Can You Spare Some Change?

Aharon and Shabsi were flourishing in Yeshiva until…

The Announcement

Aharon and Shabsi were two yeshiva students who studied together in Yeshiva Torah Lishmah. They were both extremely successful in their learning. The hours of the seder (study period) seemed to pass rapidly as they probed the depth of the Gemara, Rashi and Tosafos (Talmud and central commentaries) then moved to the other Rishonim (medieval commentaries) and, if there was time, to some of the Acharonim (later commentaries). When they got to shiur (class), their comprehension was excellent, they retained what their rebbi (teacher), Rav Shlomo Eichenstadt said, and they used some of the concepts he presented to enrich the next day’s studying.

Toward the middle of the long winter z’man (semester), Rav Shlomo made an announcement. He told the students that, unfortunately, he had to schedule emergency back surgery. The surgery was going to take place in two weeks, but he had to stop giving shiur in exactly a week so that he could make the necessary preparations, including going for tests before the surgery. His eyes teared as he made the announcement, because he felt pained at leaving his beloved students. He added that the recuperation was scheduled to take at least a month. During that time, he suggested that the students move to a parallel shiur, given by Rav Leibel Grossbard. The students were visibly concerned for their rebbi and expressed that to Rav Shlomo. He thanked them for their concern and assured them that, with G-d’s help, everything would be alright.

That day after the shiur, during lunch, the dining room was abuzz. Students were upset that their rebbi was leaving, and were unsure what to expect when they moved to Rav Leibel Grossbard. The students in Rav Shlomo’s shiur came to a consensus that they would all move together to Rav Leibel’s class.

The Move

A week later, after a sorrowful parting, all Rav Shlomo’s students moved to Rav Leibel’s shiur. Both the students and Rav Leibel made an extra effort to be welcoming and considerate of Rav Shlomo’s students and they began to learn as once large chaburah (group). Within a week, Aharon and Shabsi noticed that they did not understand Rav Leibel’s shiur as well. He had a different style of learning than Rav Shlomo and he focused on different nuances in the Talmud and commentaries. Aharon and Shabsi noticed that their difficulties in shiur affected their studying during seder, as well. Both of them observed a decreased drive in their learning the entire morning. Seder seemed longer than ever. They also noticed that their comprehension was decreasing. They did not have the same havanah (comprehension) as they had before and they barely got through the Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafos during seder. To make matters worse, as their learning deteriorated, Aharon and Shabsi started becoming less enthusiastic and a little down, in general. They saw that they didn’t come as on time for shacharis (morning prayers) and they were not as punctual as they usually were for any seder during the day.

Aharon’s Change

Aharon went home for Shabbos and his mother suggested he read a short book called Who Moved My Cheese, by Spencer Johnson, MD. I was a quick read and it made Aharon feel much better. He came back to Yeshiva reinvigorated. His learning got back on track and he began to feel his excitement return. He even became better at understanding Rav Leibel’s shiur and became more and more successful.

Shabsi, who was still in his rut, noticed the change that his chavrusa (study partner) underwent. He asked Aharon what had happened and he told Shabsi about the book he had read. Shabsi gave Aharon a brief summary.

A Bit Cheesy

He explained that the book is a parable which explains different reactions that people have to change.  There are four characters in the book, Sniff, Scurry, Hem, and Haw. Sniff and Scurry are mice, and Hem and Haw are little people. They all live in a maze and are nourished by a generous amount of cheese in Cheese Station C. They return to the cheese station as often as they like and eat until they are satiated. One day, the characters arrive at Cheese Station C and notice that the cheese is gone. Immediately, Sniff and Scurry, unanalytical mice, go through the maze to find an alternate source of cheese. Hem and Haw, who are thinking individuals, are amazed at the injustice they just experienced. They cannot believe that the cheese, the standard they always relied on, was moved. They commiserate in the unfairness and mourn their unfortunate situation. Hem sadly exclaims, “Who Moved My Cheese?” They both bemoan the fact that things are no longer the same. After a while, Hem and Haw discuss trying to find alternate sources of cheese. But they conclude that is too risky to venture to other parts of the maze. In addition, there is no guarantee that they will succeed anywhere else either. They return to Cheese Station C day after day, hoping that the golden days of plentiful cheese will return. They still bemoan how unfair it was that someone moved their cheese, and get hungrier and hungrier. One day, Hem decides that he has no choice but to venture away from Cheese Station C. He gingerly takes a few steps at a time into uncharted territory. After searching for a while, Hem finds other cheese stations, but sees that they, likewise, have no cheese. Yet, the fact that other cheese stations exist gives Hem renewed confidence that it is only a matter of time until he finds more cheese. After a while, Hem finds Cheese Station N, which has even more plentiful amounts of cheese. He is elated and looks back at the road he traversed. He notices that he learned several important lessons, which he writes on the wall of Cheese Station N. These include:

Change Happens: They Keep Moving the Cheese

Adapt To Change Quickly: The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, the Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese

Change: Move With the Cheese

Enjoy Change!: Savor the Adventure And Enjoy the Taste Of New Cheese!

Shabsi explained that the book helped him realize that many people are resistant to change. They analyze it and conclude that it is unfair and that they don’t like it. This causes them to be resistant to the inevitable change and holds them back from succeeding in life. Shabsi continued that he realized that the change from Rav Shlomo’s shiur to Rav Leibel’s shiur was like his cheese. He was upset he had to move and reluctant to accept the new circumstances. His adherence to the way things were inhibited him from embracing his new situation. With this insight, he decided that he could adapt to Rav Leibel’s shiur. Even though the rebbi’s style in learning and explanation were different than what he was used to, he tried to appreciate Rav Leibel’s shiur for its own benefits and began to enjoy it and grow from it. His new insight infused him with more energy and he noticed himself succeeding more throughout his day.

Life Changes

Like Shabsi, many people report that they have gained from Who Moved My Cheese. Tens of millions of copies of the book have been sold, and it has spent years on the New York Times bestseller list. The New York Times acclaimed it as “brilliant in its simplicity” and Time Magazine called it “The bestselling business book of all time.” It was lucidly summarized and made into an animated video, which is publicly available on Youtube.

The book’s demand demonstrates that the predicament faced by Hem and Haw are shared by so many. Changing shiurim is one of the many examples of change people undergo. Sometimes the changes are in the social situation of a yeshiva or seminary, such as changing rooms or moving locations. Other times the changes include moving from singlehood to marriage, from kollel (full-time, advanced Talmud study) to the workforce, or from couplehood to parenthood. We all face changes in our lives and often tend to hem and haw about them. It seems that the more quickly we embrace those change, the better life can be.

Not So Simple

Aharon appreciated Shabsi’s explanation and insight and left their conversation deep in though. He understood Shabsi’s points and thought about integrating them into his own life. What do you think about the book’s point? Does it strike a chord within you? There might be reason to say it should – like it did for millions of others. At the same time, the solution might not be as simple as it sounds. There are other perspectives to use to understand the students’ reactions to their situation. Those approaches could take into account other factors, including Aharon and Shabsi’s families, prior experiences –  in general and in yeshiva – and how they view themselves.

Let’s visit Aharon in a post next week to hear some of his reactions to Who Moved My Cheese. We will also explore the students’ experiences further. Meanwhile, are you going to keep the change?

The Sun Will Come Out Today

Stifling emotions is causing trouble for Shayna and Yisrael

Stifling Emotions in Judaism

 Shayna and Yisrael’s Predicament

Shayna and Yisrael have been married for several years. They live in Woodlake, New Jersey, where Yisrael studies in Kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) and Shayna is an office manager. Their marriage seems happy, stable, and fulfilling, with one significant presenting issue. When people say hurtful things to Yisrael, he absorbs their comments and doesn’t respond. He puts up a stiff upper lip, then smiles and continues with his day.

Shayna is concerned about Yisrael’s lack of emotion. She believes that it is “fake” or “unnatural.” Furthermore, Shayna notices that for a few hours after the insulting comment, Yisrael seems like he is more on edge. Even though he is smiling and looks cheerful, he is often more irritable and easily disturbed. She thinks that his emotions seem to be still pent up inside him. Shayna explains that two points put a strain on their own relationship. Firstly, she feels like Yisrael is not being honest emotionally and not being candid with her. Secondly, he often is harder to relate to after someone says something negative to him.

Yisrael explains that he is trying consciously not to react to critical or negative statements. He elaborated that he formerly learned in a well-known, established, pedigree yeshiva in Israel. During his years there he absorbed an approach that emotions should be subdued and not readily expressed. The yeshiva’s modus operandi was to be halachic and to examine all situations solely from a legalistic standpoint. Yisrael was now trying to adapt the worldview of stoicism. Although he is not “there yet,” he is aspiring to integrate that perspective into his own life. Yisrael explained that, theoretically, if he could sue his insulter in a beis din (court) for defamation or slander, he might do so. But absent any direct halachic/ legalistic response, he remains silent and squelches any response on an emotional level.

 The Perspective of the Sefer HaChinuch

The hashkafa (religious perspective) of emotions and their expression is a complex and ancient one in Judaism. There is no unilateral, all-encompassing answer and there are different approaches taken by different leaders and parts of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), both historically and currently. At the same time, it is valuable to examine the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (The “Book of Education” – 13th Century Spain) regarding the prohibition of Onaas Devarim – verbal mistreatment of another person. The Torah prohibits one from saying anything that causes distress to another. This includes name calling, insulting, or reminding someone of her unsavory past. What if someone violates Onaas Devarim? What should be the reaction of the offended party? The Sefer HaChinuch (338) elaborates that a response is both appropriate and not included in the prohibition of verbally distressing someone. He explains:

According to what it seems, it can’t be possible that if one came and began to be wicked to pain his fellow with his bad words, that the listener should not answer him. For it is not possible for a man to be like a stone that cannot be overturned, and what’s more, that he will be in his silence like one who admits to the insults. And in truth, the Torah did not command for a man to be a stone, silent to those who insult him like to those that bless him…it is proper for a wise person that he will reply to him in a roundabout and pleasant way, and not become exceedingly angry, because “Anger rests in the heart of fools (Koheles/ Ecclesiastes 7:9)”.

The Sefer HaChinuch adapts an approach of reality. He acknowledges that it is typical to be insulted at another person’s hurtful or spiteful comments. If it were ideal for one to simply ignore another person’s negative comments, the Sefer HaChinuch would have penned a different approach. Perhaps he would have advised the insulted to toughen up, trust in G-d, and ignore the meaningless comments someone else uttered. Rather, the Sefer HaChinuch recognizes that emotions are part of the human condition. It is natural to react to another person’s statements. The Sefer HaChinuch even considers anger a valid reaction to insult – as long as one does not become “exceedingly angry.” The valiance of man is not to ignore but to try to temper his reaction and to not explode.

What About the Sun?

The Sefer HaChinuch adds a caveat. He concludes that those who are consummately in love with G-d strive not to reply to those that insult them:

Yet – there is a group of people for whom their righteousness rises so much that they do not want to bring themselves into this leniency to reply something to those who insult them – perhaps anger will overpower them and they will become involved in the matter more than is enough, and about them they of blessed memory have said: those who are insulted but do not insult back, who hear their shame and do not reply, about them the verse says: “And those who love Him are like the sun emerging in its strength (Shoftim/ Judges 5:31).”

The Sefer HaChinuch says that those who love G-d and are exceedingly righteous do not respond directly to their detractors so that they will not respond too strongly. At the same time, the Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that even the most righteous can feel hurt by the words of man. It is important for them to be emotionally honest with themselves and to acknowledge the feeling. Sometimes, it might be beneficial for them to discuss them with someone else, too. Emotions are often very authentic expressions of who we are as humans.

The imagery of the strength of the sun beginning to shine that Chazal (our Sages) use is beautiful and precise. Since people are expected to respond emotionally to insults, it takes extraordinary internal strength not to respond directly. It is important not to confuse that with stifling one’s emotion altogether.

Implications for Yisrael

The presenting issue that Shayna and Yisrael had can be indicative of his upbringing, past experiences, and their relationship. One area for Yisrael to explore might be his approach to emotions and their expression. It is possible that he feels more comfortable stifling his emotions because of pain he has experienced in the past that he would rather not allow to come to the surface. Alternatively, it might be that his upbringing, in addition to his Yeshiva, demonstrated or valued shrouding or inhibiting emotion. The issue is ripe for discussion and might be helpful in exploring more about who Shayna is, who Yisrael is, and underlying strengths and challenges in their relationship.