Bechukotai - A PLEA FOR SELF CRITICISM
THE OTHER DAY a man came to see me about a personal matter. He was in trouble and wanted to pour his heart out to one he could trust. During the course of our conversation I pointed out that from his own account I gathered that he himself was mostly to blame for the mess he was in, but instead of "facing the music" and admitting the unpalatable truth, he was blaming others.
I could see that he was displeased with my words. He argued that when he went to college he was taught that a man must learn to accept himself as he is or he won't be able to live with himself. Let a man look down upon and blame himself over a protracted period of time and he is due for emotional trouble. What did I want him to do, blame himself and suffer a nervous disorder?
What could I say to this man? I told him that he was thinking only of himself-how self-criticism would affect his own peace of mind. But what about the people with whom be lived and dealt, didn't they deserve any consideration? "Look at yourself," I said. "You are an example of what happens to one who will not be critical of himself. Not only are you making others miserable, but you too are unhappy."
Despite my words, we parted amicably. I told him that the problem he raised deserved to be discussed from the pulpit and I invited him to come to Shule the following Saturday to hear what I had to say on that theme. He is here, but I want him to know that the sermon is intended not only for him, but also for you and me.
Most of us are tempted to choose the path of least resistance, and since it is much easier to accept rather than criticize ourselves we are content to let well enough alone. In all of us there exists a wide gap between what we are and what we ought to be, and we don't feel right about it. But in our quest for peace of mind we play that feeling down. Some pull their high goals down to the level of their inferior behavior. Others hide behind the cry, "I am just as good as so-and-so is anytime!" The irony is that he thinks very little of so-and-so, but is content to use him for the purpose of easing his own conscience.
A man who doesn't attend the synagogue will say, "Look Rabbi, I am a law abiding citizen. I pay my income taxes, I don't yell at my neighbors' kids, and I mind my own business. I am as good as anyone in your Shule!" This man is bothered by the fact that he is dodging his responsibility as a Jew, so he sets a set of mediocre standards to appease his own conscience.
A colleague who left the rabbinate said that he was convinced that the people in his congregation didn't need the services of a spiritual leader, and that the officers were self-seeking and arrogant men who were out to make life miserable for the rabbi. He couldn't get himself to face the fact that his own laziness and haughty aloofness were mostly responsible for the difficulties he experienced in the rabbinate.
The other day a woman insulted another woman in public. "Boy!" she said to me, "I certainly let her have a piece of my mind! It is high time that someone told her off, and I am glad that I was the one to do it. I am sure that it will do her a lot of good." It is only when I asked her whether she wanted me to suggest to the insulted woman to give her a yasher koach for "the world of good" done to her by the public attack, that the woman became slightly embarrassed. See to what lengths we will go to be on good terms with ourselves!
A similar stratagem is employed by us to avoid the need of repentance and improvement. "My psychologists tell me that the reason I blow my top so often and sometimes act like a heel is that when I was nine years old my parents yelled at me and scared me to death. That had a bad effect on my nerves, and I can't help being the way I am."
Serious-minded people, however, cannot be happy with such a false method of rationalizing their faults away. Besides being dishonest, the results of such attempted "cover ups" have two more serious drawbacks. One is that they numb the sense of self improvement and make us the victims of spiritual paralysis. We stay in the same moral rut day after day, and year after year. We keep on being spiteful, petty, and cheap in the same manner until our friends say of us, "Well, you know, that's the way he is." By which they really mean that he is "a crumb," and that you can't expect anything better from him.
The second defect is that by these rationalizations we seldom get rid of our sense of inadequacy and guilt. The trick doesn't work. What we do is cover our feelings of guilt with heavy blankets and cause them to sink into our subconscious minds where they fester like sores and make us sick in body and mind. As you well know, this is what psychosomatic medicine is all about.
And another thing: the case of self-acceptance has been overstated. The fact is that the vast majority is capable of "facing the music." We can take a long and critical look at ourselves without doing serious damage to our psyche or ego. This is especially true of religious people who are taught to believe that God accepts us even when we stray from the righteous path as long as we turn to Him with a contrite heart. And if God can accept us with all our faults and foibles, we can accept ourselves as well.
Look into the Torah and see this truth forcibly brought home to us. There is a long and terrible tokhacha in which we are told that severe punishments and great sorrows will befall us for violating the laws of the Torah. But even then God pledges not to forsake us. "And yet . . I will not cast them away, nor loath them to destroy them, or to break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God" (Lev. 27:44). And elsewhere we are assured that God "abideth among them in the midst of their uncleanliness" (16:16).
The example that I am about to cite is not of an aesthetic character, but it is apropos at this point. Some time ago the sink in our home began to drain too slowly, and finally it did not drain at all. We called the plumber, and he removed the filth that clogged the pipes. As soon as he finished the job, the sink was in good order again. Self-criticism and true repentance are but a form of cleaning our spiritual pipes. They wash our impurities away, and help us become human beings-fit to live with others and with ourselves.