Possible regrets


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My friend, A Simple Jew, emailed me a story about a bochur’s encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt’l. The story is from this website.

Reb Chaim Sholom Deitsch relates:

“There was a very serious bochur with whom I was in close contact. He would daven be’arichus, learn diligently, and make a regular cheshbon hanefesh.

“This bochur was a very deep thinker and was also very self-aware. Being very honest and naturally critical on himself, he was always working on different parts of his character which he believed needed improvement.

“Before he went in to yechidus, he prepared many pages of self evaluation, of his past and his present, providing detailed descriptions. It was a masterpiece of a cheshbon hanefesh.

“When he went in to the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe lifted the stack of papers and said, ‘A shod! In der tzait volstu gikent shraiben a chibbur in Torah…‘  (What a shame! In the time [you spent on the cheshbon hanefesh] you could have written on Torah matters…)

“The bochur was shocked. It took him time to realize that he had been overly engrossed in himself to the point of obsession. In one minute, the Rebbe pulled him out of self-absorption, and saved him from himself. Indeed, today he devotes his time to studying Torah rather than studying himself.”

I’ve been digesting this for a few days and letting it absorb into my heart and mind. Why? Because I try to be open to change. I’ll admit, there are minutes spent, words spoken, and characters typed that have I’ve used for many years as part of my own person cheshboning (I tried to submit the word to UrbanDictionary.com, but it was rejected). Were they wasted? Not at all. Could that time have been spent engaging with people instead of with myself? Difficult to say (this answer is sponsored by my “Magic 8 ball”).

What I take from the above story is that, and this is going to sound uber-Brisker of me, through learning and writing d’vrai Torah one could possibly come to a similar end point as one who properly makes a consistent cheshbon hanefesh. The end point being tikun hamiddos. 

A chiddush, a new idea, that one comes up with in learning is a very deep expression of the neshama. The ability to bring a new Torah idea into the world is, I think, an aspect of creation. “Hashem looked into the Torah and created the World,” say the Zohar (can’t tell you where, but it’s definitely a Zohar). So something like a chiddush or writing d’vrai Torah is connected to creation.

We also know that each person is like a whole world. “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” from Sanhedrin 37a. The concept of a person being like an entire world takes on a whole new meaning now, because the Vilna Gaon teaches that the mitzvos were given to us as ways to engage in tikun hamiddos. Tikun hamiddos and making a chesbon hanefesh is, in fact, tied to mitzvah observance. So working on yourself is an aspect of creation, as well.

So, it could be that a little less cheshboning and a little more learning and writing on Torah matters might be a revised approach.

11 thoughts on “Possible regrets

  1. Benjamin S. Yasgur

    Highly possible that the Rebbe understood this particular bachor faced the disabling possibility of getting over-engrossed in Cheshbon HaNefesh. Had the Rebbe not redirected him, the bachor may have missed the opportunities in life not only to actualize the conclusions of (his endless) self-evaluation, but to build a vibrant life. For most, we likely need to do more Cheshbon HaNefesh. Torah learning, teaching, sharing will be powerful forces helping us to recognize the paths we should follow and integrate our conclusions into daily living.

    1. Neil Harris Post author

      Rabbi Yasgur,

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I think, at least for me, the avodah of working on oneself can lead to a more narrow and egocentric view of what’s important. Ideally, the focus should be Torah, Avodah, and G’limus Chassidim. If the mussar one is learning doesn’t improve relationships, then the focus is wrong. Likewise, if the chassidus you’re learning doesn’t carry over from mitzvah and minhag observance to being a real eved Hashem, then recalibration is needed.

  2. Josh Brody

    My Rav gave a shiur on Tzom Gedalia, in which he quoted from a sefer (I believe it was the Shevet Mussar, although I could have that wrong), which brought down this exact concept (he even quoted the same Zohar). He explained that by learning Torah – more specifically, by being mechadesh – you create new worlds that are mesaken what your aveiros have destroyed.

    1. Neil Harris

      Wow. Trust me, I didn’t attend the same shiur. The concept of creating “new worlds that are mesaken what your aveiros have destroyed,” is pretty heavy. I really appreciate the comment and the info.

      1. Josh Brody

        What I found really amazing about the concept was that, when you read the piece inside, he makes it sound like an alternative to actually doing teshuva. Meaning, instead of following the general approach of teshuva (i.e., the 3 step process found in the Rambam) you could instead work on being mechadesh and that will have the same impact. It seems strange to me, but if you assume that he means like you explained, it’s not that you can forgo teshuva, but that doing this will ultimately get you to the same place, with the added bonus of having created new worlds.

        Definitely something to think about.

        1. Micha Berger

          Many derashos have been built around the question of why there is so little overt teshuvah in the liturgy of Rosh haShanah, and no codified teshuvah practices. In fact, some even have a custom of skipping the first line of “Avinu Malkeinu”, “chanu lefanekha — we have sinned before You” because it’s too much like vidui (confession) and vidui isn’t part of Rosh haShanah.

          One recurring theme in the answers (I don’t recall the primary source) is that Rosh haShanah is not about the mitzvah of teshuvah, it’s about something more primary, hirhurei teshuvah (contemplations of teshuvah). As the gemara says, someone who tells his bride, “Behold you are married to me … on the condition that I am a complete tzadiq” did indeed married her because merely contemplating about teshuvah can make on so.

          One needs to begin with Rosh haShanah’s hirhurei teshuvah, because only after committing to adopting a new lifestyle, trying out a few (even short-lived) practices one didn’t keep in the past, does one have the emotional strength to face one’s own failings and actually do full teshuvah.

          Perhaps this boy was doing the reverse… He was so busying fulfilling the mitzvah among the 613 of teshuvah, the prelude necessary for the repentance to actually stick was being ignored.

      2. Micha Berger

        R Moshe Cordevero writes that aveiros do not have comparable (but opposite) power to mitzvos. Quoting the opening of Tomer Devorah ch. 1, middah #8:

        Behold, the Holy One, Blessed is He, behaves in this way towards Israel. For, behold, the divine precepts are ‘and as it was budding, its blossoms shot forth,’ shooting up without limit to enter His blessed Presence. Sins, however have no entrance there, God forfend, but He subdues them so that they cannot enter. As it is written: ‘Evil shall not sojourn with Thee’ – evil cannot dwell in Thy dwelling place. If this is so then sin does not enter into the inmost Presence. This is why there is no reward in this world for the carrying out of a good deed, for good deeds are in His Presence and how then can He give from the spiritual reward that is in His Presence in a material world? Behold, the whole world is not worthy of a single good deed and its spiritual bliss.

        And further down:
        This is the meaning of: He will subdue our iniquities, that the sins do not prevail in His Presence as the good deeds prevail, but He subdues them so that they do not ascend and do not enter. Although His Providence extends over all the ways of man, both good and evil, He, nonetheless, does not subdue the good but it blossoms upwards exceedingly and good deed is added to good deed until an edifice is built out of them and an honourable robe[15]. But sins do not possess this property; but He subdues them, that they should not have this success not entry into the innermost Presence.

        Mitzvos create worlds. But it would seem that the Ramac holds that the middah of “yikhbosh avonoseinu — He will conquer our sins” keeps aveiros from having the power to destroy them.

  3. Shmuel

    Interesting food for thought, even though I don’t think that that was what the Rebbe was getting at; my impression is that the Rebbe’s comment was more along the lines of the famous story with one of the Briskers (it may have even been the Rav) who was learning directly beneath a mussar room where this one fellow would spend hours moaning “I am a nothing…” “I am not worthy…” and the like. This went on until the Rav said “I, I, I! All I hear is you talking about yourself!”

    A few observations: It seems to me that chiddushei Torah can also present a risk of getting drawn into egocentricity; when coming up with something new replaces a sincere desire to arrive at the Truth of Torah, it’s another manifestation of one’s self aggrandizement. Indeed, the whole process of limmud Torah involves the development of one’s own faculties for thought, an emphasis of clarifying one’s own approach to thinking, rather than adopting someone else’s. This places it in a unique and potentially dangerous position, which is one reason why the Gaon specifically states that limmud Torah is not enough, because it is the dew that causes the seedlings already sown to grow…

    1. Neil Harris

      Shmuel, thanks for the comment. Regarding egocentric tendencies from chiddushei Torah, and I wished I had thought of this when I was writing the initial post. we know that Hashem created the Yetzer Hora and also created Torah (limmud) as the antidote (Kiddushin 30b according to Google).

      Maybe the Rebbe zt’l realized that all the time and chochos (and pages the bochur prepared as his cheshbon) was a tool of the Yetzer Hora. The antidote of time and pages (and pages) of a chesbon would be learning and writing dvrai Torah.

  4. Neil Harris

    I heard from a long time Breslov chassid that dancing on Simchas Torah is a direct tikun for the nedarim you didn’t keep (even after Hataras Nedarim).

    Rav Kook zt’l felt strongly that everything in the world potentially is connected to Teshuvah, from the guy walking on his treadmill to become physically fit, to events in history like the industrial revolution, to the arts, based on Rav Moshe Weinberger’s shirum (I actually remember calling in to listen to that shiur) and the recent publication of SONG of TESHUVAH, based on Oros HaTeshuvah, with Rav Weinberger’s commentary adapted by Reb Yacov Dovid Shulman.

    I’m hesitant to say that being mechadesh words of Torah is a substitute for the normative recipe for Teshuvah (based on the RAMBAM). However, I think that chidushim being a component of restoring balance to what became unbalanced from aveiros (with or without creating worlds) makes sense.

    I will be the first to say that all this talk about worlds being created is a bit out of my knowledgebase and my hardwiring. At age 42 I still can’t get through all of INNERSPACE by R Aryeh Kaplan zt’l or the section in the intro to Rav Hirsch’s HOREB by R Grunfield titled “Rav Hirsch and the Kaballah”.

    Now if you told me that mitzvos create good malachim and aveiros create bad malachim, then I’d totally get it. BTW, if each person is a world, then why can’t we say that each malach is like a word?

    It could also be that there are different routes to teshuvah. Eating a Drakes Coffee Cake (I’m sort of hungry) without making a bracha (C”V) might require a different route toward teshuvah than stealing a bottle of Cherry Coke Zero from a bodega.

    Then there’s the whole “Teshuvah me Yirah” and Teshuvah me Ahavah” thing….


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