It is no secret that western society is success oriented. Everyone wants to be a success, whether it be a successful basketball player, a successful actress, a successful lawyer, a successful stockbroker... the list goes on and on. Success is championed as one of life’s greatest values. Everyone loves success stories. Everyone envies successful people.
From the earliest ages, children are taught to admire success. Parents push their kids to be successful. The drive to succeed is reinforced in schools. The competition is fierce to get into top colleges, because they are seen as the doors to success. Working your way up the ladder of success is the mainstay of capitalism. Accordingly, bookstores are filled with guides on how to succeed.
Chances are that the faces we see in this world on the cover of People Magazine are not the faces which we are going to see in Heaven in the world to come.
All of this means that the poor soul who does not succeed is a loser. In western society, if you are not a success, you are probably very unhappy. Your self-image is bound to be low. The successful people are the winners, and you are nothing more than a bum.
The Torah, however, has a very different understanding of success. Our Sages teach that the beginning verse of this week’s Torah portion, “When you go forth to war against your enemies, and the L-rd thy G-d delivers them into your hands, and you have taken them captive….” is not only speaking about military encounter, but also about a person’s war against his evil inclinations. The hero in this war is the person who overcomes his passion and remains true to G-d’s will for the Jewish People as set down in the guidelines of the Torah. This is life’s true success.
So if you are a loser according to the standards and values of modern Western society, all is not lost. You too can be a winner. You too can succeed. How? Through t’shuva. That’s right. The key to success is t’shuva. When life is looked at through spiritual glasses, the most important thing is neither money, nor honor, nor power, nor fame. The most important thing is getting closer to G-d. For real achievement is actually measured by what is important to G-d, not by what society flaunts. In G-d’s eyes, a woman can be successful without looking like Barbie. A man can be a success without having a six-figure salary. The real successful individual is the baal t’shuva, the person who is forever seeking a deeper commitment to Torah and a healthier relationship with G-d.
In his book, “Lights of T’shuva,” Rabbi Kook teaches that the fundamental force of life is the will to get ever closer to G-d. The will to be connected to G-d finds expression in the longing for goodness. Just as G-d is good, we should be good. Just as G-d is giving, we should be giving. Man is the only creature who possesses a free will. Our task is to align our will with the will of our Creator. For the Jewish people, living a life of goodness means living a life filled with Torah, which is G-d’s will for the Jews. This is the path to true happiness.
Sin acts as a barrier between man and his Maker. When a person defies G-d’s will, he distances himself from G-d. He falls out of harmony with existence, because all of existence is doing G-d’s will. The sun rises every day just as G-d has decreed. Rains fall, flowers grow, birds chirp, all in harmony with G-d’s will. Only man has the freedom to turn his will against G-d.
If a person’s will to do good slips off the right path, he quickly comes to transgress. Rabbi Kook explains that every sin weakens the will to do good. With a weakened moral desire, a man can fall into the clutches of sin completely, G-d forbid.
For example, this explains how so many people fall into viewing pornography on the Internet. A seemingly innocent glance at a website containing erotic images involves the Torah transgression of not going astray after one’s eyes. This falling away from the Torah invisibly weakens the will for goodness. Since the person has already succumbed to his desire once, he succumbs again, then again and again, until his will for goodness is decimated and he becomes addicted to pornographic sites.
This moral decline and subsequent severance from G-d can only be cured by t’shuva. It is through returning to G-d that man recognizes the value of goodness. This recognition strengthens the will to do good and gives the penitent power in the battle against his yetzer hara. The more a person learns about the goodness of G-d, and the more he learns Torah, the more ammunition he has in the fight. When he fervently prays to come closer to G-d, his will for goodness is fortified and he re-attaches himself to the Divine “superwill” for the world. This gives him the inner spiritual resources to overcome his evil inclination and turn it toward the good. The winner in this ever-raging battle is the man who clings to G-d in all of his doings. He is the true hero. His is the truest success.
T'shuva Knocks Outs the Yetzer
This understanding is startling because it stands in total conflict with all of modern western culture. Today, who are the “successful people”? The movie stars, rock stars, billionaires, political leaders, and sports heroes. These are society’s champions. These are the role models whom young people emulate. They are considered successful because they have successfully achieved honor, power, money and fame — values which Judaism places at the negative side of the scale of character traits.
You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog
Our Sages teach that we should flee from honor and pride. Our prophets tell us that it is not the powerful and egotistical who shall inherit the earth, but the humble and righteous. Our Rabbis warn that the pursuit of wealth and fame brings misery in its wake. In other words, chances are that the faces we see in this world on the cover of People Magazine are not the faces which we are going to see in Heaven in the world to come.
Rabbi Kook writes: “All of the talents in the world are merely to implement the person’s will to do good, which becomes stamped into his being through the light of constant t’shuva. A great influx of G-d’s spirit falls constantly over the penitent, and a holy will increases in him, far surpassing the aspirations of ordinary men. He comes to recognize the positive value of true success — the will for goodness, which is solely dependent on the person himself, and not on any external condition.”
When a person connects to the moral and spiritual world of the Torah, he realizes that talents are not ends in themselves, but the means we employ in serving G-d. One realizes that the goal is not just to be a good singer, but to sing the praises of G-d. The goal is not just to be a good writer, but to use one’s talent as a writer to bring people closer to G-d.
All You Really Need is T'shuva
The greatness of one’s talent is not the measure of success. Nor is monetary reward or public recognition the yardstick. Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” lived a life of one good deed after another, but outside of Israel, he was hardly known at all. Who in G-d’s eyes do you think was a greater success, Rabbi Aryeh Levin or Frank Sinatra, “Old Blue Eyes,” who was known all over the world? The answer is obvious when we judge our lives by Jewish standards, and not by the standards of western culture.
So friends, take down the posters of rock stars and actors from your walls and replace them with pictures of the true heroes of existence, “the heroes of t’shuva,’ as Rabbi Kook calls them, the Tzaddikim and baale t’shuva who bring blessing and goodness to the world. “They are the elite of existence, who call out for its perfection, for the victory over evil, and for the return to true goodness and joy.”