What Doesn’t Kill You

:‫אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים. — ה‬

Whether one does a lot or a little, it is equal, as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven – 5b

In his commentary to Hilchos Krias Sh’ma, the Or Zarua writes: “One who toils in Torah to the best of his ability might nevertheless feel that he has accomplished very little. He should know, however, that as long as he has done his best, he has earned the same reward as another who has toiled in Torah and who has accomplished much. The reward is commensurate with the effort. (Avos 5:23). The Yerushalmi even says that if one person toiled in Torah day and night for one hundred years, while another studied Torah to the utmost of his abilities for a shortened lifespan of twenty years, God rewards them equally.”

The Or Zarua concludes and rules that the same measure is used in terms of giving tzedaka and for all meritorious acts. When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

Daf Yomi Digest
Gemara Gem
“To focus one’s heart for the sake of Heaven”
Berachos 5

I suppose this could be condensed down to something like, “do your best” or some similar statement. The “Gemara Gem,” from a Christian point of view, is probably thought of at best as a learned opinion or an encouraging statement, though as I’ve mentioned before that Christianity doesn’t look at Bible study as an act of loving God or something done for its own sake. In religious Judaism however, Torah study brings a Jew close to God in a way that most non-Jews will never understand. I certainly can’t claim any special insights myself.

But think of the implications here. For an observant Jew, failure to strive in Torah study or approaching Torah study with a rather casual attitude must be looked at by God in a less than complementary fashion. If Torah study is that important, whether you’re an accomplished scholar or someone who can hardly grasp the basics, it is your effort and devotion that results in God’s favor. Imagine how you’d feel if you didn’t try your best, but you still cared about merits from God. Or even imagine if you tried your best and still accomplished very little. You might still feel, regardless of what was quoted above, that you are a failure. You might even have friends or family who are more than willing to re-enforce that opinion of yourself, whether due to poor Torah study or any number of other disappointments.

Yesterday, I tried to explain that each of us, having been made in the image of God, are holy and sacred people. We should treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect befitting someone who contains a precious spark of the Divine. However, I ended yesterday’s missive with a cautionary note:

Oh, one more thing. All this is far easier said than done, especially finding that “holy” guy in the mirror while I’m shaving in the morning.

Knowledge and insight are wonderful things but they don’t automatically result in wisdom and change, especially when your so-called “holiness” collides into the reality of day-to-day life.

Consider this.

Someone spends most of their life, for whatever reasons, believing that they have little to offer others and that whenever they try to do their best, failure is the result. They have hurt others without meaning to, hurt themselves, and generally made a mess of things. Finally, they come to the conclusion that everyone who they love and want to be close to, resents them and even sometimes hates them because of all the trouble they’ve caused.

At some point, this person, on a cognitive level, realizes that at least some of what they’re experiencing is self-constructed and self-maintained. They learn that “you are what you think” and after reading more self-help and inspirational material than they thought they could stand, they come to the realization that they have the power to change how they think and therefore, how they feel and behave.

So they give it a shot. Maybe they just practice some set of rules or habits that they’ve been told effective people use. Maybe they even go to a counselor of some sort to help get a direction and supportive feedback.

But it doesn’t work.

Here’s why.

Each day for twenty, thirty, forty years or more, this person has added ten pounds of weight on their back. I know ten pounds doesn’t sound like much, but if you added ten more pounds each day, day in and day out, 365 days a year for decade upon decade upon decade, it would eventually become tons…tons of weight on the person’s back. Tons of weight holding the person down.

Each time they employ some sort of method to change their thinking, their feeling, and their behavior, they are taking a small hammer and a wee chisel and chipping off a fleck here and a fragment there of fifty or sixty or seventy tons of concrete and steel, trying to lighten the load. After a few days or a few weeks or a few months, the person tries to stand up under the load. It doesn’t seem any lighter. They still can’t stand. They still can’t move.

On top of all this (no pun intended) the original mechanism of thoughts and perceptions that cause this person to process all outside input as negative and punitive is continuing to add more and more weight on. So as this person attempts to make their burden lighter at an extremely miniscule rate, the weight is being replaced faster than it can be removed, so in fact, change is not occurring at all or worse…the weight is getting even heavier.

Do you think when the Or Zarua says the following, that it applies to our much burdened individual?

When a person honestly does whatever he can and works to the fullest extent of his abilities, God judges it as if he has accomplished what is expected from him, and God will reward him accordingly.

I’m not sure it does. Here’s why.

Only when a person has peace of mind can he really feel love for humanity. Lack of peace of mind leads to animosity towards others. Peace of mind leads to love.

Only if a person has peace of mind will he be able to pass the test of dealing properly with other people. He will be able to [be] kindhearted to everyone. His peace of mind will enable him to tolerate others and be patient with them.

see Daas Chochmah Umussar, vol.2, p.203;
Mussar Hatorah, p.10;
Gateway to Happiness, p.73
quoted from Aish.com

If we are supposed to love God by loving other people and performing acts of kindness and charity, and thus achieve an understanding that we can love ourselves and that indeed, God loves us too, how is this achieved if you cannot perform the first step? I suppose I’m looking at this in too much of a linear fashion. I’ve said before that feelings are not necessary in order to do good. Just do good. And yet, thoughts and feelings of self-loathing, self-deprecation, and the insurmountable weight of depression, like 88,000 pounds of lead crushing you into the dirt and mud, makes it difficult or even (seemingly) impossible to budge an inch. In real life, it takes some sort of motivation to do just about anything, especially something that is out of character and that requires an extraordinary effort.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. –2 Timothy 4:5-8 (ESV)

But the encouragements of Paul in the New Testament might seem to backfire in the face of someone pinned to the ground by their faults like an insect trapped in amber.

I know some people read blogs like mine for a sense of encouragement, support, and inspiration, but mine is a very strange “inspirational” blog. Candy-coating life is usually ineffective, and it’s practically insane to deny that some people find emotional survival to be the best they can accomplish on any given day, or at the very least, it’s rather cruel. In the background of life for a person like the one I’ve been describing, it isn’t just the fear that the people they love will get fed up with them and leave, but that God will get fed up as well.

Worry can always provide reason. Maybe G‑d is out to punish you. Maybe you don’t deserve to be saved from the mess you’ve gotten into. Maybe an ugly mess is the only way He has to provide for you.

That’s not called trust. Trust means you have not a shade of doubt that He will deliver. No matter what.

The heavens above mirror the earth below. Trust in Him and He will fulfill your trust.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Forget Punishment”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Telling someone like this that they don’t trust God may seem to be rather “oh duh” at this point. They know that. It’s just another nail in their emotional coffin, just another ten or a hundred pounds added to what they’re already ladened with (though I should say at this point that if you can’t trust God, trusting or even liking most other people is probably out of the question, but here’s the kicker…do you not trust God because people have proven to be untrustworthy or do you not trust people because you believe God is untrustworthy?).

You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.

That which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

And yet the Jewish people have survived every conceivable defeat, degradation, and humiliation, and still managed to survive and even to thrive due to such teachings added to the promises of God.

Why doesn’t this work for anyone else?

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?



4 thoughts on “What Doesn’t Kill You”

  1. If the person under the weight of all the pain, suffering and excess baggage and mess they are covered with would only think to call out to the G-d that created them. If only they would ask Him to take the burden off, and fix the mess, and heal the suffering by changing them, rather than attempting themselves to change what they cannot even lift.

    Humans do not need just to change, heal, and straighten out their lives. They require a complete transformation.

    It is Abba’s delight to hear us crying out to Him with the acknowledgement we can do nothing of ourselves, in our own strength to make ourselves better.

    The fruitless, unending toil of lifting something that they never could carry, much less survive underneath, can only be lifted off of them by much stronger hands.

  2. Questor, I had to re-read this to remember some of what I was thinking when I wrote this over two years ago. While you can say “just call out to God” with relative ease, for some people it’s not that easy, at least in terms of putting forth the effort and really wanting God to change you.

    Seems like everyone would want God to change them, but even pain and that weighed down feeling can become a habit and we all know bad habits are hard to get rid of. It’s like studying mussar. On the surface, it seems like a great idea, but overcoming inertia in order to gain momentum requires more work than most folks anticipate.

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