Oil and water.
The body, a completely physical entity whose behavior can range from animalistic to near angelic, is paired with the soul. And that soul, nothing less than a holy and pure piece of the Almighty, desires nothing more than closeness to its Maker.
Our soul’s desire for good has met its match in our physical being. Of course, we have successes. But we also have many failures.
This dichotomy of body and soul is discussed at length in Jewish literature. In the introduction to his Sefer Chovos Ha’Levavos, HaRav Bahya Ibn Paquda, zt”l, discusses these two worlds- soul and body- and their interplay. The Ramchal, too, speaks about body and soul in many of his works, including Derech Hashem and Mesilas Yesharim. The theme they weave is crystal clear: we are our soul and we were given a temporary body with which the soul could live in the physical world. Our charge: avoid the pitfalls of the physical world around us, and capitalize on the opportunities we were given to elevate our soul.
“Ok. Got it. But we knew that already. Nothing new here.”
You’re completely right. ABCs. And maybe it’s just me. But I just find creating and succeeding at significant personal change- something many of us think about as we enter the season of the High Holidays- to be a heavy, difficult, and slow process. It’s as if success happens only after walking through a mile of quicksand. With heavy weights on our backs. Why can’t we be like the greats of previous generations? The Matriarchs and Patriarchs, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Neviim, Tannaim, Amoraim, the Rambam, the Gra, the Chofetz Chaim, Chazon Ish and Rav Moshe…
The Ramchal, in the introduction of the Mesilas Yesharim, is unequivocal: we absolutely can be one of the greats. The reason we don’t reach their heights is simple: we just don’t spend enough time working on elevating ourselves. At work, we are hired for our jobs due to a degree of mastery or skill. At home, our success in parenting depends on patience, creativity, and the art of distraction. Our marriages require dedicated time away from the kids and a mindset of selflessness. And with Rosh Hashana in our sights, the call of the shofar reminds us of the investment we need to make in our souls.
The Ramchal is teaching us something so simple yet ever so critical, and it bears repeating: in order for us to have mastery in matters of the soul, we need to invest time regularly in the study of that which elevates the soul.
Hundreds of years after the Ramchal, modern research has caught up with the value of investing time. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a well-known book called “Outliers.” He highlights a study conducted in the 1990s where a team of psychologists was interested in violinists’ practice habits. Study participants were asked: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?
The conclusion of the research is fascinating and well-known: the elite performers exceeded 10,000 hours of practice- a major investment that delivered a clear return. Interestingly, what was also uncovered in this research is that these musicians weren’t necessarily naturally gifted. They weren’t tone deaf, but they weren’t all born with perfect pitch, either. We might have assumed that the childhood musical prodigies would float to the top, needing fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise: there is a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals surpassing the normal musicians.
If we aspire to be among the greats, the elites in matters of the soul, we don’t need to be born righteous or possess a natural affinity for Talmud study. We need to intentionally create a habit of investing the time to become even more excellent than we already are- and perhaps even more excellent than we ourselves believe we can be. Try to find some time each day to focus on your growth. Read a book on character development. Spend time setting goals for the year. Invest in yourself!
As the old saying goes, the best way to start, is to start. The season of the High Holidays, as we celebrate our new year with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is an opportune time to take stock of a year gone by, and plan- with intent and focus- the year to come. May this year be filled with growth, health, and happiness.
BIO: Rabbi Phil Karesh is a Certified Mohel as well as the Midwest Regional Director of the Orthodox Union’s Community Engagement Department, and partners with communities and Shuls throughout the Midwest Region toward the greater goals of the OU: to engage, strengthen and inspire the greater Jewish community.