When we undertake a project that has a spiritual component, we need to have our goal clear in our mind
InSefer Hayashar (shaar shishi), Rabbeinu Tam, a 12th-century Tosafist, and a grandson of Rashi, details four elements necessary for success in avodas Hashem:
1. Know your spiritual goal.
2. Create good habits to achieve that goal, consistency being the most critical one.
3. Develop a sechel tov, a positive intellectual understanding of and appreciation for your spiritual goal.
4. Understand the ebb and flow of feelings, the cycling between “Days of Love” and “Days of Hate,” and do what you can to increase the Days of Love.
Let’s explain each point Rabbeinu Tam makes (according to my understanding) and describe what this might look like in real life.
1) Know Your Goal
When we undertake a project that has a spiritual component, we need to have our goal clear in our mind. We should contemplate the great benefit we’ll have if we succeed in achieving our goal, and how we’ll lose out if we don’t.
Take this scenario as an example. Yosef and Shoshana struggled economically for many years, and felt somewhat “less than” in their mostly affluent neighborhood. During the last two years, Yosef’s business took off, and they’ve been making up for lost time. They called in an architect and a contractor. They’ve taken vacations, refurbished their wardrobes, and made a lavish bar mitzvah. They gave tzedakah here and there, but in keeping with their newly relaxed attitude toward spending, didn’t track what they gave.
They’ve come to realize that their entire shift in lifestyle needs to be reined in if they want to build the kind of home and family they always dreamed of. They’re seeing changes in their children, particularly their bar mitzvah boy, who saw his lavish bar mitzvah as a matter of course. They don’t recall him even saying thank you. They realize they made a wrong turn, and have to have much more forethought before they spend money. They’re horrified that in enjoying the largesse Hashem sent their way, they didn’t pay attention to giving the minimum requirement of tzedakah and want to become more careful about meeting their tzedakah obligations.
2) Create Good Habits
Turning over a new leaf is hard; the effort required often seems enormous, and the work involved not necessarily enjoyable. It’s ideal to move from taking on easier challenges to harder ones, and to keep building on what we’ve already accomplished. Though it’s important to work hard, this has to be monitored to see that it doesn’t overwhelm us and burn us out, leading us to abandon the project.
When we get to a place where we feel that the work is too hard, that’s a sign it’s time to pull back, regroup, and ask for help. Then we can begin again, taking small steps to make sure it’s manageable.
We have to determine that we want to keep at it (think of the motivational quote: Don’t work until you’re tired, work until you finish). Consistency is key. Hold on. Though the work might continue to be difficult, you’ll begin to relate to it differently. Eventually, you’ll feel: This is what I do. This is part of me. You’ll start to identify yourself with what you’re doing, and will feel pride, even joy in the hard work you’re doing.
Yosef and Shoshana decided to make a budget, and give a tenth of whatever they spend to tzedakah. Shoshana is insightful, but also forgetful, and at the end of the week she can’t recall what she spent. Frustrated, the couple decided to switch to daily recording of their expenditures, but Shoshana was very tense about this. She doesn’t want to worry about every nickel and dime. Twice she lost the notebook she was recording everything in. She feels put upon when there is no more allotment for eating out. She feels resentful when organizations, no matter how worthy, call and ask for a donation.
Yosef and Shoshana realized they need both a financial planner and a rav to guide them how to direct their financial life fiscally and spiritually.
3) Positive Intellectual Understanding
Sometimes, we lose our momentum and don’t want to continue with our project of spiritual growth. That’s when we have to call upon our sechel tov, our knowledge of the value our undertaking represents. By reviewing the values we believe in, we can use that as the impetus to keep ourselves on track.
The financial planner Yosef and Shoshana employed wanted to cut their monthly budget even further, and the rav they consulted suggested that given what they’re earning, their tzedakah obligation was much more than they realized. One night, they were feeling sorry for themselves and started thinking about how their carefree way of managing money was so much easier. They wanted to plan another exotic getaway, not enter all their expenditures into an app their advisor showed them how to use. The gloomy mood went on for several days, and the whole house felt like it had the energy sucked out of it. Finally, on Erev Shabbos, Shoshana took a long walk to clear her head. When she came back, she sat down with Yosef over a coffee and said, “We have been going about this the wrong way, letting our feelings get in the way of our values. We have good values, and we need to recommit to putting our financial life back on the proper spiritual track.”
4) Emotional Ebb and Flow
Understand that when you become emotionally involved in what you’re doing, whether it’s related to a passion you have or it’s something you desire, you become subject to the fickleness of your emotions. Since emotions are inconsistent, even when what you’re involved in is important and meaningful, your feelings about what you’re doing will shift.
Sometimes you’ll find the meaning in it, feel good about your involvement. Sometimes you can sense Hashem in your life. You can open a siddur and feel that your words make a difference, that you’re connected to Him. This is life in the light.
Know that that sense of connectedness and well-being will not last indefinitely. Rather those good days (Days of Love, in the parlance of Rabbeinu Tam) will recede, only to be replaced by days in which you feel like nothing is going right, when it’s hard to recall the passion and the meaning in what you’re doing, when you feel disconnected from those around you, not understood or heard. You wonder if Hashem really cares, and it’s hard to even open a siddur. Life has a dark haze, a cloud that dims your experience and makes you feel alone (Rabbeinu Tam calls these Days of Hate). It’s important to know that this cycle is inevitable, and the best we can do is try to maximize the Days of Love and minimize the Days of Hate.
During those harder days, we have to hold on to some of what we’ve been doing, so that all that we’ve invested isn’t lost. If we let it go, saying, “I’ll pick up where I left off another time,” Rabbeinu Tam suggests it will be very challenging to get back to that place once we have left it.
Yosef and Shoshana settled into a better routine with their giving. They decided to separate maaser as soon as they earn it, and put the money into a separate account. They take pleasure in doing this, knowing that they have the money to respond to requests from organizations and people who turn to them. They realize that this is all a blessing from Above, and they feel up to the responsibility Hashem has given them. They sense that this is positively spilling over into their tefillah and general mitzvah observance.
They did well for a few months. And then someone in their extended family came to them with what they thought was an exorbitant request for help. At the same time, Yosef’s business took a downturn, and they didn’t know if they would be able to keep up the tzedakah commitments they took on.
Tension returned, and a feeling of what did we get ourselves into? As unrelenting requests for assistance kept coming in, Yosef and Shoshana felt very put upon. They tried to find places to go on Sundays, in order not to have to deal with the stream of collectors who came to their door all day. They felt disconnected, and lost the joy they’d had in giving.
Yosef found himself questioning Hashem’s plan. Was this all a setup, to lift him up and then knock him back down? Yosef and Shoshana consulted again with their financial advisor, who helped them restructure their finances to accommodate the ups and downs of a privately owned business. Their Rav gave them an order of priorities for their tzedakah giving, and told them where they can scale back.
They decided not to run away every Sunday, but to reserve two hours on Sunday morning for collectors. Life started to feel more manageable, some of the darkness lifted, and Yosef and Shoshana were able to reclaim the satisfaction they had from sharing their blessings with others.
Yosef and Shoshana’s tzedakah challenges are just one example. These same principles can be applied to any aspect of our spiritual lives and goals. Since marriage is a spiritual entity, the same ideas would apply to our relationship with our spouse.
Once we understand this process, we’ll be better equipped to make a plan for ourselves to move our avodas Hashem forward. We’ll be able to take pleasure in the process, and not be discouraged at the obstacles, both practical and emotional, as we realize that what’s happening is inevitable and completely normal — just a part of the ups and downs of life, and that if we keep at it, it moves us toward becoming the people Hashem meant us to be.
Debbie Greenblatt is a senior lecturer for the Gateways organization and a teacher of both the observant and the not-yet-observant.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 849)
Oops! We could not locate your form.