If we had to create a visual image of spiritual growth, what would it look like? Most of us would picture an ascent up a ladder or a mountain. And we are not so shallow as to think that the path doesn’t lead straight up; rather, we advance several steps and then sometimes have setbacks, after which we try to continue our upward striving.
While this picture is correct, Rav Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav MeEliyahu deepens our understanding of the process. He describes spiritual growth as a vibration between two opposite poles. The constant flow between these two poles creates movement, much as the flow of electricity between positive and negative magnetic poles creates the forward movement in an engine.
One pole is the pull we have towards the klal, the community. The root of this is chesed, or giving. This is an outwardly directed drive that inclines us toward engaging others and being contributive outside of ourselves. When we channel our energy in this direction it creates mutual fulfillment and growth. For example, if I volunteer for my local bikur cholim once a week, I become connected to the sick person whom I drive to the doctor and each one of us can experience spiritual growth. I grow from becoming more of a giver and the sick person benefits from being the impetus for my growth.
In the words of our Sages, “More than the homeowner [i.e., one who gives tzedakah] does for the poor person, the poor person does for the homeowner.” A person drawn to the klal and enveloped in chesed can engage many different types of people and join together with them, whether in conversation, Torah learning, or some other activity that is mutually beneficial.
The Pole of Self-Interest
While it is clear that giving brings goodness into the world, one might wonder about the benefit of the second pole, that of taking. As we know, self-focus is the source of all dissent in this world, whether between individuals or nations. In fact, Rav Dessler comments that marriages thrive as long as each spouse in intent on giving. As soon as self-interest becomes the main focus of one of them, the marriage begins to unravel.
When it comes to middos, we know that there aren’t inherently good or bad middos, but rather they become positive or negative in their application. Even the most glorified of middos, such as anavah, humility, can become negative when it is exaggerated and applied in a way that it makes the person lose his sense of self and thereby become an easy target for those who take advantage of such individuals. In an opposite fashion, while taking can seem like a negative, we need to explore its positive applications.
Rav Dessler teaches that the value of self-focus is that this drive can be the motivation for self-development and correction. When a person is confronted by his shortcomings, either through self-awareness or circumstance, or he is exposed to the greatness of Torah and sees himself through that lens, the sense of what he is missing and what he must strive for can be a tremendous incentive. The ability to introspect and have the moral courage to address that which we encounter is a type of gevurah — again, the opposite of chesed. That same energy, used only to further one’s personal desires in the physical or material realm, can become destructive.
This dance between the two poles is the cycle of personal growth. In the ideal scenario, a person realizes that she needs to involve herself in the realm of the spiritual. The first motivation for growth is her desire to take, her self-interest, her pratiyus. Once she has taken and started to fill herself up with Torah, the Torah she gains becomes an inspiration to share what she has with others — to move to the opposite pole of klaliyus, giving.
When we give and connect to the receiver in a way that is mutually beneficial, our spiritual acquisitions become perfected. The clarity of vision that we acquire through this development brings into focus additional areas in which personal growth is necessary and causes a shift back to taking. And so it continues at each successive step.
Every engine needs an initial spark to start the vibration between the poles that results in movement. That’s why cars have batteries. A person’s drive is called tiferes, the yearning for truth — or in the terminology of Rav Dessler, the desire to live in reality, rather than illusion. This healthy inclination starts the taking that results in the giving that brings about growth.
When Applied to Marriage
In marriage, these principles are applicable on more than one level.
On the most basic level, differences in traits between a couple can be a positive thing. Rav Dessler comments that the best marriages are often between people who have complementary strengths. If the goal of the couple is to create a union of shleimus, wholeness, then each differing strength contributes an additional piece of the pie.
The challenge is that those differences will result in differing needs. If his needs are different from mine (aren’t they usually?), then every time they are addressed, two things occur. The giver has stretched in a direction that he otherwise would not have and grows as a result, and the receiver grows as a result of have caused the giver’s growth. Ultimately, the couple becomes more connected in this mutually beneficial process.
At the same time, each spouse must continue to invest in their own development, for their own benefit and that of the couple. For example, using your gevurah to work on correcting a middah or some aspect of growth in Torah learning or avodas Hashem, such as tefillah, will lead you to feeling “fuller” and more spiritually connected. This feeling of connection then translates into a desire to give and share with others.
Let’s clarify the sharing that should result from our avodas Hashem. It doesn’t mean going to a shiur and then telling over every last detail to your spouse — this is often not appreciated. Rather, use the “fullness” you gain from the shiur to give your spouse whatever it is he needs, thus perfecting that which you have taken in.
When you embark on this pattern, you will find that it stimulates growth for you as an individual and for the marriage as a whole. Both of you will gain from a cycle of growth that starts with pratiyus, self-interest, and then shifts to klaliyus, engaging and being contributive.
A Foundation of Emes
You might ask, can’t this cycle work the same way even when there is no spiritual component? I will fill up by going shopping, and then I can come home and be nice to my husband. While this may be true on some level, ultimately we will find that filling ourselves up materially doesn’t lead to a desire to keep giving.
I recently had the privilege of being inPraguewith a group of women. It is an architecturally exquisite city, best explored on foot. We entered a town square, a large open space surrounded on four sides by buildings. I looked up and saw a building. “TheMagicKingdom!” I exclaimed.
No doubt Disney modeled its theme park after this or a similar structure. I couldn’t get over the similarities, down to the last detail. But theMagicKingdomisn’t real. It’s a fun place to visit, but nobody can really live there.
The opportunity to build something in this world that has an eternal dimension is invaluable. For that to happen, the foundation has to be emes, truth, or in Rav Dessler’s parlance, reality. This foundation sparks the give-and-take between gevurah and chesed — alternately giving to ourselves and of ourselves.
May we all have hatzlachah in building our binyan adei ad, a home that will stand for eternity.