Based on an essay by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’l
When we look at the generations of our grandparents and their parents, we find, generally, that people were intellectually and emotionally stronger, more confident and independent, and better able to deal with the problems and challenges of life. Although they had none of the technological innovation or economic affluence that exists today, they lived spiritually fulfilling and happy lives. Today, in contrast, while the external trappings of our world, such as technology, transportation, and economic affluence, have advanced immensely, the generation has dropped considerably in its perception of what it means to be a great human being.
When people say, “I want to be great,” they say it without knowing what greatness means. They often mean that they want honor or material wealth. True greatness is virtually hidden from our field of vision. Most people have never personally encountered a great person.
People of our generation cannot endure exacting reproof, like the reproof of the great Ba’alei Mussar, the Jewish masters of character development, who used to analyze their students’ deeds and character traits down to their very core level, exposing their hidden flaws and shortcomings. While people in previous generations gained wisdom, insight, and motivation to grow from such deep internal scrutiny, most people today would become crushed from it or suffer from despair.
Today, a new approach to personal change must be taken. The spirit must first be uplifted, the person must become deeply aware of the idea of man’s greatness. Afterwards, he is able to endure the scrutiny of his deficiencies. The first step of character development is to learn the greatness of what man can achieve.
One who begins the journey of personal growth must first gain the ability to perceive attributes of greatness. This requires serious study, for without learning, we cannot know that there are such attributes. We live in a primarily material world, and we are much more in touch with our physicality than with our spirituality, the true root of growth and greatness. After one studies the texts that teach what greatness is, one must introspect, deeply and for an extended period of time, and discover what attributes of greatness rest within himself.
Accordingly, the first practical step is to study the classic Mesilas Yesharim, The Path of the Just (first published in 1738). It is appropriate not to attempt, at first, to discover and build within oneself the particular attribute discussed in each chapter. Rather, one should merely learn about the attribute, understand what it means. He should learn to appreciate it, value its purpose, and desire to develop it in himself. This approach is what the author himself, the Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato), advocates in his other classic work, Derech Etz Chaim:
Why does a man not think, every day, even for a moment, thoughts, real thoughts,
like “What am I?” “Why have I come into the world?” “What does G-d request of
me?” “What should I have accomplished by the end of my life?”
Such thinking about your purpose in life is the most powerful way, and has the greatest impact, to equip you to battle the inclination for indolence and apathy. It is easy to think such thoughts. It changes you rapidly and bears significant results. A man should seclude himself every day for a period of time, free from distractions, just to think over this matter about which I have spoken, and think about things such as: What did the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) do to endear them so much to G-d? What did Moses, our teacher, do that made him so great? What did King David, and all the great people before us, do? Contemplate how good it would be for man, all the days of his life, to do like them. Afterwards, explore your inner world to know what your strengths are, and ask yourself, isn’t there something you can do?
Here is the general rule: A person who does not think about how great a person can be will find it very difficult to reach greatness, while a person who thinks about this matter is very close to it.
The benefit of merely thinking about the good traits of others is that it brings one close to those traits. What is the Ramchal asking us to do? He is asking us to engage in self-introspection that focuses not on the deficiencies within ourselves, but on our positive traits.
Discovering one’s strengths, however, is more difficult than knowing one’s deficiencies. Man today is drowning in feelings of lowliness and depression. His base inclination constantly pushes him towards inaction and mediocrity, and his conscience assaults him. If a man concentrates on himself honestly for a little time, he will see his flaws and what he is doing wrong, and as a result he will begin to despair and to lose sight of any way to change. In that state it is difficult for him to think about greatness, especially about the greatness within himself. Nevertheless, focusing on the greatness of man is the only effective way to lift oneself out of a sense of lowliness and insignificance.
Most people think that “knowing ourselves” means knowing what’s wrong with us, our flaws, and our negative attributes. While it certainly is important to be aware of our weaknesses, before we explore our deficiencies we are obligated to recognize the greatness of man, the greatness within ourselves, with candid clarity.