Each week our mussar lessons challenge us to improve our character traits. Of course, those of us working hard at this process know, that in itself, is a very challenging feat. Some weeks provide us with lessons that seem manageable while other weeks challenge us to extend ourselves beyond our limits, basically doing the impossible. When I speak of our limits, I refer to the peak of maintaining our composure before "losing it." Maybe someone says something to you that "pushes your button" or makes a comment that hurts or insults you. You can feel the steam slowly building up inside you, before actually "losing it." It feels like when you are on a roller coaster, slowly cranking your way up to the top. As you reach the top, you try hard to maintain control of your emotions. Then, suddenly someone says one more hurtful word and down you go, with the speed of a roller coaster. You can feel your hair flying, your stomach is upside down and you know you have completely "lost it". You are out of control.
Instead, wouldn't it be nice to maintain control? Imagine someone saying something that upsets you, hurts you or insults you and you remain completely cool, calm and in control. Impossible? Not any more.
Before mussar learning, this most definitely would have been impossible. It wasn't even a thought that it could become part of my reality. Yet, each week as we learn new lessons with Rabbi Miller and practice them daily by doing the avoda (homework), I know it is possible! In fact, I can honestly say, we can do it! Of course, not in every situation- but now, there are times when we actually feel in control of our emotions when we are hurt or insulted. Rabbi Miller's lessons teach us what Rabbi Salanter said, we can become "the master of our emotions."
No one likes to feel out of control-especially with their emotions. Feeling angry and saying mean things or even thinking unpleasant thoughts of another human being is an uncomfortable feeling and definitely one that is detrimental to you. It causes you harm by:
1) It effects you physically.
2) It starts a cycle of negative thinking which can lead to a "thought-valanche," (that one thought that turns into an avalanche of several negative thoughts rolling out of control which can lead to a completely depressive state of mind).
3) One loses their personal dignity when they become out of control.
4) An out of control person cannot experience inner peace.
Working on our character traits in our vaads, with the guidance of Rabbi Miller has lead us to believe the impossible is now possible. We have tapped into a super-power we didn't know we had. It is a very empowering experience to know that you can achieve great heights when you connect to your inner goodness. Are these demands too high to ask of us? Maybe so, but we can reach a higher level then the one we are currently at and when we do, we realize how good it feels. It feels great to feel in control. I am not talking about stifling your emotions until they pass and later harboring resentments. I am talking about learning how to stay calm and cool when hurt or insulted. I am talking about being able to hold yourself up, stand up tall and all the while when the turmoil is going on around you- YOU CAN feel a calm beneath it all. There is a new sense of stability and security in knowing that when the time is right, you can address the matter (if need be) in a calm, cool, lucid and logical manner. That is the lesson of this text.
TEXT: The Path to Patience
The text tells us the story of Lavan and Yaakov. We learn how Lavan swindled, tricked and lied to Yaakov, his son-in-law for 22 years. Yaakov finally had enough and decided to take his family and leave. While Lavan continued his verbal attack and abuse towards Yaakov yet, Yaakov was able to maintain a very low, subtle level instead of reacting emotionally. Yaakov remained calm and cool as he presented logical and clear points in his own defense. We learn from Yaakov's reaction that the human spirit is capable of great patience, even in the face of injustice. He was truly able to be "the master of his emotions."
Rabbi Miller teaches us the importance of maintaining your personal composure even in challenging circumstances. He reminds us weekly (as we need to remind ourselves daily) we are created "tzelem Elokim," in the image of Hashem. We can act according to the holiness of the soul. Because of this, we have a tremendous ability to bear insults, to compose ourselves and maintain our composure, as well as our dignity.
Hashem gave us this ability to maintain a sense of composure, even in those difficult circumstances. This doesn't mean that we have to accept slanderous comments. We have the right to stand up for our own personal integrity and set the record straight, but not by fighting fire with fire. To respond emotionally, only causes more harm. The goal is to set the record straight by becoming separate from our emotions and defend ourselves without losing our composure. It is possible! Because we are all created in the image of Hashem, we have the ability to behave like our Forefathers (and Mothers) and to have tremendous patience and conduct ourselves as "tzelem Elokim."
Now the task is how to make this applicable to our lives. Hashem gives us many opportunities to practice it daily. The avoda helps us to manage our situations in all our inter-personal relationships with composure and dignity, as we strive to improve our character traits. The process of improving one's character traits builds up confidence within us to know that we can manage these difficult challenges with poise. We have the ability to keep our composure and as we do so, we will gain so much in our middot (character traits). We can stay on track as we move through the process which leads us to a life filled with harmony and peace. We realize our our inner powers- we all possess the strength and ability to remain calm when challenged. When we do so, we maintain our composure, our strength and our personal dignity.
Loss of control shows in our facial expression, our tone of voice or our body language. We often don't realize how much emotion we show through our physical reactions. Some vaad members have even reported that they have even been accused of yelling at someone through a text message or an email!!! Sadly, we have become experts at communicating our negative emotions very clearly, losing our own dignity along the way.
To prevent ourselves from losing control, we must be aware of:
1) knowing when to PAUSE
2) the thought process that keeps us on the right track to maintaining our composure
3) realizing that we have ability to correct the situation (if we did not manage it according
to our "tzelem Elokim")
The avoda for the week is to practice envisioning the strength of Yaakov and how he maintained his composure. We can practice this by:
1) starting to control your tone of voice
2) to control the level of excitement
3) to control the volume when we speak
4) to be aware of your facial expresssion
5) to have a calm, neutral reply when challenged
When you do, you will gain tremendously.
May we follow Yaakov's path and always be gentle and patient, even if we are treated unfairly.
Remember, in order to have poise- you must first learn to pause.
May we all be blessed with happiness, success and serenity for our efforts.