Words of the Wisdom from the Kotzker Rebbe

December 2013
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Motive and Opportunity

By B. Wahrhaftig 2013

"Know why you want what you want". This teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, haunted me. He was known for his exceptional scholarship, love of his fellow Jew, and many other laudable qualities. I, however, was fascinated by some of other aspects of the Kotzker way.

A biography loaned to me by a neighbor presented the Kotzker as having no tolerance for moral compromise. I read that he secluded himself for the final 20 years of his life, and burned his manuscripts before his death. Even among the Kabbalists the early 19th century, this might be considered notable.

The Kotzker Rebbe's principles were straightforward and fundamental. Three things were absent from the lives of the Kotzker and his followers: ornamentation, pretense, and money. Their poverty was legendary. Cabbage leaves served as head coverings. With nothing much in the way of physical distraction, spirituality and severity permeated their world.

The book was filled with stories that ranged from pointed to astonishing. Many of the quotes were so sharp they stung. The advice to "know why you want what you want" really made me think. I wondered why I want what I want. Exploring my own motives became a habit, and grew into distraction bordering on obsession.

The trouble with self-knowledge is the self-deception factor. I dug into my actions, exposed the cheats and tricks, and came to understand my true intentions. All was well until the following day showed me they were just better lies, leaving my newfound understanding in tatters. The process reminded me of dismantling an onion, and was developing a decidedly unpleasant odor. Each cut revealed a deeper version, but how would I be certain that I uncovered the core? It seemed that I could never be sure of my own heart and mind.

A close friend told me that I would be much happier if I didn't think so much. Perhaps true, but happiness might be overrated. Know why you want what you want. It was simple advice, but was looking impossible to achieve.

During a public appeal for charity, I would demur. An anonymous donation was surely more appropriate. Later, I would wonder if avoiding a public pledge was really my sly way to shrink the amount. Next, I would decide to match, no exceed, the amount I would have said aloud during the appeal. This would be followed by wondering if I was really seeking to give without public acknowledgement so I might indulge in feeling superior. There seemed to be no bottom to that logical snake pit.

Other sources only compounded my confusion. The Mishna quotes the teaching of Yehoshua ben Perachia to judge every person in their favor (Pirkei Avos 1:6). The Talmud mentions that anyone who judges others favorably will be judged favorably in Heaven (Shabbos 127b). So, if I judge others favorably, I will also be given the benefit of the doubt, right?.

Sure, but there should be no doubt from which to benefit. When I judge others, their innermost thoughts and motives are not known to me. I can infer from their words or actions, but I can never know the truth. Heavenly judgment is all-seeing and all-knowing. If there is no secret, there can be no doubt. It is not possible to see everything in my heart, yet not know why I act as I do. I just couldn't reconcile the ideas, and it bothered me.

One night, I mentioned these questions to my friend Yitzchak Aharon. He is an editor of scholarly works. I have a library card. We are at opposite ends of the printed wisdom spectrum. He did not hesitate. Of course, his response was Talmudic.

He asked if I was familiar with the case of five men seated on a bench who are joined by a sixth man, causing the bench to break (Bava Kama 10b). Miraculously, I was familiar. The debate centers on who is accountable, those seated, only the last arrival, all of them equally. He quoted an explanation placing liability on the party who is the proximal cause, "the straw that broke the camel's back".

He paraphrased the comments of Rav Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir. Events in a person's life, he explained, are like the case of the bench. You do things with a mix of motives, not always and only good. One reason can be assigned as the decisive cause. If you give others the benefit of the doubt, your better intentions are allowed to emerge as the primary motivation for your own acts. The ambiguity of your own drives is resolved in your favor.

In discussing that response with another old friend, the same one who told me I think too much, he mentioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe's advice to look at the outcome to judge the intent. If the result is positive, the motive was also positive. If not, well..

Things are clearer now. Still a creature of habit, I indulge in over analysis of the outcomes, and therefore the motives. Was it really a good result? Am I just convincing myself? Oh well, maybe there has been enough of that for this lifetime. Being aware of one's motives is laudable, but spending all day every day thinking about it is excessive. Regarding the motives of others, I am fanatical about considering every remotely possible explanation for any perceived failings. As an apologist for them, I am in a league of my own.

We all try to do the right thing, for the right reasons. Hopefully, we succeed. Looking at the likely outcome can illuminate our real motives and give us a chance to decide before acting. Just in case, taking a kinder view of others will provide a little insurance in cases that are not certain. The lesson I learned - Judge others favorably, but try not to dwell on the whole matter too much. It isn't healthy. Focus on trying to get good outcomes. Don't sweat over the minutiae.


from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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