A version of this article originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.
In my last column, I discussed the revolutionary concept of “change from the top,” the ancient Talmudic principle that long-lasting change only takes shape when forged at a higher place within ourselves. We described the curative functions that mind-shifts have in overcoming lifelong recurring sin and negative habits and described issue-focused Torah study as the way to achieve these crucial changes in perspective.
Once aware of this groundbreaking methodology of change I employed it in my own life, tackling lifelong recurring issues and bringing them into my firm grasp. Change in even the most challenging of areas of my life was now within my powers to create, and I became an evangelist, sharing the wisdom of “change from the top” to anyone who would listen long enough. Most importantly, I was thrilled that my newfound change stuck, further confirming in my mind the veracity of this approach as well as my duty to share it with the world.
It was a few months later that I first began to feel the bonds of my change loosening. I noticed my old patterns of thought returning and with them a return to my old ways. If my recent life change felt like a breath of fresh mountain air, my reversal to old ways felt like a knife to my still beating heart.
Before I go on, I feel that it’s important to note that even as I reverted to my former unwanted patterns of behavior, I didn’t feel like all of my hard work had been for naught. You see, even as my outer life largely mirrored my pre-change life, my inner life had been inextricably altered. “Change from the top” had touched something deep inside me and I knew that the spiritual trajectory of my life had been altered forever. I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on “change from the top” because of a recent change in course, it’s efficacy was obvious to me, but I had to admit that something was missing in my game plan.
As they say, “hindsight is 20/20,” and it’s easy to see what was missing in my approach looking back now. What I know now is how hard it is to function from a higher place for a very long time. It requires a constant diet of issue-focused study to wade off old mindsets and habits and it seems only natural that when that study comes to its close much of the change that it inspired will slowly dissipate. It’s no different than many people’s experiences in weight loss programs. They find success in the program, think that at that point they can maintain their weight loss without the aid of the group (and save themselves the cost of membership), and quickly discover how surprisingly difficult that is to accomplish.
Even with a renewed commitment to issue-focused Torah study, I knew that it wasn’t reasonable to assume that I would always function at a place of high inspiration and mindset. I needed a fresh element that would get me through the natural lows of life, holding me steady until I might return to higher ground.
I found that missing puzzle piece while mentally reminiscing about my period of profound change. I considered the breadth of spiritual benefits reaped while living on a higher plane, but it was the surprising discovery of all the self-serving benefits of change that most caught me off guard. After much reflection I came to realize that during my period of change I was a happier and more fulfilled person, profound change quenching personal desires that had been unfed for far too long. Could spiritual change be good for more than just the soul? It now seemed so!
If I could just hold on to the realization that spiritual change held within itself powerful doses of self-serving benefit, I might establish my newfound change even in the down times. I wasn’t worried that my drive for personal fulfillment and pleasure would go away anytime soon!
It was soon after that I considered a statement of the Sages of the Talmud that deals with just this issue: “One should always engage in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot for the wrong reasons, for it is through the fulfillment for the wrong reasons that a person will come to fulfill them for the right reasons” (Talmud Pesachim 50b).
I had always understood this famous passage as a sort of permission to engage in good deeds for ulterior motives because the end goal was positive. It was only now that I began reconsidering this reading. Perhaps what our Sages meant was that we should go out of our way, actively searching for the wrong reasons to do good deeds, for through such consideration we will reach the spiritual heights that G-d expects from us. This reading seems to be hinted to in the word “le’olam,” “one should always,” that prefaces the above adage. The search for self-serving benefits to positive change should be something we should always be engaged in (I later learned that the Nefesh Ha’Chaim interprets this Talmudic phrase similarly).
In the modern jargon of psychology, we might put it this way: We need to utilize our id, that part of our ever-present psyche that is fully intent on accessing immediate self gratification and pleasure, without regard for potential future consequences, to serve our spirit.
If we focus on our narcissistic desire to be honored by others, we may find it easier or even natural to generously donate at charitable functions even when our charitable muscles are weak.
Struggling to muster the energy to study Torah? Perhaps consider your personal interest in being known by others as a wise and knowledgeable man and feel the motivation begin to bubble within you!
Wanna be seen as good? Doing good deeds will only further that perspective in the eyes of others.
There is no end to the list and the potential for positive change that it can lead to. Have no fear, the Sages ensure us that even if our good deeds begin with bad intentions, eventually we will turn the corner and serve G-d and others for the noblest of reasons.
If the initial process was called “change from the top,” I call this process of mental consideration “change from the bottom,” as it utilizes our “lower” desires to create higher change. I’ve found the utilization of both strategies a most powerful tool in creating long-lasting change.