This particular topic of thoughts needs greater explanation and broader guidance—for, as we learn in the holy Zohar and other holy works, the entirety of who you are depends on your thoughts, but the more confused a person’s thoughts are, then the more control his evil inclination has over him. It is my prayer that God will help me and illumine my eyes to explain this more fully elsewhere. Nevertheless, since I am talking about this now, I will at least make reference to this matter, so that you will be aware of how much you have to protect yourself against its dangers at every moment.
Working on your thoughts is a very difficult task. It is difficult to straighten out twisted thoughts—and difficult even to recognize them. Many thoughts rush through a person’s mind and he cannot tell whether they are sanctified to God so that he should work to always have them in mind, or whether they are the “progeny of Satan” and he should get rid of them.
For instance, perhaps you are not engaged in degraded thoughts—but you are thinking about the evil and depravity of someone else. “Oh, how disgusting that person is, and this thing that he did and the other are so disgusting, he says ugly words like this and that.” And so there pass through your mind all of these degraded actions and words—not only those that you saw and heard and saw in that low person, but in addition what you imagine he has been up to. And you sigh over how far that person has fallen and in your thoughts you imagine yourself giving him a good talking to. Clearly, after you’ve thought about this and how you’ll rebuke this person, after you have sighed such heartfelt sighs, you see yourself as an elevated personality who cannot bear even bear the evil of the flaws of another person, and so you sigh and rebuke him at least in your thoughts—and if you only could, you would rebuke him in real life and tear out his hair!
Were I to meet you as these thoughts were going through your mind, I would whisper into your ear, “all of these thoughts that you are having about someone else are your thoughts. You are the so-and-so about whom you are thinking, you are the one who wants to do all those things, to speak or at least think such negative thoughts, and since you refrain from them, your desires and thoughts are fooling you and disguise themselves as someone else so that you can justify thinking about them. Look inside yourself and you will see that you will find it difficult to let go of those thoughts.”
The wiles of the Satan in thoughts such as these are legion, subtle and ever-more subtle, it is difficult to straighten them out and difficult even to be aware of them. And if a person doesn’t recognize them, he will be entirely filled with negative thoughts, at first disguised as thoughts about someone else, and later on just as they are. His desires will flare up, and he will not know their source, because at the beginning he had thought that he is guarding himself from them. But if he recognizes them he should grasp them by the back of the neck and in a bitter voice from the depth of his heart he should cry out, “You murderers who seek my blood, why do you deceive me to pollute me and to cast me down into the pit, heaven forbid? One, two, three...”—rebuke them and then, with God’s help, they will not dare deceive you and to pollute you while in disguise.
In general, in all of your thoughts, if you are not aware of them in general and in detail, then it is almost impossible for you to have any control over them, and it will be very difficult for you to straighten them out.
It is important to discuss this at length, with God’s help. But here, I want to speak only about the first steps and about the realm of holy thought.
I considered that within the framework of this short work, it should suffice to instruct you on how to look within yourself and how to tell whether you have indeed reached a state of divine fervor or at least godly feeling, or whether not even one feather of the wings of your soul has made the slightest move.
I have told you how difficult it is to see yourself, and I alerted you to the danger of allowing your self-interest to color your reflections on yourself. But I still am not certain that you will hear what I am saying due to your possible laziness and lack of effort. I am not so sure that what I have to say will help you.
I find it difficult to suspect you of this, since I have already in Chovat Hatalmidim spoken about how important it is to be motivated and enthusiastic and how negative the trait of laziness is, and even simple sloppiness. So how can I now suspect you of such slovenliness, and particularly since in this work I am addressing a young person who has reached maturity?
But what can I do? The facts speak for themselves that nowadays people seek superficiality and not effort, to accomplish things easily and not through hard work. And this doesn’t only refer to merchants who are pursuing an income, but also to young unmarried and married men who are being supported by their parents and who do not want to make an effort and really apply themselves in serving God. Some of them only pick easy texts of Torah to learn, and when they reach a passage that needs to be studied carefully, they either skip it or just skim it with bare understanding. Other young people may work hard in their Torah learning, but when it comes to service of God, they make do with superficiality.
Some people may wish to listen, learn, and know the deepest and highest teachings, in simple matters or in Hasidism. Astonishingly, some even love to receive the most brutal criticism.
But when it comes to girding their loins and striving to control their every thought, speech and action, to remove the evil from themselves and transform it to holiness—that is something that they do not do.
Perhaps this is because they were only taught to work hard in their childhood when it comes to learning Torah, whereas they were been habituated from their youth to work hard in serving God, and so they don’t. Or more simply, since the purpose of their learning is to serve God, to subjugate and oblige themselves and every part of themselves to the holiness of God and His service, their evil inclination works hard and does not allow them to exert themselves.
I have nothing to add to what I have said on this topic. And even if I do add anything, what good will it do, if these people have developed such a pleasure of listening to and being moved by sharp criticism, like those who enjoy drinking strong liquor or sitting in a steaming hot mikvah, and who get pleasure from the drink as it burns their throat or the water as it burns their skin? They may feel rebuked and aroused by my words, but that will still not inspire them to exert themselves.
But look at the words of the holy tzaddikim of past generations to see that the main thing is serving God through exertion.
In his Igrot Hakodesh, the Baal Hatanya writes that the word for “service” of God is “avodah”—literally, work. Avodah refers only to an activity that a person engages in with great effort against his nature, setting aside his own nature and desire before the supernal desire of God, such as making an effort in learning Torah and praying to the point that his soul is exhausted.”
Even the holy tzaddikim only reached their great holiness by engaging in difficult work. And not only in regard to their elevated level, but in order to reach any sort of purity or holiness—as this applies to every individual on his own level—one needs work.
The holy texts offer many different strategies necessary for serving God.
The Baal Shem Tov is cited in the holy Toldot Yaakov Yosef (Chukot) that one wages war only with strategies. And the holy Meor V’shemesh (Balak) states even more broadly that we constantly need new strategies, for all of the strategies that a person employs in his service of God are skylights that he opens in the heights to draw down God’s light and holiness upon himself, whereas the hostile forces grow stronger and close those skylights, and so he must engage in new strategies. This is such a difficult service and battle that one needs various strategies to apply it; and a strategy that has been presented in the past is not enough for the entirety of one’s life, but one needs new approaches.
If you imagine that you can create such excellent strategies that you will no longer have to work hard and toil, you are making a terrible and dangerous error. The intent of our service and the fact that the Torah was given to us and not to angels is because of our toil with our body and struggle with our will, something that does not pertain to the angels.
It is precisely this toil that God requires of us. In general, the entire topic of generating strategies and ideas is only for being able to toil in order to succeed, and also to draw down the holy, elevated worship of past generations to ourselves, with our impoverished abilities and our limited intellects. We cannot learn and understand the four levels of the Torah as did the holy ones of previous generations, and we cannot afflict ourselves and toil in our worship of God as they did. But we must subjugate the abilities that we do possess, our traits and our minds, by toiling in God’s holy service, and by bringing them as a pleasing sacrifice upon the altar of God.
And if you are such a spiritual person, a servant of God who toils in God’s service, whether in learning Torah or in active service, whether with your mind or with our body, or you intend to start to be such a person from this moment on, then you are one of the elect and the choice of our generation, and you shall be the holy treasury of Israel. And you of course do not deny your flaws—to the contrary, you look for them so that you can recognize and correct them.
But let me tell you, nevertheless, since now one sees you now and there is no one before whom to be ashamed—even if you search your faults in order to correct them, nevertheless, neither you nor I can yet be sure that my words will change you. Not that you will purposely reject my words behind your back—but, rather, without meaning to—and possibly, due to your nature, you will turn aside from the straight road without even knowing that you have done so.
The cause of your crooked vision is alluded to in the Talmud (Ketuvot 17), “The School of Hillel said to the School of Shammai, ‘According to you, if someone has bought an inferior item, should someone else praise it or deprecate it in his presence? I would think he should praise it in his presence.’“ Why? In order to acquiesce to the desire of the buyer, as we see from Rashi’s explanation.
And why does the buyer want his purchase to be praised before him, so much so that the School of Hillel says that one should praise it even if it does not merit praise? The answer is that it is a person’s nature not to want to think that he has wasted his money. He doesn’t want to throw away an object whose material is valuable, such as silver, or an object whose value is not in the material but in its artful construction.
Thus, if someone starts criticizing it as not being beautiful or valuable, the person will feel very bad. And if it is so hard for a person to hear that an object of his is not valuable, how much more is it difficult for him to be told that his own personal being, value and beauty are lacking?
And whether or not anyone else sees him, whether he is being confronted by a person standing in front of him or whether he is reading some text whispering into his heart, it can be difficult for a person, a ben Torah, a Hasid who considers himself a Hasid and who is known to his friends as a Hasid, to realize that this is not in fact the case and he is not really a hasid, and to acknowledge that he has a long way to go, and to see that his thoughts are not as holy as he had though they were, and that his Hasidic fervor, which he had thought rose up within him to the heart of heaven, is not fervor and not flame, and that even his simple religious sensitivity, his will, his awe and love of God that he feels on occasion, need a great deal of improvement, and for now he should pray simply without fervor—just with effort.
And so I am afraid that you will hear me—but not really hear me. It is possible that my words will pull at your heart, but you will thrust them aside, and cool down this summons to your heart and the small amount of inspiration that has risen up in you, by minimizing and laughing at it.
But if you have a heart that can hear, then pay attention and listen. If I did not know of your abilities, that your heart yearns for God, that your soul cries out from the depths, “Bring me close to You, Hashem,” without ceasing, then I wouldn’t have addressed you and I wouldn’t have asked anything of you.
We learn in Midrash Rabbah (Nasso, Chapter 7), “We only strengthen the strong and we only encourage those who are already interested.”
And really you are one of the strong and one of the interested. But a person can have a fire yet not know what to do with it, so he eats his food raw and cold in his cold room, where he freezes and gropes in the darkness, and he might even cause a conflagration with his fire. But there is someone else who does know how to use his fire. He uses it to cook his food, and to warm and illumine his room.
And the same holds for you: it is all within you: the fire and light of holiness, Torah, will, feeling, etc.—it is all within you. But you have to know how to use it—and then you will be well‑off.
Your light that illumines your head does not allow me to remain silent. I gaze at the peak of your elevated being to which you are able to rise, and that fills me with fervor and impels me to speak to you. “Stand and arise, for Hashem is with you, might warrior!”