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Ten Steps to Self-Mastery (Ki Tisa 2018)

by in Ki Tisa .

We have all had experiences when we have had to have a difficult conversation with a spouse, an employee, a child or a student, and have noticed no change in their behavior afterwards. Sometimes the conversation damages or even terminates the relationship. In these cases, we tend to blame them for not hearing us or for taking it personally, but the reason for the lack of result probably lies with us. It is likely that we came to the conversation from a place of personal anger, hurt or defensiveness, rather than from a place of true caring and love for the other. This can cause the other person to become defensive and close their ears and hearts to our message. The Vilna Gaon used to advise parents never to scold a child while they were still feeling angry. To criticize another from an inner place of love rather than one of arrogance or anger, takes a lot of work; but it gets results.  It takes a degree of self-mastery.

Torah life is a ten-step developmental journey to self-mastery[1].

אמר ר' פנחס בן יאיר: תורה מביאה לידי זהירות, זהירות מביאה לידי זריזות, זריזות מביאה לידי נקיות, נקיות מביאה לידי פרישות, פרישות מביאה לידי טהרה, טהרה מביאה לידי חסידות, חסידות מביאה לידי ענוה, ענוה מביאה לידי יראת חטא, יראת חטא מביאה לידי קדושה, קדושה מביאה לידי רוח הקודש

After the study of Torah the journey begins with zehirut, mindful awareness of every thought and action and their universal and social consequences. It culminates in ruach hakodesh – the rare capacity toexperience Divine communication. The Mesilat Yesharim by the 18th Century Kabbalist and philosopher from Padua, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, is the classical handbook for this journey.

The fifth rung on the ladder to mastery is tahara, which means “pure intention”. The idea of tahara is that our words and actions have different qualities to them. The way we infuse quality into our words and actions is through the inner place from which they come. Two identical actions could be qualitatively very different depending on the deep interior place that motivates them. The greater the quality of intention in what we do or say, the higher will be the quality of our words or actions, and the more impactful they will be in the results they achieve. Something as routine as a greeting, is experienced very differently by the other person depending on whether it is said with genuine warmth or in a transactional way. Otto Scharmer, author of Theory-U, observes that two leaders doing exactly the same thing, can achieve different outcomes depending on the inner place from which they come. Tahara defines the purity of intention of that inner place from which our words and actions come.

While doing a mitzvah we are trained to check in with the motivation. Is it really coming from a heroic place of wanting to do what is right and good, wanting to serve others or Hashem and wanting to make a positive difference in the world? Or is the motivation premised on ego and self-interest? Is the motivation driven by arrogance, fear or a desire to look good?  Intention does not have to be one or the other, heroic or self-interested. Mostly our intentions are blends of some pure intention and some self-interest and ego. Tahara is the practice of purifying our intention to the point that ego is entirely excluded from them. This is an elevated level of mastery, but one that students of Torah and Mussar are on a journey to reach.

As important as purity of intention is when doing something positive, like a mitzvah, it is even more important when we must do things that could have negative outcomes, like punishing a child, disciplining an employee or meeting out justice in the legal system. If there is anger, hate or resentment in our hearts, we should rather not act at all.

The Ha’amek Davar[2] has an interesting take on the wording of Shemot (Exodus) 32:27 where the Levi’im who had shown no inclination to the service of idolatry, are instructed to strike out at those who had participated in the Golden Calf.

...והרגו איש את אחיו ואיש את רעהו ואיש את קרובו

Moshe instructed each of them to specifically strike their own close friends and relatives if they had been involved in the idolatry. Most mefarshim (exponents) do not take that to mean that they had to strike their own relatives, but rather that even if it required them to strike their own family members they should be willing to do so. The Ha’amek Davar takes it literally to mean that the Levi’im were instructed to only strike out at those they were close to:

"ובזה שיהיו מדקדקים להרוג דוקא איש את אחיו שחייב מיתה, יכירו כל ישראל שהם מופשטים מרצון עצמם בזה, ולא ימצאו גם המה לב לעמוד נגדם באשר יכירו כי המה כמלאכי מרום." (העמק דבר, שמות, לב,כ"ו)

He says, “By striking out specifically against those they were closest to and who were guilty of a capital offence, the whole nation of Israel would realize that the Levi’im had stripped themselves of self-interest in this exercise.” He goes on to talk of the impact an action has when it comes from an inner place that is void of ego and self-interest. “As such, they (the people) will have no desire to revolt against them (the Levi’im), since they would recognize in them super-human qualities (the absence of ego) like the qualities of angels of Hashem.”

We can apply The Netziv’s idea much closer to home. When we need to have hard conversations with others, or perhaps even punish them, their natural reaction is to “revolt.” This revolt takes the form of an aggressive or passive-aggressive response. In either case the other person doesn’t really hear the message nor take it to heart. The conversation or intervention has been unsuccessful. When, however, the other person feels the authentic caring from the individual admonishing him or her, the message lands deep in their hearts. Without damaging them they understand the need for change and modify their behaviors. Working on the deeper motivations of our words and actions, checking to make sure they come from as pure as possible a place free from negative emotions and self-interest, makes them so much more powerful and effective[3].

I find it inspiring that ordinary individuals like us can acquire “the qualities of angels of Hashem” by improving the quality of the inner places from which our words and actions stem as we travel our own journeys up the ten-step ladder to self-mastery.



[1] Avodah Zarah 20b and Introduction to Mesilat Yesharim.

[2] Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, The Netziv 1816-1893, Shemot 32, 26-27

[3] Oscar nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri deftly shows the destruction that happens when the pursuit of justice is carried out by people who lack self-mastery and are driven by anger and hate.

Latest update: March 04, 2018

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