You have a list of flaws. Sorry for outing you, but it’s not a big secret. We have strengths and faults.
I challenge you to sit down and list all your strengths and flaws. Let’s be honest; you have both. Now, set the list of strengths aside. I don’t need to tell you what to do with those. You already know. Now, take up your list of flaws and study them carefully. Don’t flinch. Don’t be traumatized. Don’t be ashamed. Just ask yourself how you can positively use these flaws.
Datan and Abiram were brothers in crime who never missed an opportunity to rebel against Moses. When Korach arose and led a rebellion against Moses, Datan and Abiram joined. Moses, the eternal optimist, sent for them hoping to dissuade them from joining Korach, but they audaciously refused and publicly disparaged Moses.
Moses then asked everyone to step away from their tents because G-d would soon open a vast chasm that would swallow them alive. The brazen brothers were not intimidated. They stepped out of their tents and stood upright. Rashi explains that they stood with a haughty bearing to curse and blaspheme. After that, the earth opened wide and swallowed Korach’s entire group alive, including these men.
Indeed, our sages observed that the brazen are destined for purgatory. Their haughtiness and brashness don’t allow them to submit. To acknowledge when they are wrong. They maintain their audacity even when the fight has been lost. They persist in their folly even when they have been proven false. There is no other recourse for them because they won’t give themselves an out—the brazen end up in hell.
The Brazen to Heaven
Along came Rabbi Baruch of Mezbush, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, and offered a daring but delightful insight. Rather than reading this sentence as a statement, we should read it as a question. The brazen go to hell? Is hell their only recourse? Can’t they use their brazenness to drive them to heaven?
After all, in the very same passage, our sages taught us to be brazen like a leopard to do the will of our Father in Heaven. When we are mocked and bullied, when the entire social environment adopts values antithetical to the Torah, it takes brazenness to stand up for the truth. It takes courage to speak up for the beauty and sanctity of life in the womb and on the deathbed. It takes daring to speak up for the authentic integrity of two genders and the traditional family unit. The smart play is to keep silent, but silence can be capitulation. To do the bidding of our Father in Heaven, we must sometimes be brazen.
In the Soviet Union, religion was thought to be archaic and backward. Communism, the new gospel that held the keys to the glorious Soviet future, had to be unshackled from religion’s stifling manacles. The people had to be liberated from religious influence to dare to imagine the Soviet truths.
Only the most brazen Jews held out against the communist regime and continued sending their children to Jewish schools, attending synagogue services, and organizing Torah classes. Many of them were dispatched to the Gulags in Siberia, but the brazen didn’t capitulate. They never stopped.
To shut down the movement, the Soviets imprisoned the then Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who led this underground Jewish movement. But this, too, failed because Jews are a stiff-necked people. The Rebbe was released, and the Chassidim continued their brazen Jewish ways.
When Rabbi Schneersohn arrived in America during the war, he was told that his practices were good for Europe but would never work in America. Here you had to assimilate and join the culture. Jews might come to services on Shabbat morning, but they would open their stores in the afternoon. You can have after-hour Hebrew Schools, but no one would send their children to a Jewish day school.
Rabbi Schneersohn dipped right back into his brazenness and began a movement led after his passing by his successor, the Rebbe, whose twenty-ninth yahrtzeit we mark this week. Today, the Chabad movement spans the world and brings Authentic Torah Judaism where no one thought it could go. Today, successful Wall Street lawyers step out of their offices daily to study Torah. Young men hurrying down the street and into train stations duck into a Mitzvah tank to put on Teffilin. Chanukah lights are kindled publicly in squares and public halls across the world. Wherever you see a Jew, you see a brazen Chabadnik encouraging them to embrace and spread their Jewish spark.
Says Rabbi Baruch of Mezbush, the brazen must go to hell? Who said so? Brazenness can just as easily pave the way to Heaven. Every trait can be used for positive or negative. Brazenness can drive you to rebel against Moses or the prevailing culture, be it Soviet Communism or American secularism. You don’t have to be like Datan and Abiram. You have it in you to tread your own path. You can break your mold, breach your dam, and let your inner stream flow unimpeded.
As you peruse your list of flaws, ask yourself how you might leverage each to make you a better person and Jew. It is just a matter of redirection. If you have a sweet tooth, use it to reward yourself for good behavior. If you are lazy, use it to avoid getting up to commit a sin. If you are jealous, be covetous of people with better ethics. If you are driven, found a charity organization, etc.
The nature of our world is that, except for the Torah, nothing is categorically good or bad. Bitter plants and herbs can be medicinal. Angry swarming bees can pollinate flowers and create honey. Sweet candy can be harmful to your health. People often say everything in moderation. This is because nothing is purely good. Even good things have a little bad in them. Therefore, enjoy them, but in moderation.
If every good has some bad, every bad must have some good in it too. And perhaps even more than a little. Our G-d given task is to identify it and reveal it. When we do, we leverage what we assumed to be a list of flaws into powerful forces for the good. You have it in you to leverage that list of flaws. Know that they are not entirely bad. You are not entirely bad. You are good. Identify the good qualities for which your faults can be used and plan a strategy to make it happen.
You have it in you. Now tease it out and bring that list of flaws to good fruition.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.