After getting married, Sarah and I moved to Long Beach, New York – home of the famous Yeshiva of Long Beach. There are Yeshiva students’ everyway in Long Beach – lots of them. They seem to always be walking somewhere. In winter or summer, they are always there, with their plain black suits and funny nerdish hats.
“Definitely not me”, I thought.
I wasn’t programmed for “plain.” My brain wanted “excitement” and “diversity,” something to jolt my reward circuitry hard and fast. “It’s not my fault; that’s how I grew up!”
One day, for no apparent reason, my legs took me into the Yeshiva building during morning prayers. Weaving my way through more hats than I’d ever seen in one place – I felt a lot of eyes focusing on me. I was finally relieved to see another civilian, dressed like me, standing in the back – a guy with a friendly smile.
After we prayed, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the 11th grade Rebbe, (teacher) came over smiling widely: “Shalom Alechem” (welcome). Continuing he asked: “do you live in the neighborhood?” I told him that we had found a house right around the corner from the Yeshiva. “Really?” he said (smiling) then you live closer than all of the Rebbes – except for the Rosh Yeshiva (the head of the Yeshiva).
Then something happened…
Right there in the land of the “plain”, I had a sudden surge of joy!
Rabbi Cooper asked me if I was currently learning anything (Torah of course). I told him that I was learning in a place for Baalei Teshuva – newly observant Jews - but that it might be time to make a change.
“Do you think I could learn here?” (I impulsively blurted out)
“Why not”, he said quickly. “We can always find a chair for one more student.”
“OY GEVALT” ( ya know what I mean?)
The Mesivta (Yeshiva) of Long Beach is an Ivy League Yeshiva. At the time, it was easily one of the top 5 Lithuanian Yeshivas in the US. Academically, the boys are in the top 2 -3% of kids their age. They certainly were bright and they certainly were on a mission (already) – but they had a quality that impressed me even more.
I was put into a 10th grade class. On my first day of school, I took a seat in the back and tried my best to fit my 6’3” frame into the high-school size desk and chair. Looking around I noticed the room filling up with hats. They filed in quietly, and took their seats. When Rabbi Feig entered the room, we all stood out of respect and he began to teach.
After class, four 15 year old boys approached me; each one asked if he could be my study-partner – amazing!
And why was this amazing?
Because after my début class, it was obvious to all that despite my having completed a master’s degree, a 4-year post-graduate program and part of a doctoral program; when it comes to the memory and analytical skills needed to learn Talmud, there wasn’t a kid in the class who couldn’t learn me under the table. But that didn’t stop them from wanting to share what they had with me - even though I could have been their father!
The truth was that I wasn’t ready for 10th grade at the Mesifta of Long Beach. The Rabbi’s just weren’t sure how the ninth graders (and their parents) would react to having me in their class.
So why did I stay there for three years? Because for me the most precious commodity that they had at the Yeshiva wasn’t their brilliance, it was their outstanding character.
I saw, in these boys (and their teachers) positive personality traits such as: kindness, warmth, hospitality, friendliness, judging people favorably, responsibly, confidence, diligence, enthusiasm, patience, maturity, sincerity, reliability, studiousness, an ability to manage time, emotional independence, love for serving Hashem, understanding of others, and a sense of direction in life. I wanted this for my kids, but as the saying goes, “you can’t give what you don’t have.”
So I learned with the “nerds” for the next three years.
From my perspective as a secular psychotherapist, I never would have believed that one could find such polished character traits in a group of adolescent boys. From my perspective as a former secular Jew, these kids were light-years away from how my peer group behaved in high-school and even in college.
Today we see people interested in finding out about all kinds of things and other people. There is literally only one topic that we can’t simply Google and instantly become knowledgeable about and that topic is – ourselves.
We need to become expert in ourselves in order to know what we need Hashem’s help to eliminate in ourselves and what we need his help to improve in ourselves. Without self-knowledge, it’s like Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, said: “A person can live with himself for seventy years and still not know himself.”
Many religious people still don’t seem to know that self-improvement is a commandment that G-d gave to Moses on Mount Sinai and comes even before learning Torah and doing mitzvos. This is because without good character, our Torah learning and mitzvos won’t be worth anything and might even be harmful.
So if you’re ready to join us “nerds” in our quest for self-improvement. Here is an easy way to get started:
Get a copy of Gateway to Self-Knowledge by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. He lists hundreds of negative and positive personality traits that you can use as a convenient check list for yourself.
The next time that you encounter a difficult or challenging situation use it as a growth opportunity by searching through Rabbi Pliskin’s list until you have found all of the negative traits that manifested themselves (in that situation) in your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Continue to search through Rabbi Pliskin’s list until to you find a countervailing positive trait (usually the opposite one) for each of the negative traits that you listed.
Make an appointment with Hashem (actually you don’t need one, He’s ready anytime)
Tell Him that you are entirely ready for him to relieve you of every single negative trait that you have, because (and this is important) you want to be of greater service to Him and others.
Humbly ask Hashem to remove every one of your negative traits.
Ask Hashem to replace your negative traits for the better positive ones that you listed.
Pray to really Believe that from now on you can leave your negative traits to Hashem (which means that you can finally stop fighting with them). But that’s only if you…
Practice the positive traits that you listed (the best you can).
Continue praying (step “4”) for the next 30 days twice a day upon awakening and before sleep.
Using this method, I have found that my self-awareness increased very quickly. I am now able to spot most of my negative tendencies while they are starting to take place. I then say a quick prayer asking Hashem to help me let go of the negative ones and practice the positive ones. So, for example, if my negative trait is that I tend to judge people unfavorably, I must humbly request that Hashem remove this trait from me and instead show me how to find the positive qualities in others.
Try it and see what happens!
You can avoid getting discouraged if you decide that you’re aiming for progress not perfection.
Please, if for any reason, you don’t feel comfortable with this method, just skip it or try it with someone who can give you guidance and support.
Good Luck and every Blessing!
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Zev Ballen, LCSW has been a practicing psychotherapist for 32 years. He is licensed in Israel and the State of New York. Zev has the endorsements of prominent Gadolei Yisrael such as the Nikolsburger Rebba, Shlita, Reb Yitzchok Fagelstock, Shlita, The Kasaner Rebbe of Forshay, Shlita, Rav Shalom Arush, Shlita, and Rabbi Lazer Brody, Shlita. He resides with his family in Jerusalem where he learns in Rav Arush’s Kollel and maintains a part-time practice. You can write to Zev Ballen at: firstname.lastname@example.org call him at: 845-362-8600 (US line) or 054-840-9499 (Israeli line).