“Being a mensch precedes Torah,” is one of the first dictums we aim to impress upon our children. Nahmanides points out that one could be “a despicable person with the permission of the Torah,” meaning that you’ve kept the letter of the law but failed to internalize the Torah’s goal of making you a better person. One who is committed to the Torah should strive to become the most amazing human being.
And it takes a lifetime of hard work to be that individual the Torah wants. Nobody has a flawless character. We all possess natural shortcomings and bad attitudes we’ve developed along the way. So how do we go about improving and ultimately perfecting our character traits?
The Mishnah states: The only difference between one who vows to abstain completely from benefitting from another and one who vows to abstain merely from his food is that the latter may traverse his property and borrow his non-food-related items.
The Gemara asks: If someone allows his property to generally be used a public thoroughfare, would he care if the fellow traversed his property?
Rava answers: The author of this Mishnah is Rabbi Eliezer who taught “Giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain.”
Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel explain that when one takes a vow of abstinence from another, he is prohibited to take even those things that one would readily give up because it’s no skin off his nose, such as traversing his property.
In Halakhic Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts homo religiosus with Halakhic Man. The former aims to break free of the shackles of this world and live a life of transcendence, whereas the latter understands that the Almighty wants us to become spiritual within the structure of this world.
Halacha is completely this-worldly. Our goal is to draw down G-dliness into this finite world. Therefore, Judaism does not call for abstinence; we are enjoined to partake of the pleasures of this world and elevate them. Indeed, although vows of abstinence are permissible within the framework of Halacha, our Sages famously asked, “Were the restrictions of the Torah not sufficient for you that you had to abstain from even more?”
What then is the purpose of a vow of abstinence? Let’s take the example of someone who has a drinking problem. Now, is drinking a problem? Well, for most people, it’s absolutely acceptable to have the occasional drink. But for an alcoholic, it’s a serious problem. The only way for him to overcome his problem is to take a vow of complete abstinence from alcohol. Eventually, once he has killed his addiction, he might be able to take a sip on occasion like everyone else.
The same is true of our character flaws. Sometimes we have a trait that needs mending. In order to fix extreme behaviour and reach a ‘golden mean,’ you need to go to the other extreme to break the habit. For example, ideally one should be humble. But if you find that you have a problem with haughtiness, Maimonides suggests that one go to the extreme pious level of and view oneself as “very lowly” – an extreme form of humility. That means that you end up having to endure people walking all over you, so to speak, but that process removes any trace of haughtiness so that you can eventually find the proper, middle path of humility.
The key to kicking a bad habit, says Rabbi Eliezer, is maintaining an attitude that “Giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain.” How many times have you started a diet, only to give up a week later because it was too hard? The only way to make it work is to maintain the attitude that it is forbidden to give up! You wouldn’t dream of engaging in unlawful activity, would you? If you want to be successful in breaking a bad habit, whether it’s unhealthy behaviour or a flawed character trait, you must be prepared to completely abstain from it, to the extent of treating it as utterly taboo.
You can change! It’s not easy. Sometimes it means taking a vow of abstinence – going to the other extreme – until you can achieve that middle ground. But with some serious discipline and a strong commitment you can achieve the balance in your life that you seek. Bad habits can be broken. Character flaws can be mended. It takes time and intensity, but you can the master of your heart and mind! Just remember, giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain, and you will be successful in becoming the person that you desire to be!