains Moshe, “your people will not tolerate us slaughtering their deity. Instead, we shall go to the desert for three days and offer our sacrifices to G-d over there. After that we shall return to Egypt!”.
The holy Alshich raises the question: Why didn’t Moshe say to Pharaoh directly that the Israelites were leaving, but were not planning to return? Why did he try to give Pharaoh the feeling that they were only leaving for three days? Hashem would always have the power to force Pharaoh’s hand in letting them go, and if Pharaoh would have hardened his heart even further, he would simply suffer plague after plague until he was desperate enough to send them away – so why was Moshe fudging facts?
And the Alshich provides an amazing answer! HaKadosh Baruch Hu doesn’t place a man before a challenge that is too great for him… not even Pharaoh!! If Pharaoh would have been told by Moshe that the Israelites intended to leave Egypt for Eretz Yisroel — an entire nation of slaves wanting to simply up and leave for ever — he would have found it impossible to accept an ultimatum of such magnitude.
Should Moshe Rabbeinu have presented Pharaoh with the truth, Pharaoh would surely have turned him down, but Hashem would not have proceeded to strike him with the ten plagues to force his hand. Thus, Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu: I shall only place him in a situation which he is able to tolerate. Tell him that the departure is for three days only. Alowing Am Yisroel to leave for a three-day trip to offer Me sacrifices in the desert is something that you, Pharaoh, are able to accept!”
Thus, Moshe addresses Pharaoh: “Let us go (for three days…)! If you won’t — you will be struck, for your obstinacy, with the plagues of Blood, Frogs, Lice, etc., until you will allow them to leave despite yourself!
We see proof of this basic axiom in the above interaction. Even Pharaoh — a despicable tyrant, who slaughtered the innocent children of Israel, who tortured and drowned them — even a person as lowly as him, was not asked to face a test that he simply wasn’t able to endure.
The same holds true for any challenge in life, and for our given character traits. A person cannot maintain “This is my personality and that’s that!”. Even someone born into a bleak existence — a dysfunctional family, difficult parents, or even a criminal society, etc. — cannot justify his actions with these givens. If a person was unfortunate enough to be born into such a harsh reality, it means he possesses the inner strength to either face these challenges alone, or to find a way to learn how to overcome them. And he is obligated to do so, for otherwise he would not have been tested in this way.
Perfecting One’s Character through Overcoming Challenges
To do so, one needs to study Mussar. When a person sets aside a regular time for Mussar study, and works on building and refining his character through doing so — diligently, without giving up — his character traits will gradually become chiselled into perfection.
This is what happens to Gedolei Yisroel. They are not born on the mountain’s summit. They just made a conscious decision to pursue goodness. They worked and toiled to achieve their lofty spiritual status, and that is how they managed to perfect their souls!
Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, once received a letter from a student who claimed he suffered from frequent spiritual setbacks and that there were certain situations he found impossible to deal with. He felt on the verge of collapse.
The Rabbi responded with a letter (a gift that future generations gained in this student’s merit…) saying: “When books on the lives of Gedolei Yisroel are authored, they are mostly replete with descriptions of their greatness and their wonderful deeds. And while it is important to sing a great man’s praises and to tell the world of his phenomenal works, it is just as vital to tell the world how the Gadol achieved such greatness – even more crucial than telling of the greatness itself.”
He continues by saying that everyone praises the Chafetz Chaim’s stature in guarding his speech. Many stories are told of his incredible achievements in this area. But has anyone given some thought to the difficulties he faced until he obtained this extraordinary ability to control his tongue?
By focussing solely on the end product, we only see the lofty level that was achieved. When we then compare it to our lowly standing, our immediate thought is: “Obviously, this is so far from where I am holding, I shall never be able to reach that level!”
But if we focus, instead, on the path that was travelled to reach that stage, we will realize that there are always challenges on the way. And that is precisely the meaning of the verse: “Sheva yipol tsaddik vekam…” — A righteous man falls seven times and rises (Mishlei 24;16).
Rabbi Hutner provides another remarkable insight. Foolish people think the meaning of the verse – “A righteous man falls seven times and rises” —is that, despite repeated setbacks, a righteous man will rise again. But the wise men understand this in a different light completely. This verse tells us that it is precisely through his many difficult challenges that a righteous man rises! With every backward step, with every fall, this man rallies, examines the situation — learns where he went wrong and how he to prevent additional slipups — so that he can take another two steps forward. This is how he became righteous. And every time he falls again, he reachs fresh conclusions, until he reaches his lofty level.
This is a path of genuine progress. Because the person learns from every mistake and corrects his ways — just like a child learning to walk. The child’s feet, hands and brain learn from every little fall. It is through a process of repeated stumbling, that the child eventually learns how to walk steadily. We see how the actual falling builds one’s strength.
Clearly, however, we need to try and avoid pitfalls. A person is not meant to actively seek out spiritual challenges, in case he slips, ch”v. On the other hand, if one has fallen, one shouldn’t fall into despair. Rather, one should learn from the experience, and try to figure out how to prevent the same thing from happening again. If he does so, he will find that his failure was actually a springboard for growth.
Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English