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Path of the Soul #8: Strength of a Hero

May 9, 2009 | by Dr. Alan Morinis

Surrounded by a culture that celebrates self-indulgence, the real hero is one who practices self-restraint.

My wife keeps a cartoon stuck above her desk that is titled: "The Surrendered Mom." The drawing is of a shell-shocked woman, and the text reads:

"Drive you and six friends to the mall? Why, I'd love to!"

"You need $500 for a beanbag chair? Sounds like a plan!"

"You're quitting middle school? Well, you know best."

A parent like this is likely motivated by what seems to her to be love, but she's in fact misdirected because she's missing the necessary counterweight of judgment and restraint. Love without judgment is like jello without the bowl; it's just a jiggling mess.

The converse is also true; strong judgment without loving kindness is harsh and unfeeling. Power -- whether in the home, workplace or government -- works best and is sustainable when tempered by mercy and love. The ideal lies in the blending, though the point of balance will be different for each of us. Where these traits come to balance is called tiferet, a kabbalistic concept that implies balance, harmony, and beauty.

A man who does not restrain his own spirit is likened to a breached city without a protective wall. -- Proverbs 25: 28

The middah or soul-trait of gevurah means "strength." It shows up in many places and many ways, and you can read an entire newspaper as a commentary on the role of gevurah in public and private life. Are the police using too much unrestrained power? Should the government draw the line on certain things that are happening in society? Was the family lax in discipline? Where's the limit to the display of sexuality on television and advertising? Take a look at the daily news from this point of view and you will see what an important trait gevurah is and how illuminating it is to bring this framework to understanding ordinary events.

In Mussar thought, the strength that concerns us is not the power to move mountains but the strength you need to overcome your greatest challenge: yourself. This is an especially important concern for our generation because we live surrounded by a culture that exuberantly celebrates complete self-indulgence, the very opposite quality from self-restraint.

It's true that not everyone needs to develop self-restraint. Some people are already masters of saying "no" to themselves and would do much better to foster soul-traits that will help them loosen up and unbind themselves. Still, everyone still has much to gain from this exploration, even if gevurah is not a major subject on your curriculum at this time.

Self-restraint works for us in a positive way when it helps us say "no" to those desires that are not nourishing. Self-restraint is negative when it keeps us from doing things that actually are good for the soul.

Saying no to ourselves is not a hugely popular concept today. Look at the significant portion of the population that is overweight. Even among those who do want to hold their body weight within a healthy line, many prefer diet pills to the disciplined act of pushing away the plate. How can so many people continue to smoke cigarettes in the face of all the proof that it is nothing less than suicide? And among those who would stop, sales of anti-smoking products boom because people can't simply stop themselves from striking the match.

Exercising self-restraint has always been difficult. Perhaps that's why the Hebrew word gevurah contains the Hebrew word for hero, gibor. Exercising self-restraint is nothing less than a heroic act.

You can be a hero by saying no to that chocolate.

You can be a hero by saying no to that chocolate. (You can fill in your own place of dynamic challenge here. Maybe it's coffee, wine, television, lottery tickets, pulp fiction? Where in your life do you have difficulty saying no to your desire?)

Casting the exercise of gevurah as a heroic act reveals something essential about the Mussar view of life. We all face inner challenges and it's foolish to condemn ourselves for our weaknesses because we are actually supposed to have them. They define our spiritual curriculum. Life is set up to challenge us to be heroes who turn our weaknesses into strengths.

The Jewish tradition in no way condemns our desires per se. We have no tradition of monastic or priestly celibacy. Wine is sacramental. Feasting is more common than fasting. The issue is not desire itself, because the rabbis recognize that desire is a constructive force in life. We read in a midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 9:7) that the world would not exist but for desire, because without it, "no one would parent a child, build a house, or make a career."

But the picture changes drastically when desire is allowed to go unbridled. Without fences and limits, our otherwise healthy desires become a source of enslavement. The Jewish tradition provides us with many laws and communal guidelines to help us restrain our desires -- you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not covet -- though these commandments for self-restraint are actually not enough to guide a spiritual life. As soon as we encounter rules, it seems to be human nature to start to get very clever about finding ways to gratify our desires even within the parameters of the rules.

The great biblical commentator, Nachmonides, brings out this idea very clearly in explaining the Torah's need for the all-encompassing commandment, "You shall be holy." He points out that "The Torah has... permitted sexual relations between husband and wife and has permitted the eating of flesh and the drinking of wine." But then he cautions against the unconstrained indulgence in these permitted activities whereby a person with strong desires can become"sordid within the permissible realm of the Torah!" No laws are contravened, yet the person is "sordid." The only thing that will save him or her is the development of personal self-restraint. Nachmonides' call is to develop personal gevurah, which means learning how to draw the line on our desires.

"How is a person to habituate himself to the trait of gevurah?" begins a chapter in the kabbalistic Mussar book Tomer Devorah, by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, one of my favorite Mussar texts. He warns us that gevurah is latent in the universe and that when we over-indulge our desires, the consequence is that this background "might" is stirred up, and we can expect to face severe judgment. The way to avoid that external and severe punishing gevurah is to exercise our own capacity for internal gevurah, in other words, self-restraint.

This rule doesn't operate 100% of the time, as we well know because wrongdoers do sometimes seem to get away with it in this life, but it certainly describes some of my own experience of learning "the hard way." Sometimes the results come in almost immediately: lips that leak lies can set up instant disasters. Sometimes the severe judgment takes longer: my wife treats people with lung cancer secondary to smoking, and the punishment that arrives decades later is severe and ugly in the extreme.

The kabbalistic insight tells us that the entire universe is permeated with the quality of limitation and judgment. There is absolutely no choice whether there will be gevurah in your life, but where you do have major choice is over whether you prefer to exercise internal gevurah, in the form of self-restraint, or would you rather be subjected to external gevurah according to the principles of justice God built into the universe?

Personally, at this stage in my life, I wholeheartedly opt for self-restraint and I urge you to do the same. It is not only the less painful choice; in the end we gain something positive through the development of our own heroic qualities. We grow closer to the ideal version of who we truly are.

Self-restraint depends on self-awareness. Knowing yourself accurately reveals those areas where you may have the capacity to exercise self-restraint. Desires can be very powerful, and so you also need to have a sense of whether simple self-restraint is likely to be feasible or not. The Mussar way is to set out very small steps for yourself, because no one wins through failure. If you think you may have difficulty holding back totally, try cutting the goal in half.

When Rabbi Israel Salanter, the father of the Mussar movement, wanted to help the longshoremen of Danzig become observant of Shabbat, he didn't ask them to stop working on that day, only to stop smoking while they worked. Similarly, you may not be able to go cold turkey on some habit, but it may be entirely within your power every second or third day to pass up whatever currently has you in its grip.

© Alan Morinis

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