Even fish in water tremble!

That's what they say about the month of Elul, the one leading up to the New Year. It's supposed to be a time of introspection and ever-mounting awe. Introspection is a difficult thing, at least for me, and I don't mean because it's psychologically unpleasant to admit one's faults (though that's also true). I mean that the process of introspection, once I start thinking about it, confuses me considerably.

Let me try and describe what I think introspection is supposed to involve. One considers one's character traits, both positive and negative. Then one attempts to eliminate or at least minimize the negative traits and strengthen the positive ones. At least, that's the way the process is portrayed in the mussar (moralistic) literature proper to the season.

What are these traits? We know their common names: courage, wisdom, kindness, graciousness, and so on. However, when was the last time you managed to catch yourself in the stream of consciousness, or, more precisely, in the midst of action, and identify the trait with which you are currently operating? How often can you say, "Now I am being kind!", or "Here my callousness is operating."? Sure, there are definitely those situations for which such identification is possible, and even necessary. (I understand the moral role of the mitzvot to be the establishment of a "playing field" in everyday life in which such identifications are more necessary and usual.)

Usually, though, we act in a given situation based not just on our own moral character traits -- nor do we choose from a list of possible actions, calculate consequences based on those actions, or try and derive the greatest good for the greatest number (to name some alternatives). We act according to some hard-to-specify combination of these factors. This combination might even be particular to each person - which is why introspection is so complicated.

What I'm confused by, perhaps, isn't so much the complexity of this process, as much as by the simplistic answers given in much of the Jewish tradition by some of its most towering figures. I won't quote them here because I don't have them at hand, but many of us have read passages which seem to indicate that it's enough to know what attributes are being exercised and to modify one's actions, or the attributes themselves, accordingly.

There's a connection here to the trembling fish: it trembles in its natural element. We fear for our moral success but can do so only in the context of our day-to-day lives, imperfect as they are and unsusceptible to dissection according to moral traits.

No comments:

Post a Comment