| Guestlines |

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Attitude    

The challenge we are given, to take the reins of our brains and push away negative thinking


certain community rav received an email from a congregant who was bothered by the following question. The Baal HaTanya writes that people can control not only their behavior and speech, but even their thoughts. How is it possible for a human being to control his thoughts? Many times, thoughts just pop into our heads. It seems inconceivable that we can control such thoughts.

The person added that he was actually resending this email; he had already sent it to the rav two weeks prior, without getting any response. He surmised that the rav had perhaps not noticed the first email.

The rav sent him a very powerful response:

Apologies for not responding sooner to your message. I actually did receive it the first time. But I ignored it. I didn’t even open it. And it was deliberate.

I decide which messages I open and which I don’t. Just because an alert pops up on my screen does not mean I have to react to it. I may not be able to control the messages that arrive in my inbox, but I can certainly control whether or not I open them. And I didn’t open yours.

My not answering your question is itself the answer to your question. You may not be able to control the thoughts that pop into your head. But you most certainly can control your reaction to them. If an inappropriate thought enters your mind, you have the choice to entertain it or reject it.

And that is the challenge we are given, to take the reins of our brains and push away negative thinking.

Unless you are a very holy person, you will experience bad thoughts. Sometimes they will be about yourself — “I am a loser, I will never accomplish anything.” Sometimes they will be about others — “I hate that guy.” You have no power to stop them flashing through your mind. But you do have the choice to leave those thoughts unopened.

This is a crucial message for our community in today’s times. We can’t control the thoughts and the messages that come our way, but we can control whether or not we dwell on them and let them change our attitude.

We are constantly receiving messages and updates about our beloved brothers and sisters around the globe. At times, it’s not pretty. We may hear about anti-Jewish sentiment, negativity, hate speech, and much more. But reading these messages, thinking about them, and dwelling on them — that needs moderation.

We don’t need to read every update, watch every gruesome video, ponder every analysis. We sometimes must “delete” those messages if they threaten to consume us and drag us down. Although there is a lot of pain and suffering around us and we want to empathize with our fellow Jews, we cannot let all the negativity hamper the way we function. We must feel the pain, yes, but we must remain optimistic and positive as people.

But what if, understandably, I already read all the messages, absorbed all the “gloom and doom” reports, imbibed all of Klal Yisrael’s heartache — until it has totally consumed me? Is it too late? Is there any way to salvage my sense of vigor and vitality? Is there a way to regain and restore my simchas hachayim?

The first step in addressing this issue is to acknowledge that offering logical and philosophical solutions to problems that involve feelings and emotions is never an easy task. The pain Klal Yisrael is feeling right now is real and ongoing, and reclaiming our positive energy is a process, not a simple resolution.

Nevertheless, Yiddishkeit does provide us with some amazing tips for tackling the general human struggle with negativity. Here we highlight three useful strategies that have been proven effective in restoring one’s simchas hachayim.


Hashem mainly works behind the scenes

The pasuk in Tehillim (72:18) says of Hashem, “Oseh nifla’os levado — He performs wonders by Himself.” The question is, do we need a special pasuk to teach us that Hashem does miracles by Himself, without anybody’s help? Is this not obvious?

The Chasam Sofer explains that Hashem often does miracles alone — with no one else knowing about it. In this pasuk we acknowledge that so many times Hashem makes miracles on our behalf — unbeknownst to us — when He is all “alone,” so to speak. Behind the scenes, Hashem protects us from harmful viruses and bacteria, from anti-Semites conspiring against us, from terrorists trying to murder us — without being noticed by anyone. This is very encouraging and comforting, realizing that Hashem’s kindness toward us extends far beyond what we can ever see and know.

This point was sharply driven home to me when I was living as a young kollel avreich in Yerushalayim during the 2015 wave of terrorism. One terrorist attack revealed an example of the tremendous chesed that Hashem displays toward His children behind the scenes.

Rav Menashe Yisrael Reisman gives a popular daily shiur on Minchas Yitzchak Street that is attended by hundreds. The shiur ends at precisely 10:10 every morning. One particular morning, it was discovered (through video surveillance footage) that a terrorist had been staking out the neighborhood and had planned an attack precisely for the end of the shiur, aiming to kill and injure as many people as possible among the hundreds who would be exiting at that time. However, not one attendee was present on the morning of his planned attack.

What happened to all those people? Where were they?

Unbeknownst to the terrorist, that morning was the only time that the shiur had been canceled, due to the rare occurrence of Rav Reisman accepting a speaking engagement overseas. The terrorist was waiting, but Hashem orchestrated His children’s rescue, without their even knowing the danger they were in.


Developing our emunah

If you ever speak at length with the greatest doctors in medicine, you’ll notice two facts: a) they have vast knowledge and experience; b) despite their amazing expertise, they are unable to accurately predict what will happen in the future.

However, we have something the experts of the secular world do not, which allows us to remain optimistic no matter the prognosis: We have emunah. We believe that only the Ribbono shel Olam knows for certain what will happen, and that no outcome is beyond His capacity. Being optimistic does not mean we should fool ourselves by pretending that everything is fine. Rather, we realize that Hashem can do literally anything. We know that we can pray for His benevolence and support, and that our fortune can change instantaneously.

The halachah requires blowing the shofar in times of crisis — and in times of war — specifically by blowing through the narrow end of the shofar, with the sound emerging through the wide end. The Gemara bases this on the pasuk in Tehillim (118:5), “Min hameitzar karasi Kah” — we call out to Hashem from the meitzar, from the narrow constraints.

The Arizal explained the deeper meaning behind this halachah. When we cry out to Hashem in crisis mode, we recognize our limitations, symbolized by the sound entering through the narrow end of the shofar. But Hashem receives the sound on the wide end of the shofar, symbolizing His unlimited power and abilities. It reminds us that Hashem’s range of capabilities is endless. We must remember this in times of trouble.


Public officials cannot make their own decisions

Chazal (Sotah 11a) tell us about Pharaoh’s decision to enslave Klal Yisrael in Mitzrayim, out of his fear that their growth posed a dangerous threat to him. He convened a meeting with his top three advisors — Bilaam, Iyov, and Yisro. Bilaam endorsed killing the Jews, Yisro ran away, and Iyov was silent.

Don’t all three responses seem strange? Bilaam was an expert at his craft and could easily have composed a curse to kill the Jewish People. Yisro at that point was not an upstanding citizen, and he would have been expected to agree with Pharaoh. Iyov was indeed a great tzaddik; but shouldn’t he have tried to prevent innocent people from getting slaughtered, rather than remaining quiet?

A fascinating answer was suggested based on the following comments from the Malbim (on Mishlei 21:1): “Although a private individual’s heart is under his own authority and free choice, this is not true of the king’s heart. For the happiness of the multitude depends on his choices, and if he chooses a bad path, he will bring disaster upon them all. Therefore, his heart as it pertains to the lives of the multitude is in the hand of Hashem, and when it comes to their interests, he is deprived of freedom of choice.” (See Chasam Sofer, parshas Vayigash.)

We see that the Hashgachah pratis governing public officials and their actions is different from that governing regular people. Public officials are controlled by a special, more targeted form of Hashgachah. Their personal free choice (bechirah) can at times be removed from them once they accept a public position, making them “puppets” of Hashem.

When elected officials act differently from how they promised they would during their campaigns, it is not (only) because they may consistently lie. It is because as public figures, their decisions have been totally orchestrated by Hashem. And that is why these three advisors of Pharaoh acted in such an unpredictable and counterintuitive way. It wasn’t them acting. It was Hashem.

This gives us tremendous strength and encouragement when we hear the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric emanating from public officials and leaders in the world today. Ultimately, their actions will be dictated solely by Hashem, Who cherishes us, sustains us, and protects us.


So, amid the inevitable feelings of angst and distress over the current state of affairs around the world, let’s perhaps take a moment to utilize these potent tools at our disposal. Let us remember the constant chesed Hashem bestows upon us behind the scenes, let us internalize our emunah that Hashem is the Only One in control, and let us digest that elected officials are merely puppets of Hashem.

Perhaps, in some small way, these sentiments can help us solidify our conviction that Hashem has, in His mercy, provided us as a nation with the potential and the fortitude to rise to the occasion and withstand the challenges He has set before us. The more we believe in ourselves, in our future, and in the capacity for good in the world, the more we will continue to strive to reach lofty goals, which itself will serve to enable and hasten the arrival of the Geulah. Bimheirah b’yameinu, amen.


Rabbi Aryeh Kerzner is the rav of Agudas Yisrael of Montreal and is a noted posek and popular speaker. Many of his shiurim and speeches are available online and enjoyed both locally and internationally. He is the author of the sefer Halachah at Home, published by ArtScroll/Mesorah.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 993)

Oops! We could not locate your form.