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11- Move The Needle

Using our acronym Be Free, we talk about the most important concept- Effort.


Hey everybody, I'm Menachem Lehrfield and you're listening to 0%, where we explore world changing ideas introduced by Judaism. If you're enjoying this podcast, I hope you've already subscribed. Why not take it one step further and share it with a friend? Or give us a five star review so that others can find this podcast as well. Now let's get to today's episode. We've been moving through the acronym BFREE as a way of approaching Carol Dweck's mindset research through a Jewish lens. Today we're up to the meat and potatoes of the entire series. I think this is perhaps the most important of all of the different concepts that she talks about, and that is the idea that effort is a key to mastery and not a sign of weakness. There is perhaps no idea more foundational to Judaism.

A couple years ago, I was giving a class to a group of young professionals, and we were talking about the importance of every human life and the value of human life. And I posed a theoretical question which I was not expecting to get an actual response, and you'll see why in a second. I posed the following question, I said, "Imagine you're walking along the beach and you see in the distance a person who's drowning, and the opposite direction you see your dog that you've had since he was a tiny little puppy is drowning as well, and you can only save one. So on one hand you have a complete stranger who you don't know, you've never met before, you know nothing about. On the other hand, you have your dog for the past 10 years who you've had since childhood, who you love and adore. Who do you save? Assuming, again, you could only save one."

And I thought it was a given that everybody would say the moral correct thing to do is to save the human being, but there was one guy, let's call him John, because his name is John, and John raises his hand and says, "I don't know. Maybe I would save the dog. After all, it's my dog. And I don't know anything about the other person." And much to my surprise we actually discussed this back and forth. Now if you would save the dog over the stranger, I'm not making any judgments about you or your character. Well, actually, I guess I probably am. I think the moral thing to do is to save the human being, but regardless of whether you would save the dog or the person, most people would agree that if faced between killing someone else or letting yourself be killed, I'm willing to go out on a limb to assume that all of you listening right now would agree that it's wrong to kill the other person, even though your life is being threatened, and it's better to die than to kill somebody else.

The Talmud actually brings down this very case and rules the way we would expect it to rule. It's brought down in the track date in Sanhedrin in 74a. The Talmud says, "A certain person came before Rabba and told him the governor of my village said to me, "Kill such and such a person or else I will kill you."" That seems exactly like our case. If you don't kill Steve, we're going to kill you. And the Talmud rules as we would expect it to, that let yourself be killed and do not kill him. What's puzzling though, is the reason the Talmud gives. The Talmud doesn't say, "Let yourself be killed and don't kill because it's wrong to murder." What the Talmud says is, "Let yourself be killed and do not kill because who says that your blood is redder. Maybe that man's blood is redder."

Now we have to zoom out for a second and understand the case the Talmud is talking about. The Talmud does not talk about the nature of each one of these parties involved, and so this ruling would apply regardless of who these two people are. So imagine for a second, on one hand, I have Mother Teresa, a wonderful woman who spent her entire life doing kindness and good. And from the moment she woke up in the morning until this very moment where she's being threatened at gunpoint, she has already done dozens and dozens of wonderful kind things. And on the other side of the barrel is Steve, who is a scumbag, adulterer, rapist, thief. In that very scenario, the Talmud rules that Mother Teresa is not allowed to kill Steve.

Now again, I think all of us would probably agree with that ruling. I think we would all agree that it's wrong for Mother Teresa to kill Steve. But the reason why I think, at least I would say, is because for her to do so would be committing murder, and that is ethically, morally wrong, especially because she's such a great person. But that's not what the Talmud says. The Talmud says in that case as well, we don't know whose blood is redder. What do you mean? Of course, we know whose blood is redder. We don't know whose better person? Again we have on one side Mother Teresa, who's done wonderful things since the time she woke up this morning until this very moment. And on the other side, we have this horrible, terrible person who's committed multiple crimes just today. How could the Talmud say the reason why she can't pull the trigger, the reason why she can't kill Steve, is because we don't know whose blood is redder? We do know whose blood is redder.

What we see from this piece of Talmud is that from God's perspective, we cannot say who is a better person, because from God's perspective this is an effort based system, not a results based system. You see, you can look at someone like Steve, who does all of these bad things and say he is a bad person, but we really have no idea. We are the sum total of the choices we make based on the effort it takes to make those choices, and ultimately, in God's book, that's all that matters. All that matters is the effort. They say you can't judge a person until you've walked a mile in their shoes. The problem is you can never walk a mile in anyone's shoes, and that is why we could never, ever judge another human being.

Actions? Absolutely. We judge actions. We have a very specific legal system. In fact, Judaism is the basis of most of the Western world's legal system today. We gave the world a concept of law and equality before the law, and we do judge actions. We have a very clear guidebook called the Torah, the instructions for living that tell us these actions are right and these actions are wrong. And we unapologetically will say, "This is right and this is wrong." But we never, ever judge another person because we could never know what's going on inside of that person. We could never know the effort that was involved in that decision.

For all we know, if Steve had the exact same upbringing as Mother Teresa, if his life was exactly the same in every other aspect, it could be he would be even kinder, even nicer, do even more acts of kindness and goodness. And on the flip side, for all we know if Mother Teresa really had the same life as Steve and the same upbringing and the same disadvantages and the same challenges, it could be she would do even worse things.

In God's book, Steve might be a better person. It could be that Steve, every time he robs somebody, he has this deep innate desire to snap their neck on the way out. And maybe, just once in his life, after he robbed an old lady, he didn't slit her wrist, he didn't snap her neck, and maybe the amount of effort that it took for him to withhold himself, to stop himself from committing this gruesome murder that we would be disgusted by. For all we know, that one action was a greater moment of self-restraint than everything else that we have ever done, and because of that Steve is actually a morally better person. We don't know. We don't know whose blood is redder.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes a famous essay in his book Michtav Me'Eliyahu, where he describes two nations that are engaged in war, and he writes that when they're fighting on the battlefield, all the territory conquered by one army now comes under its control and the enemy has no foothold there whatsoever. Similarly, the territory of the second army comes totally under its control. If one of the army's conquers further ground and advances and takes over the enemy territory, then subsequent battles will resume with the new battle lines. But territory, which was already been conquered will not be fought over again for it has already been occupied. There is only one battleground and this can shift between the territories of the two waring nations.

I think a better analogy for us today in the 21st century is probably a football field. If we're on the 50 yard line and we're advancing towards the end zone, all that may matters is moving the line of scrimmage. Our 10 yard line and 20 yard line might as well not even be on the field. Unless something goes terribly wrong and we throw an interception, that side of the field doesn't matter. We're not even playing over there. And the same is true with the nature of free will. Every single person has what Rabbi Dessler calls a nekudas habechira, a point of free will, a zone of free will.

We think that we're completely free to act and to choose, but the reality is our free will is actually quite limited. There are certain things that are beneath our level of free will, things that we are not compelled to do, things that we have no temptation or desire to do at all. I would think most of us listening right now do not have a desire to murder another person. In fact, to do an action like that would cause such emotional upheaval, therefore, the fact that I don't reach out and slit the throat of my coworker is not something that I'm truly free to choose. I was brought up to know that murder is wrong, and for me to commit murder would be so difficult. And therefore, I don't get credit every time I'm annoyed at somebody and I don't pull out a knife and slit their throat because that's not something that takes any effort.

Judaism teaches that angels don't have free will. What does that mean? It doesn't mean they are literally not free to choose. What it means is they have such a strong awareness of the truth of God's reality that for them to do anything that is against the will of God is completely out of their realm of free will. It's not that they can't do it, it's that they know they shouldn't, and therefore, they don't. On the flip side, there are certain things that are so beyond my current level of free will things that I'm not struggling with because it's a given that I'm not holding there yet.

If I were to say, "I'm never going to speak lashon hara, I'm never going to speak negatively about another person." I'm fooling myself. I am not there yet, and therefore, that is something that's outside my level of free will. When I make ethical choices, moral choices, the only thing that truly matters, the only choices I'm given credit for, are the choices that lie within that small zone of free will. Only the choices that require the effort, the decision, the choice.

I was raised in a Torah observant Jewish family, in a Torah observant Jewish community. I've always been Chabad observant, and so I don't get rewarded every time I don't go for a drive on a Saturday morning. I was raised with the awareness that starting the ignition of a car, which is igniting a spark, which is one of the 39 categories of forbidden activity on Chabad. I was raised to understand that that is wrong. I've never done such a thing, and therefore, I'm not tempted to get in my car and go for a drive on Saturday. In fact, it would be so emotionally difficult for me to do that.

Take someone else though, who didn't grow up Chabad observant, but started working towards Chabad observance, and this person decides that they're going to turn their phone off every Friday night. From sun down until they wake up Saturday morning, their phone is going to be off, and for the them, that is an extremely difficult conscious decision, a choice that they're making. In God's book, the person who turns their phone off for those few hours is much more Chabad observant than someone else who may be keeping all of the laws and all the rules for 25 hours but with little effort, without figuring out ways to enhance their Chabad observance, to make their Chabad observance deeper or greater.

If I'm not struggling and I'm not putting an effort, I'm not even playing the game. It's like if I were to play tennis with a professional tennis player, that's not tennis, that is me trying to avoid getting hit by a tennis ball. We wouldn't say that I played the game and lost, I didn't even play the game. And the same is true if I play tennis with my two year old, I'm not playing the game. Anything that is so far out of my reach or anything that is beneath the point where it takes effort is not part of the game. It's not part of my game. And as we go through life, that zone of free will changes, it moves because it's dynamic. It never stays the same.

Ironically, the point of free will is to lose our free will. We have a concept that we learn from the Book of Ethics in Chapter 4, Mishnah 2 that, "mitzvah goreret mitzvah." One mitzvah, one positive spiritual action leads to another. And the idea is that the more I do good, the more I accustom myself in actions that are positive, the more those become second nature, to the extent that now I'm no longer free to make those choices, it's become so habituated that it's just what I do, it's just who I am.

And the flip side is also true. There are things that we do that we know are wrong and the Talmud says just like mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one good thing leads to another, averah goreret averah, a bad thing leads to another. In fact, the Talmud says that once a person does something three times, [inaudible 00:15:52], it becomes permitted. What does that mean, it becomes permitted? Either it's right or it's wrong. Obviously, if I do something wrong several times, it's not permitted now. It's not that it's now okay. But for me, it becomes permitted because the more I do that negative action, the more I become accustomed to it, to the extent that at some point I lose my free will in that realm, these actions, whether for the good or the bad, no longer present a conflict, and so they're not in my realm of free will.

The difference is if I am the one who's responsible for losing my free will in a positive way, I will get credit for those actions forever. So if somebody grows up who is not Chabad observant, and they begin taking on those steps towards Chabad observance, for all time, even once getting in a car and going for a drive on a Saturday now becomes something that they can't even fathom themselves doing, they still get credit for that forever because they move their needle. They move themselves to a point where they lost their free will. And unfortunately, the same is true with our negative actions. If there is something that naturally based on my upbringing I never would've done, and through small negative steps, I've gotten to a point where now it becomes something I'm capable of doing, I am now held so much more responsible.

We are each on our own field playing our own game, and what matters most is how much we moved our needle. We are the sum total of the choices that we make, and it's the choices is that we make that move the needle one way or another. Have we improved ourselves through effort? Have we become better people? Have we moved our needle? Ultimately, that's all that matters. We can never know whose blood is redder because we never know where someone else started on that spectrum. Join us next week as we continue exploring the importance of effort.

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