Welcome to my Torah Thoughts blog!! I thought I would start by posting a few of my favorite divrei Torah, all of which I wrote recently. Here is one entitled "The Bread of Shame" 
Which of the following scenarios do you think is more likely to succeed? A) After seeing your friend hurt repeatedly by their spouse, you can't take it anymore. You arrnge for some of their best friends meet him or her, and sensitively explain why you cannot watch them suffer anymore. You make sure to do this from the heart- after all, you don't really "get" anything out of this, so you are doing it out of your love for them. 

B) You and your friend have been arguing back and forth for weeks over whether or not a certain baseball player is the best homerun hitter of all time. Using all of your considerable powers of reason, you show how they had a better average than anyone in the history of the game, in an era before steroids and when they used a heavier ball. Your argument is extremely solid, but your friend refuses to budge, so you keep hammering them with all that you've got- you can't wait to prove them wrong!! 

I would put my life savings on choice A. As the Jewish expression goes, words that come from the heart enter the heart. As for B, there is the saying "One convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still." 

The less we engage our egos in the conversation, the less that the other person's will come into play. Then we will stop talking AT each other, and starting having a conversation. In fact, I can't think of a greater waste of time than choice B. If your goal is truly to bring your friend over to your way of thinking, then the only way to do so is, paradoxically, if you stop caring if you win. Having an agenda makes it about you, not the other. But if we follow model 'A', then we are not arguing, and ironically will be more likely to pursuade the other. 

However, tragically, most people remain blissfully unaware of their egocentrism; for example, in a conversation, they expect people to care about they affairs, even if they do not do the same. Now tie this in to what I wrote about in the last note, which is that truly caring for others means LITERALLY going outside of ourselves. Why should I care about someone else's day? It really is an incredibly boring topic, even after we train ourselves to be disciplined enough to try. Empathy conflicts with our natural inclinations.

For example, up to a certain stage in their development, children are literally incapable of conducting a true, reciprocal exchange or conversation. If you watch very small children playing together, they really are playing AT, not WITH each other. And many people, sadly, dont grow up. 

One of the central questions in philosophy is whether or not people have free will. After all, you can make a pretty convincing argument that we are the combination of genetics and environment. What else is there? Is there really room for free agency? 

The truth is, unless we really meditate about our place in life, and develop impuilse control, we make a mockery of our free will. If we act on emotional impulses alone, then we can prettty much predict how we will act in a given situation- we will do what feels good all of the time. We would be like an animal, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. We would eat the most delicious food we could afford, for as long as we can until it hurts. That is a simplistic model, but you get the idea..we might be driven to stop by the prospect of future pain, like from exhausting our bank account by eating truffle and caviar sandwiches,etc.etc.

Interestingly, impulse control is one of the things that children  dont really start to get good at until sometime after they reach school-age. Until then, they are incredibly ego-centric, and will do about anything they can to get their hands on as much candy as possible. 

How are these ideas connected? The process of constantly striving to be a good Jew is known as avodah, meaning work or service. Our tradition considers unearned rewards a "bread of shame"- nothing worth having comes easy. Developing real, worthwhile relationships with people takes an excruciating effort to escape our own ego-prisons; truly reaching outside ourselves to feel another's pain, etc. In Chassidic thought, we learnt that we have two souls, known as the divine soul and the animal soul, striving for control over our thought, speech, and action. A child is like an animal with regard to the pain-pleasure principle; put a case of dog food in front of a dog, and it will eat until it kills it. That is why we reach Bar/Bat mitzva, which is when we are held responsible for the 613 Torah Commandments, at age 13 or 12(for girls). By then, we have developed an understanding of morality. 

This Shabbos, try to think of ways that you can improve yourself in some small, realistic way with regard to a single mitzvah, whether Kosher, Shabbos, Talking negatively about others, removing the suffering of animals, tefillin, mezuzah, honoring parents, or giving tzedaka, to name a few. Think of an area that you are not so naturally inclined towards, and take a tiny step towards something you never thought you would do otherwise. 

Have a great Shabbos!!!!!!

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    Yaakov Grossman is a Jewish educator, author, private tutor/child care professional, and student in the Metro New York area. Professional inquiries should be addressed to jjgrossm@gmail.com

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