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What is holding us back from greatness?


R' Yehonason Gefen

We often set amazing goals for ourselves that have ability to change our lives and even work out a plan to achieve them. But something goes awefully wrong and we find ourselves again and again wondering about what happened. Days, weeks, and even years go by and we can't stop trying to figure out what was it that prevented us from properly achieving our goals. And the answer maybe be quite subtle yet profoundly straight forward. We just simply took an easy way instead of the right way.

The Torah Portion "Teruma" begins with God instructing Moses to tell the people to bring the raw materials necessary in order to build the Mishkan (tabernacle): "This is the portion that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins, tachash skins, and acacia wood; oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and for the aromatic incense; shoham stones and stones for the settings, for the ephod, and for the breastplate."[1]

The Ohr HaChaim points out that the order of the materials mentioned is difficult to understand. Since the shoham stones and the 'stones of the settings' are the most valuable of all the items in the list, it would have been logical for them to be mentioned first. The Ohr HaChaim brings a Midrash to inform us of the background of the donation of the precious stones: they were brought by the Nesi'im (princes) after everything else had already been donated. The Nesi'im had initially planned to wait for everyone else to bring their contributions to the Mishkan, and the Nesi'im would then provide whatever was lacking. However, their plan backfired when the people, in their great enthusiasm, gave everything that was needed with the exception of the precious stones. The Midrash says that God was displeased with the Nesi'im because they were so late in giving to the Mishkan. Their 'punishment' was the “yud” in their name was omitted at one point in the Torah.[2] Accordingly, the Ohr HaChaim explains that since the donation of the precious stones involved an error, the stones are listed last among the materials given to the Mishkan. Despite their great material value, the spiritual failing that accompanied their donation by the Nesi'im meant that they were inferior to all of the other materials in the list.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz suggests that it is still unclear why God was displeased with the Nesi'im. Their reasoning for delaying their donations seems to be very understandable - why are they punished for a seemingly innocent miscalculation? He finds an answer in Rashi, who states, "Because they were initially lazy, they lost a 'yud' in their name."[3] Rashi is revealing to us that the real reason that the Nesi'im tarried in bringing the gifts was because of laziness! Beneath all of their seemingly valid justifications for their actions lay the trait of laziness.

Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) discusses at length how laziness can prevent a person from fulfilling his obligations properly. It says, "We see with our own eyes many, many times that a man can be aware of his obligations, and he is clear about what he needs for the goodness of his soul... yet, he weakens [in his Avodah] not because of a lack of recognition of his obligations or any other justification, but because of the powerful laziness that overcomes him." Mesillat Yesharim explains that the danger of laziness is that one can find several “sources” to justify his inaction: "The lazy one will bring numerous sayings of the Sages, verses from the Prophets, and 'logical' arguments, all of them justifying his confused mind into lightening his burden ... and he does not see that these arguments do not come from his logical thought but rather stem from his laziness, which overcomes his rational thinking."[4] Accordingly, he warns us that whenever we have two choices, we should be very weary of choosing the easier option since the root reason for doing so may very likely be laziness.

Mesillat Yesharim is teaching us that even the most “valid” arguments may be simply veils for a person's desire to avoid pushing himself. We see a striking example of this in the introduction to the great ethical work Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart). In it, Bahya ibn Paquda writes that, after planning to write the book, he changed his mind. In doing so, he cited a number of reasons: “I thought my powers were too limited and my mind too weak to grasp the ideas. Furthermore, I do not possess an elegant style in Arabic, in which the book would have been written… I feared that I would be undertaking a task that would succeed [only] in exposing my shortcomings... Therefore, I decided to drop my plans and to revoke my decision.” However, he recognized that, perhaps, his motives were not completely pure: “I began to suspect that I had chosen the comfortable option, looking for peace and quiet. I feared that what had motivated the cancellation of the project had been the desire for self-gratification, which had driven me to seek ease and comfort, to opt for inactivity, and to sit idly by.” To the eternal benefit of the Jewish people, he decided to write the book. The reasons that he initially cited for not writing the book seemed fair and logical, but he recognized that they were tainted by a desire for comfort. If someone as great as the author of Chovos HaLevavos nearly fell victim to the yetzer hara (negative inclination) of laziness, how much more so is everyone else at risk of being ensnared by this destructive trait? A person may have valid reasons for choosing not to pursue avenues by which he could improve his divine service, but he must be very vigilant to ensure that his true motivation is not laziness.

The yetzer hara of laziness is so cunning that it can clothe itself in some of the most admirable traits, especially in the trait of humility. Rav Moshe Feinstein addresses a common tendency of people to underestimate themselves by claiming that they are greatly limited in their talents and that they can never achieve greatness. He writes that this kind of humility really emanates from the yetzer hara.[5] As such, it seems that this attitude actually derives from laziness, which is really a manifestation of the desire for comfort. It is not easy to achieve greatness; it requires great effort and the willingness to face setbacks and even failure. This is difficult, so it is very tempting for a person to “write himself off” and, thereby, exempt himself from even trying. Certainly, this is the more “comfortable” option.

Throughout life, a person has the opportunity to improve himself and to attain great heights in his divine service and in his influence on others. We see from the lesson of the Nesi'im that, perhaps, the single most powerful factor preventing a person from achieving his potential is a desire for comfort that stems from laziness. This causes a person to “create” numerous “reasons” for not pushing himself in the way that he could. Mesillas Yesharim teaches us that he should recognize that these excuses often originate from the yetzer hara and that he should disregard them and proceed in his efforts to grow and to accomplish. May we all merit to overcome this powerful yetzer hara and to make the correct choices even if they are difficult.

[1] Teruma, 25:3-7.

[2] Vayakhel, 35:27. See Sichos Mussar of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz for an elaboration of the significance of losing a “yud” in their name (p.214).

[3] Rashi, Vayakhel, 35:27.

[4] Mesillas Yesharim, End of Ch.6.

[5] Darash Moshe, Parshas Nitzavim.

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