In last week’s dvar Torah on parshat Ekev, we quoted Rav Yisrael Salanter who said: The longest distance in the world is between a person’s mind and their heart.” We said that this explains why some people now what’s right, but they don’t put it into practice. Hashem knows how we work, so He told us “You should know today and return it to your hearts that Hashem is God in Heaven above and on earth below – there is no other” (Devarim 4:39). You see it’s not enough to know what’s right…. we have to return it to our hearts for it to make any difference or impact on our actions. We have to internalise it.
Question is…. how do we do that? I only said what needs to be done. I never mentioned the techniques that we can use to actually bridge that gap between the head and the heart – to shorten the “longest distance in the world.”
So that’s what we are going to talk about today. The Rabbis who founded the Mussar movement in Europe that dealt with character refinement and making yourself a better person teach us numerous methods about how to internalise what we alreadyknow to be true. Let me share just one of them with you….
In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, Moshe continues his little pep talk to the Jewish people before they pass into the Land of Israel without him, and he tells them about a number of mitzvot: Not to learn any bad habits from our neighbours and start worshipping idols (in fact he mentions this one a number of times), the sacrifices we should bring to the temple on the festivals, the animals that are kosher and not kosher… the list goes on. Why is Moshe telling our ancestors about all of these things? They have already been taught earlier in the Torah! Not only that, but he warns them many, many times about certain things like idol worship. Just teach it once and then they know about it! Why does the Torah, which is usually so careful not to have one single extra letter than necessary, all of a sudden repeating things numerous times!?
The Ramban gives the answer in his first comment in the book of Devarim. He explains what the purpose of this 5th book of the Torah is: Just as the Jewish people are about to enter the land of Israel, Moshe knows that even though they have been taught this all before, they still need to go over it again and again until they can internalize what they have already learned. To ensure they don’t start to stray from the mitzvot once they enter the land promised to our forefathers, they have to go over again and again what they know to be true. That is the first tool of internalising: Repetition. In Ivrit it’s called Chazara. The more we go over things again and again and memorize them and think about them – the more they become a part of who we are.
My mum told me a story that happened at King David recently. One of the students, a young boy about 9 years old, needed to bring a signed slip from his mum to allow him to catch the public bus in the afternoon after school. And every day his mother gave him a signed slip…. but it never made it to school! He had always lost it by the time he got to school and the time came to hand in the slip! On the fourth day however, the slip made it to the teacher – his mum had pinned it to his jumper. That slip was not getting lost again.
This needs to be our attitude. Sometimes we learn an incredible Torah insight, something that we can see is true and right, and it inspires us for a day, a week, but then the effect is lost. However, that idea never changed! It still exists and is still as true as the day we heard it…. we just forgot it, and so we lose momentum and what we know to be true never comes to be implemented. The secret to changing our actions is to carry through and internalise those lessons through chazara. It’s not about quantity, but quality. Don’t worry about learning everything. Worry about internalising what you do learn. We see in Sefer Devarim one technique to accomplish this: Repetition.
Maybe I can suggest a new aim for the week: When you hear a true idea – go over it again and again until you know it off by heart and internalise it. Remember, if at first you don’t succeed…..
Try try again!