Who is a wise person? One who learns from everyone” (Avos 4:1). In the hope that I may become wise, I try to learn from everyone. For over forty years, my practice involved treating alcoholics, and I would like to share what I learned from them.
Some alcoholics consult a psychiatrist or a psychologist for help. However, not even the most excellent therapy can accomplish anything if the client is still drinking. No therapy can make an impression on a brain that is suffused with alcohol. The person must first abstain from all alcohol, and only then can therapy be effective.
But, you might ask, if the person is abstaining from alcohol, what need is there for therapy? The answer is that if all an alcoholic has done is stop drinking, but he has made no signif- icant character changes, he is what we call a “dry drunk.” That
is, although he is indeed “dry,” his behavior is little different than when he was drinking. He is still the same self-centered, inconsiderate, stubborn, self-righteous, intolerant, and impa- tient person he was when he drank. So abstaining from alcohol is indeed a crucial first step, but it is only a first step. The “dry drunk” must proceed to improve his character and abandon the behaviors that led him to alcohol in the first place.
This progression applies to Yiddishkeit as well. A person who is in violation of the mitzvos is like the alcoholic who is drinking, and he cannot implement Yiddishkeit. If one goes through the motions of observing all the mitzvos, one has indeed taken the first crucial step, but it is only the first step. Such a person is a spiritual “dry drunk,” not yet internalizing and fully implement- ing Yiddishkeit.
What, then, does a complete implementation of Yiddishkeit entail? Listen to the words of Rav Chaim Vital, the foremost disciple of the Arizal: “Negative character traits are much worse than sin, and we can understand why the Talmud says that when a person goes into a rage, it is as if he worshipped idols, and that a vain, arrogant person is equivalent to one who denies God. A person should therefore be more meticulous about eliminating bad character traits than fulfilling the positive mitzvos and the prohibitions. If one has good middos, one can easily fulfill all the mitzvos” (Shaarei Kedushah 1:2).
Just like the alcoholic must improve his character to become sober, a person wishing to become an oveid Hashem must im- prove his middos. Let us remember, of course, that just as an alcoholic cannot alter his character while drinking, neither can a person improve one’s middos if one is in violation of halachah. Transgressions of Torah are toxins that render one incapable of addressing one’s middos.
The baalei mussar explain that although committing a sin is indeed grave, it does not become part of one’s personality, and one can do teshuvah. A bad character trait, however, becomes part of one’s personality and is much more difficult to uproot.
But this is not the way we think. If a frum person loses his temper, we are likely to still consider him a frum person, but if we found that he ate a ham sandwich, we would not consider him frum. Rav Chaim Vital says that the person who goes into a rage is no different than the person who eats treif.
Moshe Rabbeinu says, “Now, Yisrael, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, to go in all His ways [i.e., to have good middos] and to love Him, and to serve Hashem with all your heart and with all your soul, to observe the commandments of Hashem and His decrees…” (Devarim 10:12–13). As we mentioned above, Moshe Rabbeinu places yiras Shamayim, emulating Hashem’s attributes, and love of Hashem ahead of observing the mitzvos.
“Yiras Shamayim” is not referring only to fear of being punished for committing sins. Such fear is juvenile, but it is nec- essary as a beginning. A two-year-old who runs into the street cannot understand a lecture on the dangers of traffic, and he must be discouraged by a potsh. However, a potsh need not hurt the child.
I remember when my little brother climbed out the window onto the roof. My father called him back gently, then took the child’s hand in his own, and delivered a firm potsh to his own hand, not to the child’s. No pain was inflicted on the child. It is the action of the potsh, not the pain, that delivers the discipline. The action shows the father’s disapproval, and the child does not have to be hurt to get the message. Once the child reaches the age of reason, even this kind of punishment should be unnecessary.
The parent should earn the respect of the child to the degree that the child would not act contrary to the parent’s wishes.
As mature as we may be, we are all juvenile, if not infantile, relative to Hashem, and therefore it is essential that we know that there is reward for mitzvos and punishment for sins. But we must go beyond that. Elemental yiras Shamayim means to be in awe of Hashem’s majesty, so that one would not act inap- propriately in His presence. This is the very first halachah in the Shulchan Aruch, to always behave with the awareness that we are in the presence of Hashem. Elemental yiras Shamayim is essential to Yiddishkeit. Without yiras Shamayim, even the most meticulous glatt kosher observance is not Yiddishkeit.
But how far we are from that! The Talmud relates that before his death, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told his disciples that their yiras Shamayim should be no less than their awe of humans. “A person often will not do something improper if another person sees him, but he is not afraid to do so if the only one that sees him is Hashem” (Berachos 28b).
There is unfortunately a plague of inappropriate material on the Internet that has infected some “frum” people, younger and older, men and women, and people are asking what is the antidote to this. When I say, “yiras Shamayim,” they say “That is not enough.” Of course it is enough, it is just that it is not there. As Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai said, these people would not be seen entering a shop that peddles indecent things. They are afraid and ashamed of someone seeing them there. But they are not afraid and ashamed of indulging in inappropriate material in the privacy of their home or office, where they are seen only by Hashem.
I am told, “You can’t expect that level of yiras Shamayim from people. It is unrealistic to expect them to be a Chafetz Chaim.”
Does one have to be a Chafetz Chaim to avoid eating pork? If one is not aware that one is in the presence of Hashem, and if one is not ashamed to do things that one would not do if others were watching, one has not begun the first paragraph of the Shulchan Aruch, and one has not even begun Yiddishkeit.
It is not uncommon that children do not follow in their parents’ footsteps. Some may become more frum, others may stray from Torah observance. Parents wonder, “Where did we go wrong? Why are our children deviating from the way we raised them?”
Make no mistake about it. Our children are very sensitive and can detect whether our Yiddishkeit is genuine or superficial. Genuine Yiddishkeit begins with “to fear Hashem to go in all His ways” — i.e., yiras Shamayim, as defined above, and proper middos: controlling anger, ridding ourselves of grudges, dishon- esty, envy, lashon hara, inconsiderateness, and developing the middos of chesed, truth, ahavas Yisrael, respect, and consider- ation of others. We want our children to adhere to Yiddishkeit, and not to go off the derech. Only genuine Yiddishkeit will keep them close to us.