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Personal Example: I Act, Thus I Am

Published on Monday March 22th, 2021

Devyani Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General for Political, Economic, Trade and Women's Rights Affairs, was arrested a few days ago in New York City. On what grounds? The feminist activist allegedly falsified her nanny’s visa application so she could conveniently pay her 3.31 dollars per hour. That hourly rate is ten times lower what the consul should have declared, and about four times lower than the basic compensation for a nanny in France.

In the aftermath of this incident, the critical question is, of course: How can a diplomat, singled out for her position as an advocate of women's rights, exploit her own employee? Why is there often a gap between discourse and action?

This debate is not new. Just a year ago, the Cahuzac affair spread on the news about a budget minister who defrauded the tax authorities.

My goal is not to incriminate these public figures. It is simply to raise a question that must concern us at all. Why do we often fall short of acting on what we think or advocate for?

Weakness of mind or character? Are our objectives too ambitious on paper? Why, even though we are convinced of the proper behavior to follow, do we act in the exact opposite way?

This question predominantly applies to public figures whose position of influence presupposes flawless behavior. But it should concern us all because we all confront this issue in our daily lives.

Lead by Example ("dugma")

A few years ago, shortly after the birth of our first child, I asked my Talmud teacher whether he could recommend some books on children’s education. His answer remains engraved in my memory:

"No books ... You have to teach by example".

I, who was prepared to immerse myself in every conceivable educational book to equip myself with the best parenting skills, was presented with a revolutionary idea: if I wanted my child to follow a straight path, I did not have to study any revolutionary theories, nor take any fashionable practical advice.  Instead, I had to make sure to fine tune myself to become a role model for my child, by cultivating the traits of character I wished to infuse in him. It wasn’t about finding the right book, but about making meaningful personal changes to become an exemplary role model, so my child would emulate and internalize optimal behavior. And that was an entirely different story.

However, this ambitious project of becoming an ideal role model for my child soon came up against a difficult reality: can one really transform one's character, either to improve a trait of character or acquire a positive quality? Don’t we realize that, despite the fleeting years and despite our efforts to change, the status quo still states that there is nothing new under the sun? Although we may learn theories in books, attend lectures and consult knowledgeable friends, we are invariably weighed down by this inherent fatality. Then, a small inner, tenuous and stubborn voice knocks on our door: "You see, that’s the way you were born and raised, can’t you see you won’t succeed in ever-changing anything? "

Despair Does Not Exist

This is the first trap awaiting our good resolve: disillusionment. This is our worst enemy, coaching us to believe that nothing can change. The greatest plague of our generation is indeed sadness and despair. A hopeless man is like one standing at the edge of a cliff and his life is in mortal danger. At this point, his energy will be drained and his efforts in striving for a better future through positive change will be paralyzed. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev said: "Despair is non-existent!" Understand that if circumstances lead you to adopt this belief in hopelessness, God forbid, you have taken the wrong path because there is always hope. Simply because God can achieve the unachievable. If He has placed these difficulties and stumbling blocks on your path, he will help you work them through and overcome them.

When a Hospital Makes a Joke of Charity ...

The second trap, which is even more vicious, is to believe that study and knowledge are enough to make a person righteous. If that were the case, we would all lock ourselves in a study room to and rest on our laurels.

As an example, let’s quote an anecdote related to a famous British philosopher, who held a professorship in ethics at a prestigious American university. When the faculty and alumni learned he led a life of debauchery, he was summoned by the university's board of directors. In his defense, he explained that his private life did not spill over, nor affect the quality of his lectures.

- But you are a professor of ethics! protested one of the council members.

"Sir," he replied. I was a professor of geometry in Cambridge. And nobody ever asked me why I was not shaped like a triangle!

In Judaism, things do not work that way. An exciting theory and an uplifting lecture have value only if they can transform and improve the student’s personal behavior!

If we preach morality, we must be moral! If we preach honesty, we must be honest.

Facio, ergo sum ...

Before ending these lines, I wish to stress the critical importance of prayer towards any personal development initiative. Our Sages teach that God transformed chaos into a perfectly harmonious universe and He did this through the power of the divine word.

Similarly, when we feel trapped and weighed down by a trait of character that brings chaos into our lives, we must use prayer - the ultimate form of human speech - to operate changes in our life. We must recite a sincere prayer, uttered from the depths of our soul ...

Please understand that to become a good Jew, knowing how to distinguish between good and bad, and being very learned are a great start, but do not suffice. They are only a fraction of the work we need to tackle to start us on our path to righteousness. The second milestone is to integrate this knowledge into our hearts and cultivate the desire and the energy needed to bring this theoretical knowledge into reality and build it into our behavior.

Descartes said: Cogito, ergo sum. I think, thus I am.

But among Jews, this quote comes with a twist: Facio, ergo sum. I act, thus I am ...

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