by Rabbi Yaakov Menken
"And it will be, when he hears the words of this curse, that he will bless
himself in his heart, saying, 'I will have peace, for I am ruled by my own
heart,' in order to satisfy his thirsts." [29:18]
These are frightening words. Anyone, as my teacher Rabbi Asher Rubenstein
pointed out, can fall into the trap of complacency. One who decides to
follow his own heart, rather than attempting to improve and better fulfill
his obligations, falls under a curse!
But of course, we must examine the opposite side as well - simply admitting
our defects, recognizing that our actions have been inadequate, is a major
step forward. Maimonides and the Sha'arei Teshuvah, outlining the necessary
steps for return to G-d, both begin with admitting error. This is the
prerequisite for the entire process.
I first told the following story several years ago -- and I think it
provides a good illustration of the value of admitting error as the first
step in return.
One evening, I started home from the office unusually late - and my
lateness was foremost in my mind. I took a shortcut down a rural road in
Owings Mills (where our office was located at the time), which at one point
is just the sort of road "intended" to be driven at 50 mph (that's about 80
kph), but which the powers that be have posted at 30 mph instead. Baltimore
County' Finest are well-aware of both the posted speed, and the speed which
the road seems to encourage in most drivers.
As soon as I saw the brake lights go red on the large car parked off to the
side, I knew those lights were meant for me. By the time the flashers began
rotating, I was already pulling off just ahead of him. Why make him follow
me down the road? And when he walked over, leaned down, and said, "I pulled
you over because you were doing 50 mph in a 30 mph zone," I looked down at
my speedometer and said "I'm sure that's exactly what I was doing." I mean,
what else was I going to say? I told him that I had come out of work late,
just around the corner (this was maybe 300 yards (meters) from my office),
and had not been paying attention.
Some three (extremely long) minutes later, the officer returned - with a
warning. After receiving it, I had the chutzpah to ask why he had given me
that rather than a well-deserved, $85, four-point, insurance-raising ticket.
His answer? "You were polite, and you admitted you were wrong. The guys who
argue with me will get a ticket every time."
It's such an obvious lesson! The first thing we must do is: admit we were
wrong! How can we correct our actions if we don't recognize first that...
they aren't correct already? Now, admittedly, not every police officer
works this way. But he was right - I have been more careful since. Maybe I
learned my lesson without the punishment. And here in the parsha, G-d is
telling us that He created the world this way, and made this part of human
nature. Admit you are wrong, He tells us, and you are already on the road
Have you ever heard someone say, "I'm a good Jew?" This expression bothers
me no end. If one is ready to say publicly, "I'm good," it means "I am good
as I am. I don't need to improve." It has been my pleasure to meet some
extremely "good Jews," models of kindness, consideration, charity, and
prayer and learning as well. And I've never heard one of them ever using
this expression on him- or herself. "I'm trying" they say, which sends an
entirely different message.
Our very first obligation is to realize that sometimes we aren't so good,
after all. This isn't negative, it's a huge step in the right direction.
Because now that we realize something is broken... we know something needs
to be fixed!