“Don’t let the fear of losing be greater than the excitement of winning.”
When a morbidly obese friend of mine, who was my age, suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, the shock made me recommit to my diet and I lost some weight. As opposed to a fear of a theoretical illness, not wanting to wind up like someone we knew who contributed to his or her premature death through neglect can certainly galvanize us into a new mindset. Less than six months later, however, I had gained it back.
While the personal connection provided a really strong motivator for me, that in itself wasn’t enough to make the change permanent. And while there are exceptions to the rule, when motivation to change stems from wanting to avoid a bad outcome, rather than obtaining a good result, the change is usually temporary. The fear of a possible future bad “what-if” scenario simply does not provide lasting motivation. What does serve the process of long-term change, on the other hand, is flipping the goal into something positive.
If you ever watch the show, “The Biggest Loser,” the contestants talk less about their fears of what they don’t want (dropping dead or being debilitated) and more about what they do want (being physically active, healthy and being a good role model).
“Turn away from evil by doing good.”
-Maggid of Mezerich
In the long run, being pulled towards the good serves better than running from the bad. This idea is explained by the Chassidic master, the Maggid of Mezerich, who taught that the words of the psalm “stay away from evil and do good” really means, “stay away from evil – by doing – good,” because the two are naturally connected. It is when we do something positive that we are naturally removed from the negative.
Turning Negativity Inwards
Similarly, when the “bad” has been internalized to oneself, and the motivation to change comes thoughts such as: “I’m not thin enough, disciplined enough, healthy enough, pretty enough, successful enough, rich enough, popular enough, worthy enough, etc.,” we are coming from a place of lack. Whatever we are – it’s just not “enough” and that thought originates in fear and creates the emotion of inner shame. That is toxic to the process of healthy change.
Shame disconnects us – from others and also from ourselves. Disconnection is the diametric opposite of wholeness, as connection is the very mainspring of well-being. It should be self-evident that we can’t use persistent negativity to bring about a desired positive result, but we just keep falling into the trap. No matter how we try, we cannot shame and blame ourselves – or anyone else – into personal growth.
In the Torah portion, “Nasso,” which means “single out,” Moses is commanded to “single out” and allocate different priestly duties to the descendants of two sub-tribes of the Levites: Gershon and Kehos. The descendants of Gershon were tasked with carrying the accoutrements of the Tabernacle (which housed the Ark), while the descendants of Kehos were entrusted with carrying the Ark itself.
Not only does the job description itself speak for the different level of sanctity between these two sub-tribes, but the descendants of Kehos are “singled out” before the descendants of Gershon. What’s strange about that, is that this reverses the birth order, in that the descendants of Gershon, who were the first-born, would be expected to assume the duties that were allocated to the descendants of Kehos.
To serve God, one must “turn away from evil” and “do good.” The name Gershon is related to the Hebrew word “gerushin,” which means, “to divorce.” Thus, the descendants of Gershon were to embody the idea of divorcing oneself and “turning away from evil.” Kehos, on the other hand, is derived from “yikhas” meaning “will gather,” alluding to the idea of gathering and accumulating good deeds – “doing good.”
What does that mean for us today? The lesson of switching the birth order teaches us that at the outset, our initial impetus and motivation to change may very well be sourced in the avoidance of an undesirable outcome or overcoming something negative. I know that I have often been galvanized into action as a reaction to the bad behavior of others. Recoiling from what I don’t want to be or whom I don’t want to emulate has often been a powerful motivator for me.
What the Torah is teaching us, however, is that it is a higher spiritual priority to sustain our growth by being drawn to the good and what we see as positive. For example, if we grew up in a home with strife, we may be motivated not to repeat the patterns of hostility that we witnessed. It’s a “good” goal, but it’s vague and undefined. It is much more powerful, and much more likely to produce results, when we flip that into the positive, and instead, have the goal of creating a home imbued with positivity, loving connection and unconditional positive regard. Then we can take actual concrete steps to actualize that.
Throughout the Torah, God couples the commandments (even the negative ones) with the phrase, “Be Holy for I am holy.” The first of the Ten Commandments opens with the words, “I am the Lord Thy God,” meaning that every commandment that follows comes from creating a relationship and connection with God. That is because holiness (wholeness) stems from connection – not disconnection – and striving to reach and actualize our highest selves.
I am not suggesting, however, that we only emulate the descendants of Kehos. Both ways are important. In fact, to be only one or the other, can be unbalanced and even dangerous when taken to an extreme. Maybe that’s why there is a third sub-tribe of the Levites mentioned in this week’s Torah portion – Merari – and while his descendants are not “singled out,” they are, nevertheless, “counted.” Being “counted,” however, is not insignificant. As we read in the previous Torah portion “Bamidbar,” taking a “headcount” is not a mathematical exercise, but allows us to understand that we “count,” that each of us is unique, indispensable and singularly purposeful.
The way to growth is a two-sided coin – “avoiding evil” and “doing good.” The key, however, is to understand this polar duality and to know when to do what and how through the doing of good we can automatically avoid the evil. In comparison to Gershon and Kehos, the descendants of Merari were said to be more like the “simple folk.” Being able to tap into either of these energies and consciously choose which will serve you best as you strive to reach your goals and accomplish your mission, however, is anything but simple.