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Weaknesses and Shortcomings

In general, the month of Iyar is a month of physical healing, as we learn from the Hebrew letters of the name of the month, which are the initials of the words “I am God, your Healer.” One of the secret qualities of Iyar is the warmth of the fire of Lag Ba’Omer, the fire of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  If you stand near enough to feel the warmth of the fire of Lag ba’Omer, this, so we are taught, has health benefits for the entire year.  On Lag Ba’Omer we received the inner Torah, the fire of the Torah, which is why we light fires in honor of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Studying the Jewish soul also has a special connection to the inner secrets of the Torah, which must be understood in depth in order to heal a person’s soul. Therefore one could say that Lag Ba’Omer, the festival of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, is the festival of Jewish psychology.


The counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot (the day we received the Torah) begins with the Omer sacrifice of barley, which is animal fodder. This indicates that in order to be given the privilege of being called a Torah Jew, a person must rectify his animal self. Before receiving the Torah, we must first behave like humans, like a mentsch. Almost everything that has to do with mental health is connected with this. There are many Jews who are Torah oriented, yet still have psychological problems. Apparently this is because they have not yet rectified the human aspect of their souls, and , as we are taught, “derech eretz [good manners] preceded the Torah.”

Similarly, Rabbi Akiva, the greatest Tana, the central pillar of the entire oral Torah, says in the mishnah, “Man is beloved because he was created in God’s image, but even greater love is expressed because he has been informed of the fact that he was created in God’s image, as it says, “In God’s image did He make man.” After this statement, the mishnah continues with two more statements, “The Jewish nation is beloved since they are called sons of the Omnipresent…” and, “beloved are Israel who were given a precious tool [referring to the Torah].” Here we can see three sequential stages: first and foremost, one must be human; then you can reveal your Jewish nature and, at the third stage you become worthy to receive the Torah.

A second important day that occurs during the counting of the Omer is Pesach Sheni. The moral of Pesach Sheni is, “It’s never too late to make amends.” This important message states that even if someone was impure or far away, even if it was for personal reasons, because he fell and distanced himself on purpose, it is always possible to rise. “Even though I fell, I rose, when I sit in darkness, God is my light.” For counselors and educators in particular, this is a very fundamental moral lesson in Jewish psychology. In every situation that you are in, you can elevate yourself and rehabilitate yourself.

A Weakness is not necessarily a Shortcoming

Chassidut teaches us something more that is very relevant to a counselor who wants to help someone emotionally.  Amongst the letters in the Torah there are twenty-two small letters (one of each letter of the alef-bet) and twenty-two large letters. All the other tens of thousands of letters are medium sized. The large letters represent a person’s virtues. A large letter teaches us to enlarge a person’s virtues by looking at them with a magnifying glass. However, when a serious shortcoming is revealed suddenly in his personality, one must use a reducing glass and minimize it as much as possible, like the small letters. This doesn’t mean that I disregard the shortcoming, for if a letter is missing in a sefer Torah, the sefer is invalid.

All the virtues of a Jew are manifestations of his Divine soul and all of his shortcomings are manifestations of his animal soul. But the grand majority of manifestations are what constitutes the actual person, meaning, his rational soul, which has no clear distinction from that of a non-Jew. The rational soul relates to judgment and sanity, the person’s ability to help himself, to choose between good and evil. This is the part of his personality that must be aroused and reinforced.

We can call the idea represented by the majority of the letters, the medium sized letters, the ability to look at the person sitting opposite me, who has come to take my counsel, at eye level, because I too am at best, only human. It is all too simple to ruin the human in me. The moment that I behave with arrogance, God forbid, then I have already become animal-like. But “as water reflects a person’s face, so does a person’s heart reflect the person he sees.” There are two people here, I am a person and you are a person and we look at each other at eye-level and we are trying to become mentschen. Only once we have done so can we arrive at this most important virtue, that we are Jewish. That is the virtue of the grand majority of the letters of the entire Torah.

If a person has virtues and he has shortcomings the intermediate part is that part of his nature that makes him human. If we emphasize that idea then we reach the conclusion that what lies between his virtues and his shortcomings are his weaknesses. Being human means having weaknesses. Someone who has no weaknesses is a superman and he is of no interest to us whatsoever. Humans have far more prestige than angels. We like people who are human and to be human means to have weaknesses.

The main psychological assistance we can offer is the distinction between weaknesses and shortcomings. Quite often, the reason someone is having a difficult psychological time is because he identifies his weaknesses as shortcomings, which is pitiful. But the moment that you, his counselor or educator, can introduce him to the idea that weaknesses are not shortcomings, that is a great foundation in the psychological healing process. Obviously, like any intermediate stage, a weakness that becomes more serious, if not treated, is liable to deteriorate into a shortcoming.

A shortcoming is a hole in the personality. But a weakness does not refer to something that is lacking, it is merely something that is weak. It is the task of the educator or counselor to explain that to be weak in something is not necessarily a shortcoming.

Similarly, a virtue can become a shortcoming and a shortcoming can become a virtue, so it’s a good idea to look at things at eye-level. Something that lies in the middle is somewhat pulled between the extremes, creating positive tension. The Besht with all his greatness was afraid that he might fall into the mouth of a great abyss. On the other hand, he also drew great encouragement from the verse, “if I fall, I will rise.” This reflects a balanced, intermediate state in which there is tension and a consciousness that everything in life is a two way street. If there were only virtues or shortcomings, then there would be no positive tension.

Now we can understand why 99.99 percent of the Torah is written with medium sized letters!

Defining humanity

A fundamental precept here, is that a weakness is not necessarily a shortcoming but that the whole definition of mankind, most surprisingly, reflects weakness. We can learn this from the al hanisim prayer that we say on Chanukah, “you have given strong men in the hands of weaklings, many in the hands of few.” The explanation of this is that the Greeks drew their strength from the side of the klipah (the impure husks) and relatively speaking, whoever is on the side of sanctity, is called, “weak,” even if he is Judah the Macabee, who was far more courageous than the Greek, it makes no difference. The very fact that they are heroes from the world of chaos, while we belong to the world of rectification, means that by definition we are weak. This is because, initially, the energies of the world of rectification must be weak and few (so that they can enter the vessels gradually, without shattering them), in relation to the many, fierce energies of the world of chaos.

A second, more important idea is explained in Chassidut and that is that having weaknesses allows us to intermingle with others; being weak means being human enough to connect. The soft point of our weaknesses is the common denominator between the two of us, on the basis of which we can join with one another in love and affection. Therefore the world of rectification is a world of weaknesses.

Let’s explain this idea further: the prophet states, “the weak shall say, ‘I am strong’.” From this we can see that the weak person wants to be strong, he feels that it is pitiful to be weak, however, we want to introduce him to the idea that it’s not so bad to be weak. Quite the contrary, if you are weak, you are human. Obviously, you have to know what to do with your weakness to prevent it from turning into a shortcoming and creating a vacuum in the soul, but in general, a weakness is not a disadvantage.

There is a verse in which root ”chalash” (weak) is expressed as a verb in a different way and most of the interpreters explain it to mean, “weak,” but in the gemara, the sages explain it to mean, “fate,” as in the Aramaic translation, “drawing lots.”

There is something about a weakness that is fate, everyone has a fate in life as the Alter Rebbe interprets the expression, “in what was your father especially careful?” He explains that this refers to his fate, something that belongs to the root of his soul and for that reason he was especially careful in it.

Another explanation of this expression is that the word, “zahir,” usually interpreted literally as, “careful,” can be understood to mean, “shine.” This would mean that the question is “in which field did he shine?” Psychologically, this would seem to be quite the opposite, for if you are careful in a particular action, then you are constantly aware of it and worry about it being correct, while shining in something emanates from a natural consciousness, like the light that shone from Moses’ face, you shine in a mitzvah and are not constantly worried about it.

We can accommodate these two seemingly contradictory explanations in one by saying that, in actual fact, one depends on the other. If, you have a weakness, then you must understand that the initial service is through constant vigilance.  However, by doing so you begin to shine in that particular quality, and it eventually becomes your strong point.

This is very important and if someone comes to us for advice, we must recognize his weakness, his fate, and help him turn it into the special part of him that shines out of his personality.

It is my responsibility as his counselor to guide him to discover his primary fate. The less important things do not need such attention, but the things that are his fate, his primary concern, must be attended to stubbornly. If nothing seems to work and the weakness continues to rear its head then the person must arouse his “super-human” aspect, and be stubborn until, “the weak says, ‘I am strong’.”

A weakness is an inexplicable and uncontrollable desire. If it is a desire or a love that you cannot overcome, an irrational desire that is so deeply rooted in you that you feel that, “that’s the way it is, that’s my fate, that’s the way God created me,” then that is a weakness.

Everyone has desires. There are two verses in Proverbs that even describe the desires of the righteous, “the desire of the righteous will give,” and “the desire of the righteous is only good. So we see that even a tzadik has desires – that’s what makes him a tzadik.

Even God has a desire, “God desired to have a dwelling place in the lower worlds.” The Alter Rebbe explained that we don’t ask questions about desires; we can’t ask about weaknesses. That is the way God created Himself, as it were. If God were not sufficiently “weak-minded,” so to speak, to have the desire to create us, we would not be sitting here now. So, all of reality begins from God’s weakness, His desire.

A very basic question in psychology, is, which is worse, desire or arrogance? Chassidut concludes that the root of all evil in the world, of everything negative, is pride. In terms of halachah, if a person sins because of a sense of “I am, and there is none beside me,” then he has done it on purpose, while doing a sin because of desire is called appetite, which is much less serious than someone who sins because of his ego.

In a certain way, desire is humiliating, it lowers the sinner from his height of arrogance and from the wild energies of the world of chaos. So even desires for things that are not good have a benefit and it can immediately be utilized, if we know how to look at things correctly (which is the task of the counselor) in order to deflate his pride. Look in the mirror and see what a lowly being you are in your no-good desire – this breaks your pride. In a certain way the sin was worth it in order to reach humility – if it does actually bring you to humility – through the fact that you have weaknesses and desires that are not for Hashem.

Now we can understand better why weakness is connected to the world of rectification. In the world of chaos there is only senseless hatred, but the world of rectification is the “world built on loving-kindness.” Someone who loves nobody is superman. He is strong, he doesn’t love anyone, he has no desire for anything, only a sense of, “I am, and there is none beside me.” Such a person is of no interest to us here, he belongs to pre-history, he is from the worlds that were originally created but God broke them because he didn’t like them, because there was no love in them, until He reached this world, which in a certain way, reflects Him. We like something if it reflects us – God created a world that reflects Him in that He has loves, He has “weaknesses”.

(from a lecture by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, shlit”a, at the Center for Torat Hanefesh, Tel-Aviv, 21 Iyar 5770, translated from the original Hebrew).

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