A great rabbi once said that it is easier to memorize the entire Babylonian Talmud than to change one character trait. Self-improvement is one of the greatest and most difficult challenges that a person faces. How does one go about overcoming a negative trait?
The answer was supplied by my karate teacher many years ago (when I was fit and flexible). He said, “Always attack where the opponent is weakest.” The same logic motivated Winston Churchill to attack Italy which he called, “the soft underbelly of the Axis.” Of all the manifestations of a particular character trait, the easiest to change is action; it is our weakest opponent. Speech, thought and emotion are extremely difficult to control, but most people are able to control their actions with relative ease. According to our martial arts principle, this should be the focus of our efforts toward self-improvement. It is in the field of action that we will find the least resistance and therefore have the most chance of success.
In addition to tactical considerations, the focus on action is based on a psychological principle formulated over 500 years ago by a great Jewish philosopher, the anonymous author of Sefer Hachinuch, The Book of Education. He was asked why there are so many commandments commemorating the Exodus from Egypt: we eat matzah and bitter herbs, drink wine, relate the story of the Exodus, clean the house to remove all leavened products, recite blessings and prayers, etc., etc. Would it not have been sufficient for God to simply command us to remember the Exodus?
His reply is fundamental to understanding Judaism’s emphasis on actions and concrete mitzvot.
Know that a person is affected by his actions, and his feelings and thoughts always follow the actions in which he is engaged, whether good or bad. Imagine a person who is completely evil in his heart and who only contemplates evil all day. If such a person is inspired to change and engages diligently in fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, even if not for the sake of Heaven, he will immediately incline towards good. And with the power of his actions he will slay the evil inclination — for the heart follows the actions. Imagine a righteous person, with pious and upright feelings, who engages in actions of folly and evil continuously…If he is engaged in actions of evil continuously, eventually they will influence his thoughts and feelings and he will become an evil, corrupt person — for, as we know, the person is affected by his actions.
The commandments of the Torah train us to become better people by focusing on our actions more than our thoughts and feelings. The act of giving charity, for example, makes the person into more of a giver every time it is done. Thinking and meditating about giving will not necessarily make a person more generous, but the act of giving will inevitably create this effect. Saying blessings to express appreciation to God for everything that we receive instills in us the attribute of gratitude.
Even mitzvot that appear to focus on our relationship with God can also have an impact on our ethical behavior in the world. Stopping work to observe the Sabbath, no matter how important or profitable that work may be, teaches a crucial lesson. Financial success is not the ultimate value in life; we will not do “whatever it takes” to get ahead. Each week we train ourselves to exercise self-control and to consider the moral impact of our actions.
Perfection of the self is an evolutionary process, using small incremental steps to improve. Every step in the right direction is a step in building the self, and no action is insignificant in this endeavor.