By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
We’ve just left summer and the high holidays behind and are now entering the darker, colder fall & winter seasons. For most this means more work or school that include more challenges both outside and inside. What are our goals to be better this year? With the inspiration of the High Holidays, are there areas within ourselves we wish to change? To be more patient, caring, selfless, courageous, or kind to others? Trying to improve our characters can feel like an exercise in futility.
At times we feel more refined and genuinely inspired, only to immediately fall down into unsavory, negative desires and actions. Why must we deal with such strong negative impulses? There’s an ancient Chinese tale that sheds light on this:
There once lived an elderly woman who, every morning, would carry two buckets to the river to retrieve water. One bucket was whole, while the other was full of cracks and holes. The cracked bucket began to feel terrible, and it cried to its owner:
“I’m such a failure! I’m such a loser! Every day when you return, I barely have a third of the water of a regular bucket!” The elderly lady replied: “Tomorrow on our walk, I want you to pay closer attention to your surroundings.”
The next day, the lady ventured off to the river as usual with her two buckets, but this time, the imperfect bucket looked around, and noticed a vast array of beautiful flowers.
“Wow! These flowers are incredible!”
She turned to the bucket with a smile. “It’s because of your holes that these flowers have been watered and blossomed.”
In 1797, an integral book of Jewish Mysticism was published in Russia, called Tanya, written by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad movement. This book revolutionized the way we should view our daily struggles with our negative impulses. Before learning Tanya, it’s easy to think that we have a split personality; how is it possible to sin only minutes after feeling so inspired and spiritually uplifted? A minute ago we were feeling so positive and selfless, and now we’re driven by selfish passions. What’s the point of trying to improve ourselves if we’ll never attain perfection? The Tanya’s answer is simple.
Who said G-d wants you to be perfect? G-d desires the struggle! Be a warrior. Humanity’s hero is the struggler, not the saint. Don’t view your imperfections, blemishes, negative impulses and desires as curses. By struggling and working to overcome your challenges, albeit not every time, you bring incredible light into the world. These are our beautiful flowers, derived from the occasional victory over our inner darkness.
Just as a candle’s light appears more powerful when lit in darkness, our good deeds in this world of spiritual concealment have a powerful effect. If we only focus on what’s wrong with ourselves, it’s easy to become despondent. We must realize that we were meant to have negative tendencies and to struggle with and use them for the good. The Sages teach that the righteous King David & wicked Esau had very similar potentials: One channeled his explosive energy positively, the other negatively. The important thing is to never become complacent, but to always work on our selfish and destructive sides through selfless deeds and a positive attitude. Those who step on the field to compete are to be admired. Just entering the battle to attempt to be better is a heroic endeavor.
This year may we forge ahead on life’s journey of growth, not becoming overly despondent in our failures, and celebrating every moral victory along the way.