This week's portion: potential and reality
Vacating the premises

The lens of lovingkindness

Last week one of the members of my hevruta (paired study group, though actually we meet as a foursome) brought a beautiful text, a fitting prelude for the ramp-up to the month of Elul: a passage from Likkutei Moharan, the primary collection of teachings of Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. I can't think of anything better to be reading as we enter the season of teshuvah, turning and re/turning to orient ourselves toward God. Seriously -- this text knocked my socks off, I'm barefoot over here. Check this out:

You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it's your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.

(Translation courtesy of Arthur Green.) This is a radical teaching. It's easy to judge generously people I know and love, people I recognize might be imperfect but whose goodness clearly outweighs their flaws in my mind and heart. It's a lot harder to apply that same generosity of spirit to someone I don't care for. There are political figures, for instance, whose priorities and decisions I find repugnant; is Reb Nachman really saying that I need to regard even those policy-makers through rose-colored glasses? And -- crazier still -- that when I change the way I view someone, using lenses of hesed (lovingkindness) instead of din (judgement), that person's inner character may change in response to my kindness, even if we never interact?

Reb Nachman continues:

This is why the Psalmist said, "Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there." (Psalms 37:10.) He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they're sinful as can be. By looking for that "little bit," the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place) and by telling them, showing them, that that's who they are we can help them change their lives.

The psalmist, Reb Nachman argues, didn't mean that wicked people will vanish on account of their wickedness -- rather, that wicked people will undergo a fundamental shift and will cease to exist as they were. They will become different people than they were before, no longer enmeshed in the place where they were but capable of rising to a new level.

Do I really believe that by loving someone unconditionally, by choosing to focus on the good in them and articulating to them what good is there, one can change another person's essence? I'm reminded of the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb (answer: one, but it has to want to change.) Part of me is inclined to respond with skepticism to this teaching. Surely we can all find examples, in our own lives and in the broader life of the world, of people who were destructive jerks even though they received all the lovingkindness imaginable.

But another part of me wants to believe that Reb Nachman is right. That it is our obligation to love our neighbors, our "others," as ourselves -- and that in schooling ourselves to feel love for others, even with knowledge of their flaws, we can effect some change on the outside world.

Even the person you think (and he agrees!) is completely rotten -- how is it possible that at some point in his life he has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is to look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge him that way. Then indeed you will "look at his place" and find that the wicked one is no longer there -- not because she has died or disappeared -- but because, with your help, she will no longer be where you first saw her. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.

The more I read this line, the more remarkable I find it. Even a total schmuck has done something good on some level, and by focusing on that worthwhile action I can open a doorway into teshuvah. By choosing to see someone's good side, I strengthen that good side and call more of it into being. Wild, isn't it?

Just when I thought I had a handle on where Reb Nachman is going in this passage, he surprised me:

So now, my clever friend, now that you know how to treat the wicked and find some bit of good in them -- now go do it for yourself as well! You know what I have taught you: "Take great care: be happy always! Stay far, far away from sadness and depression." I've said it to you more than once. I know what happens when you start examining yourself. "No goodness at all," you find. "Just full of sin." Watch out for Old Man Gloom, my friend, the one who wants to push you down. This is one of his best tricks. That's why I said: "Now go do it for yourself as well." You too must have done some good for someone sometime. Now go look for it!

This is advice only someone who struggled with depression, as many say Reb Nachman did, could give. Be happy always -- are you kidding me?! But here, too, he has a point. It's all too easy, in a process of self-examination, to become despondent at what one sees in oneself. It's easy to see all the places where one has fallen short, and to leap to the heartfelt (and incorrect) conclusion that one is irredeemable.

That is indeed one of depression's best tricks: the way it whispers in the ear that I am broken, worthless, a sham and a fraud. That I might as well give up, because there's no way I can live up to any of my aspirations. Reb Nachman offers a corrective to that insidious poison: schooling oneself in the art of seeing good in oneself, just as one works at seeing good in others, too.

One of my teachers once told me that with our actions, and our kavvanah, we evoke in God responses that match where we're at. If I approach teshuvah harshly, with the intent to chastise myself for my failings and with the presumption that I need to do a lot of work before I'm ready to stand before God during the Days of Awe, then God will respond to me in that vein, and my inner work will become bitter and painful. But if I approach teshuvah gently and sweetly, trying (as Reb Nachman urges) to see myself as kindly and compassionately as I see others, then I will meet the face of God that corresponds to that emotional tone: God's endless love and limitless compassion for all of us created in the divine image, trying as best we can to live up to who we know we can be.

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