Baby Steps Towards Being Me

For a very long time, I thought of myself as an inconsistent person.  I have confessed before about having a habit of setting unreasonable goals for myself…and then beating myself up for not achieving them.  And yet, I have recently realized that I am a much more consistent person than I ever acknowledged.  For three years now, I have been giving weekly shiurim in Torah,  for about 18 years I have been getting my children dressed, fed and out the door to school, and for about 21 years I have been making Shabbos for my family and putting dinner on the table almost every single night.  Every day I drink coffee, every day I get dressed and say morning brachos.  In fact, every day I perform countless small acts with consistency.  Instead of looking at the ways I am not yet consistent, I can focus on how I am.  In doing that, I gain the perspective of seeing myself as someone who can, in fact, be consistent.  And that opens the door for me to take on new efforts.

The Piacezna Rebbe teaches us, in his beautiful kuntres Bnei Machshova Tova, that if we want to make changes in our middos, then we have to have a feeling of self-control, “ruach hamoshel”.  Without this spirit of strength and empowerment, we leave ourselves feeling helpless and unable to change.  He suggests finding small ways in which we can strengthen our sense of self-control and, through practice, potentially even view ourselves as people of self-control.  For example, the Rebbe says, on a certain day decide not to have sugar (or milk even!) in your coffee.  This might be a hardship, but it is not something impossible.  It is a baby step that is very doable.  The Rebbe tells us that doing this one small thing will actually enable us to be more in control of ourselves.  Not only will following through on this one act of self-control cause me to think of myself as someone who can be in control of myself, it will also exercise the muscle of self-control and make it stronger.  Every time I commit to doing something (or not doing something) and I follow through, it is a small victory.  These small victories gather together inside of me and slowly change the way that I act and the way that I perceive myself.

This teaching by the Piacezna Rebbe came into my life at around the same time as another life lesson from a very different source.  Part of being a Chassid though, is living in the concept that, as the Baal Shem Tov teaches, everything I see each day contains a lesson that Hashem placed in my path in order to provoke me to grow.  So I recently learned a new idea about goal-setting.  Using the acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound, I have been working on changing my goal-setting methods.  

For example, this morning I went for a run. I live in Efrat and, as everyone who lives here can attest, there are some very steep hills.  As I approached one particular hill this morning, I told myself “just keep going, you can do it.  Do not give in to the hard, just keep going to the top.”…And I made it!  Thank G-d.  Now, on one hand, this is not such a big deal, but on the other hand, for the rest of today I will know that I made it up that hill.  This 20 second activity, 20 seconds of pushing myself, plants a seed in my soul that I am a person who can get things done.  And that is huge.  That is a building block.  

This was a SMART goal, and I did it.  This hill can represent a million other things.  There are so many things that I have tried over the years and given up on.  Maybe it was lack of success that made me give up, or maybe it was lack of belief that I could actually achieve…or maybe I was setting goals in a way that set me up for failure rather than for success.   

In last week’s parsha, Maasei, we read a long list of the 42 journeys that Bnei Yisrael made in the Midbar.  The Torah says: אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

These were the marches of the Israelites from the Land of Egypt troop by troop in the charge of Moshe and Aharon.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks why these places are called “journeys” when really what the Torah is listing are the stopping points along the way and not the travelling routes.  In a sicha, he explains that every single one of these places was part of one big journey from Mitzrayim, the land of constriction and stagnancy, to Eretz Yisrael, the land of potential and growth.  Even though only the first one contained the actual leaving of Mitzrayim, the whole list is referred to as the journeys from the Land of Mitzrayim since each one of them took Bnei Yisrael further from Mitzrayim and closer to Eretz Yisrael.  The Baal Shem Tov taught that these journeys are mirrored spiritually in our own lives as we make our way from our own personal places of constriction or lack towards the place of growth, possibility and healing.  The fact that each one of these places is listed separately, though, teaches us that each one is a stepping stone: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound, and each one was indispensable in achieving the ultimate goal of reaching Eretz Yisrael.  With each stop, each attained goal, Bnei Yisrael became people who could attain goals, people with ruach hamoshel.  With each stop they learned to think of themselves as free people, as consistent people, as a nation with a greater destiny.  And so, each one of the stops also became a journey.  

Our intention must always be towards growth, but we must never discount the importance of achievable steps along the way.  A growth mindset is one in which a person believes that he or she can grow, change, improve, and learn.  As we make our way through this journey that we call life, setting and attaining goals, and then recognizing them as such, all enable us to cast our eyes towards the future with greater confidence in our own abilities.  Each hill that we climb and each cup of coffee without sugar and each SMART goal creates within us a growth mindset- we literally teach ourselves that we are capable of growth.

May Hashem bless each and every one of us with the courage to try and strengthen our ruach hamoshel through daily exercises of will power, with the insight to look at the things we accomplish with kind eyes and encouraging hearts and with the strength to keep moving forward- one attainable goal at a time.

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