Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are precious times designated to recognize God as Master of the universe, and of our lives. Hearing the shofar daily, we are to awaken ourselves from our year of sleep, immersed in less-than-perfect attitudes and earthly pursuits. It is also a time for atonement, which requires us to seek forgiveness from others, make amends, and plot a new course for higher goals. 

Talmud Rosh Hashanna 17a: “One who forgoes his feelings and tendencies (maavir al midosav) is forgiven for all his sins.” This refers to one who was wronged by another, but withholds his tongue and does not seek the justice he rightfully deserves. He forgoes his own feelings. What is the great quality of such a person that entitles “all” his sins to be forgiven? 

This week’s parsha says, “When one hears the words of these curses, he may secure himself immune to them, thinking, “I shall have peace (be safe), for I follow the counsel of my heart” (Deut. 29:18). Man dupes himself into believing “What is true—how reality works—is determined by what my heart feels.” Man’s ego propels him to be convinced that the world revolves around himself. 

The “me” has been the source of innumerable tragedies since man existed. Cain killed his brother Abel as Abel’s sacrifice earned God’s favor and generated jealousy in Cain. Cain found his tarnished self-image intolerable. His solution should have been to accept blame and improve himself. Instead, he took the path of many other ego-driven people and attempted to “change reality” to conform to his subjective world view. Cain murdered Abel to remove the problem. This need for approval finds alternative expressions: Saul succumbed to the people, instead of following Samuel’s directives from God.  

In stark contrast, “And Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on the face of the land” (Num. 12:3). Moses possessed the most accurate assessment of the human being: man is nothing compared to God. And Moses had no remorse for his accurate low self-estimation. For Moses’ focus and ultimate joy was found in pursuing God’s wisdom, not the self. God designed man to attain happiness only through directing his wellspring of energies towards wisdom. All other pursuits frustrate man, as he either finds little or no satisfaction in short-lived pursuits, or there is pain associated with such pursuits. But wisdom is endless, it is an area in which man can expend all his energies, what we call “satisfaction” and bliss. 

Torah enters only into the person who is humble and low. “All who are thirsty, go to the water (Torah)” (Isaiah 55:1).  Torah is equated to water: just as water seeks the lowest depth, Torah enters one who is low. Why is this? It is because ego and knowledge of God are mutually exclusive. Only when one abandons the pursuit of the self, will his energies be free to focus on God’s Torah. Maimonides cites a case of a wise man who recollected his happiest day. He was on a ship, when some low life urinated on him. The wise man felt no need for revenge. He sensed no pride, although grossly mistreated. He was elated that he finally reached a level where he possessed a state of such humility. 

Ego propels many of our actions and feelings. Whether we cut off another in traffic, cheat in business, have the last word or be the first to talk, interrupt others, or slander. We have learned to place ourselves over all others. Of course, when many do this, conflict arises and relationships are torn, or worse. 

Whats is Torah’s perspective? It is to view God and His wisdom as our primary value and focus. In this manner, nothing else matters. We realize the uselessness and destructiveness of petty values. Competition with others is only a game we play in our heads, to “win”…in our heads. Much energy, and lifetimes are wasted in seeking to bolster our self images. 

The problem for most is stepping outside the “me” framework. As most people have not experienced this perfected perspective, and as society teaches only ego and fame, how do they make the move? One method is to study how all attempts to gain ego do not contribute to happiness. We might temporarily feel high. But our lives are not improved, as we see we must sustain future attempts at the same vanity. This method must go hand in hand with the greater method: Torah study. Once enamored by Torah’s brilliance, all other pursuits pale in comparison. When one finds a treasure chest, his few dollars are meaningless. So too, when one appreciates Torah brilliance, personal matters are viewed with disdain. 

“One who does not act on his feelings and tendencies (maavir al midosav) is forgiven for all his sins.”  One who develops such appreciation for Torah and its Author, is no longer attracted to the self. His critics don’t ruffle his feathers, as he no longer values anything but wisdom. He is not compelled at all to defend himself from accusations. He no longer lives in the world of the social, but in God’s world of beautiful ideas. His eyes light up with every new discovery. Wisdom is his life. As such a person has removed himself from the self, from social concerns and competition, he has abandoned the primary drive of his previous sins: focus on self-worth and the intolerance of passing on lusts or aggression towards others. One’s demand to satisfy one’s desires (ego) causes sin. But one who is removed from the self has abandoned his ego, the cause of his sins, and is no longer in need of God’s corrective punitive measures. He is forgiven. May we all attain this level.