Have you ever met someone who knew right from wrong but was still a bad person?
Sure you have. We all have. And it’s hard to understand sometimes. If they knew what is right, why did they do the wrong thing? It seems illogical! It just doesn’t add up.
But the truth is, we are all exactly like this person, even if only to a smaller degree. We often know that we should be acting differently than we actually are, whether in the way we treat our friends and family, or in our financial affairs, or in our relationship with Hashem and Torah observance. We all know that there are things we should be working on and improving on…. but often, it just doesn’t happen. And somehow, just like our friend we spoke about earlier, we land up living a life that is different than the way we know it should be.
In this week’s parsha, Parshat Eikev, Hashem actually describes the Jewish people this way. He calls us a “stiff-knecked nation”. The Sforno, one of our most famous commentators on the Torah, says that to be “stiff necked” means that someone could logically prove to you that you are wrong and it wouldn’t make a difference. You still wouldn’t listen. That’s the way Hashem described the Jewish people…. So clearly the problem didn’t start yesterday. It’s been going on for thousands of years!
Why does this happen? If it is so illogical, then why do people so often live in ways that are different than what they believe to be true?!
There was a whole movement in Europe a few hundred years ago called the Mussar Movement, or Ethics Movement, who wrote a lot about this phenomenon. One of the main rabbis who thought and wrote about it was named Rav Yisrael Salanter. He worked out why people do this and he summed it up in a sentence:
“The greatest distance in the world is between a person’s mind and their heart.”
Someone can believe in one thing intellectually, but unless they find a way to return that to their heart, to internalise it, to know it with every fibre of their being, it won’t affect their actions. This is what the verse in last week’s parsha meant when it said:
“You should know today and return it to your hearts that Hashem is God, there is none other besides Him.”
We see here that Hashem knew all along: It’s not enough to know what’s right and wrong. It’s not enough to believe in something. We then have to return it to our hearts. We have to work out how to internalise those facts. That’s what the sages of the Mussar Movement discussed…. techniques on just how to do that. Once we internalise what we know is true, then they can affect our actions and we can begin to start perfecting ourselves and living lives that are steeped with great and noble ideals. Then we can achieve greatness.
Good luck and Shabbat Shalom!