The mind does not obey itself. My arm will rise if I “tell” it to, but I cannot want what I think I should want. Shelves of self-help books promise to make us desire less junk food, exercise more, release ourselves from obsessive love for the wrong person, renew our affection for the “right” person. But still, we cannot seem to want what we want to want.
This problem is as old as humanity. When the Psalmist asks God to direct his heart, he is expressing the same frustration: I know I should want good things, so why do I find myself wishing for things that will do me ill?
Judaism’s response is in line with modern science — m’toch shelo lishma, bah lishma. If you practice, even without much motivation, enthusiasm will follow. The spirit is the same as “fake it till you make it.” Instead of willing yourself to have a change of heart, shape your habits for your heart. Joy comes after the smile, not the smile after the joy. Practice kindness even when you don’t feel like it and you will discover a softening of your character. As the Talmud tells us, God leads us in the path we wish to go. Start walking.
Rabbi David Wolpe is spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiWolpe. His latest book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).