Judy Taubes Sterman

Benjamin Franklin’s Hassidic Drasha

Benjamin Franklin was nothing if not industrious. A firm believer in self- improvement, at the age of 20, he drew up a list of 13 “necessary or desirable” virtues which he assiduously resolved to develop in himself. Working methodically, with neatly laid out charts to mark his progress, he set out to perfect his character. Only, his “bold and arduous project”, as he referred to it, quickly bumped up against real life. He soon began to notice that “While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another”. Work hard at being honest and fair in all circumstances until you are known far and wide for your Justice, and your head begins to swell with Pride; struggle to suppress those undesirable feelings of superiority and you become angry and irritable, and there goes your Tranquility. An arduous project indeed.

Halfway around the world, Benjamin Franklin’s self- help program, with some few adjustments for the Jewish audience, found its way into a Hebrew book, Heshbon HaNefesh, published in 1808, by the maskil, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanow. In the book, Lefin acknowledges that the program is not his own invention but stops short of crediting Franklin by name. As the Musar movement began to gain traction, presenting an alternative to the rapidly spreading Hassidism, this work “would eventually become a standard study text in Musar institutions”, writes Shai Afsai in Segula (Dec 2019). The book, with its thirteen principles, was studies in the Musar yeshivot in Slobodka and Mir, though most students were, (and are today, still), undoubtedly unaware of its origins.

Perhaps a century after Franklin took up his project, the Hassidic Rebbe, R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854), founder of the Ishbitz-Radzyn dynasty, in his commentary on Parshat Bo, describes (we can only assume from personal experience as well), the very same frustration expressed by the young Franklin. The children of Israel are about to end their long years of oppression and bondage. Just before they leave Egypt and set out on their journey to freedom, Moses tells them to: “Draw forth and take lambs for you families and slaughter the Passover offering…” (Exodus 12:22). Sensitive to the double language, “Draw forth and take,” The Midrash famously reads these words as two distinct stages. The authors of the Midrash suggest that the phrase is describing the twofold process necessary for the Israelites to free themselves from their slavery. By extension the verse delineates the steps we all must go through if we want to extricate ourselves from unhealthy attachments and negative influences; from serving unfamiliar masters: “Remove your hands from avoda zara and afterwards, slaughter the (Pascal) lamb offering.” (Shmot Rabba, 15:2).

“…For the heart can never be free of thoughts and yearnings for even one minute”, writes the Ishbitzer, “and when one removes thoughts of Desire from his heart, thoughts of Anger and the like will surely come …”

How then can we ever hope to put an end to this vicious cycle? We must first eliminate the avoda zara and rid ourselves of all “foreign worship” and only then will we be able to embrace positive patterns of behavior, adopt and fully integrate the “desirable virtues”.

After such an enthusiastic beginning, Ben Franklin describes, how, much to his dismay, he “concluded at length, that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our slipping”. Echoing the wisdom of the Midrash he surely did not know, he came to the realization that “the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established…” That is, it’s not enough just to have lofty intentions; the hard work must be done to first “Draw forth”, that is, withdraw from and completely break the bad habits, and only then, will one be able to actually “take” – to acquire, internalize, and truly ‘own’ the better ones.

This is, unfortunately, easier said than done. Even with all of his best intentions, America’s founding father candidly admits that “I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining but fell far short of it”.

With his typical sharp insight into human psychology, R. Mordechai Yosef puts his finger on the difficulty, homing in on the deeper motivations that rest behind our desire for self-improvement, and offers a way forward. He maintains that if we are refraining from the undesirable behavior because it is expedient in our situation, beneficial in our circumstances, or will gain us the admiration of our peers, that is, ultimately for some self-serving reason, then, like Hercules fighting the Hydra, as soon as one evil inclination is destroyed, two more will grow in its place. He refers to this path as the “lazy” way, citing the verse in Mishlei (15:19), “The way of a lazy man is like a hedge of thorns…”, to depict how fruitless, how barbed this ineffective path will be.

But what if instead of replaying this frustrating loop of trying to repress one negative trait only to have another rear its ugly head, we started our journey towards personal growth from a more positive place. Begin by getting to know ourselves better, probing what lies beneath the surface of our actions, honestly evaluating our true motivations, and then work, not to suppress but to clear out and cleanse. This is the smooth, “paved path of the upright” in the second half of the verse from Mishlei.

If we seek to refine our character and better ourselves from a purer, more genuine place, a place of greater clarity, one free of self-interest and ulterior motives, “for the love of God” as the Ishbitzer puts it, then when “one removes from his heart some evil quality, what will remain in his heart is the love of God, and therefore nothing else inappropriate will enter his heart”.

Or as Ben Franklin himself put it, “A right Heart exceeds all”.

About the Author
Judy Taubes Sterman is coauthor of the book, The Rarest Blue, The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered, winner of The Jewish Journal Book prize, 2013, and coeditor of Hokhma LiShlomo. Her work has been published in The Jewish Review of Books, Biblical Archeology Review, The Forward, Tradition, Lehrhaus, Jewish Bible Quarterly, and elsewhere.
Related Topics
Related Posts