I recently ran a five-part series in which I shared lessons from my back problems, surgery and ongoing recuperation. I continue to learn new things, which was no more clear than over the recent holidays.
I have observed that when I work from home, sitting with my laptop in an easy chair, I am fine but that when I go to shul on Shabbos (a walk of 1/3 mile each way) or to the office, I end my days bent over and half hobbled for the rest of the day. I had attributed this to the walking but I made a realization on Rosh Hashana, when I was barely able to shamble home after shul. The length of my walk was the same as on a regular Shabbos but the service was three times as long in duration. Perhaps, I hypothesized, it’s not the walking that hobbles me but the sitting in regular, non-reclining chairs. (I shared this hypothesis with my doctor, who exclaimed, “Of course it’s the sitting!” Well, how should I know? I’m not an orthopedist!)
This caused me to rethink my plans for Yom Kippur. I had originally planned to stay home on Kol Nidrei night so that I’d be fit to make it to shul on Yom Kippur day but my realization that it was the sitting that caused the problems made me reverse that plan, Kol Nidrei night being about three hours long and Yom Kippur shacharis/musaf being over seven hours long. Accordingly, I went to Kol Nidrei at night and davened at home by day. (And let me tell you, spending three or four hours in a dining room chair was enough wear-and-tear on my back even without the walking, thankyewverrymuch.)
It felt really weird not going to shul on Yom Kippur day but from the way my back felt after Kol Nidrei night and after davening at home by day, I knew I had made the right choice. Not only that, I had learned another lesson: do the thing you would advise others to do.
Over years of work in outreach, I had many opportunities to tell people (in the hypothetical) that if one has to choose between being able to fast on Yom Kippur and attending services, it’s better to stay home and fast. This is very counter-intuitive for people who were raised in environments where one wouldn’t dream of missing services on the “High Holy Days” but very few people actually fast. (I was raised in such circumstances so if such things are beyond your experience, I assure you they exist.) Now, medical circumstances and the likelihood of being too hobbled to walk home at all required me to make a similar choice for myself. Let me tell you, it’s not easy to do.
Historically, I’m not very good at taking the advice I would give others. Once, I was horribly sick in bed but I dragged myself to work at my daughter’s school Chinese auction, for which I had volunteered. Of course, my wife yelled at me not to go but I’m stubborn that way. (For the record, they took one look at me and immediately sent me home.) Regular readers may recall that when my back problem was at its worst, I insisted on commuting in a wheelchair rather than just work from home. Once again, my wife yelled at me not to do it but, as noted, I’m stubborn that way.
This mindset can be especially strong when it comes to gym injuries. It can be hard to know when to skip a gym class because of one’s aches and pains. Sometimes there are reasons not to go but we second-guess ourselves because we’re afraid that legitimate reasons are really just excuses and we don’t want to skip our work-outs when we should be there. More often than not, the end result is that we end up going on days we should have taken off. I would tell friends when evaluating such situations to give themselves the advice they would give others and act accordingly but, again, I wasn’t so good about it myself.
Why do we insist on doing things that we objectively know we shouldn’t? My wife likes to cite a quote from motivational speaker Les Brown, “You can’t see the picture when you’re in the frame.” In other words, we’re simply incapable of judging our own situations objectively. In my decades of work with teens, I had many occasions to assist them with “dilemmas.” I put “dilemmas” in scare quotes because I often told the teens that there are far fewer actual dilemmas in life than we like to think. We usually know what the right answer is, it’s just not the answer we like. More often than not, they conceded that I was correct.
My examples so far have all been based in cases of health and fitness but it’s true in other areas as well: finance, parenting, relationships, school, business, spiritual growth, and any other area in which “dilemmas,” real or perceived, may arise. We don’t always act consistently with what we would advise others. This is not because the human race is inherently hypocritical. It’s simply because we cannot see our own situations from the outside. But we really have to try.
The Torah tells us to love our neighbors as we do ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). This means that we should want the best things for our friends and acquaintances. But since the Torah specifies “as yourselves,” it’s clear that we should also want the best for ourselves. If we’re not permitted to give others bad advice (ibid., v. 14), doesn’t it go without saying that we should be careful with the advice we give ourselves? If we would tell a friend, “Stay home – you’re too sick to go,” then we should give ourselves that same advice when called for, and actually follow it.
Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (Avos 1:14). We have to look out for number one – not to the exclusion to others but in addition to them. If you would tell a friend to refrain from something for his own good, then don’t push yourself beyond your limits to your own detriment. We constantly say “love your neighbor.” Sometimes we have to be reminded to love ourselves.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.