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Torah and Personal Change

By first nature, every individual feels that he or she is justified. We say to ourselves, “I have good common sense, a healthy heart, and my behavior reflects both. How could things possibly go wrong?” Hence, even when it becomes clear that we have erred, we tend to justify ourselves in own own eyes and in the eyes of others.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that self-justification is an enemy in the guise of an ally. It stokes the ego like a friend, but it is an internal enemy that prevents us from properly assessing and improving our behavior and potentially fixing our mistakes. When self-justification is given freedom to reign supreme, even Torah learning will not result in the proper rectification. When I assume that my understanding is definitively correct, I treat every other point of view as nothing more than possibly true but requiring strong verification. Therefore, I tend to mold and distort the Torah according to my own assumptions. Ultimately, I always emerge vindicated, and nothing can change.

True rectification requires the opposite set of assumptions. I must reorient myself to assume that what is written in the Torah is definitively correct and it is my own understanding that needs to be verified. Then, if the understanding that emerges from Torah seems wrong to my mind, I need to critically assess my beliefs and assumptions and try to change them so that they better correlate with the Torah; of course, I need to take extra care not to be tempted to remold the Torah in the image of my mind. It is only when I make this type of change, with an earnest and sincere approach to the Torah, that I can begin to rectify my intellect.

Once we have given the Torah’s Divine truth its due value in our mind, we can do the same in our heart. The heart’s faculties—our emotional realm—are initially unrectified and vary from Torah but given that the “the mind controls the heart” (מח שליט על הלב), we can coerce them to act according to Torah. In addition, Chasidut teaches that the mind has the power to beget emotions. Thus, proper contemplation can steer our emotions to align them with halachah (Jewish law). A willingness to open my heart to the absolute truth of the Torah paves new paths in the heart and makes it possible for even abstract Torah concepts that lie high above the practical rulings of halachah to also illuminate my heart and mold its attributes.

We may think that learning Torah this way stumps innovation. We might ask ourselves, “How can I mix my confused intellect with the Torah’s holy truth and try to say something new?” But, the fact of the matter is that every time my unique soul and mind meet God’s Torah, innovative Torah thoughts are born. This is one of the facets of Torah study.

Of course, for the innovative thoughts to be considered true, I have to approach my Torah learning with the same absolute faith in the Torah’s binding truth. As such, my learning will be geared to fulfilling the Torah’s directives. When we learn Torah with the goal of correcting our actions, it illuminates our intellect, ensuring that our innovations will be true (and not aim at uprooting the halachah).

Regarding a person who merits this, King David wrote, “Happy is the person whose strength is focused on You; there will be wide paths in their heart.”[1] When I invest my strength in Torah and the Torah serves as my constant measure, I merit rectification from “my head” (רָאשֵׁי) to "my feet” (אֲשֻׁרַי), another permutation of the word for “happy” (אַשְׁרֵי). This process of constantly aligning myself with the Torah makes me upright and happy.

Being connected to a person who has merited this, a Rebbe whose teachings are aligned with the Torah, provides us with a benchmark by which we can align ourselves and identify our mission, both the all-inclusive mission of our generation and our own personal, individual one.

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[1] Psalms 84:6.

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