I n the previous chapter, we learned through the story of the Tzemach Tzedek on how we must relate to every imperfection we see outside ourselves as a mirror of an identical flaw within us.
The mirror never lies. Although there may be a difference in degree between ourselves and the behavior of another, this reflected statement is necessarily true.
For example, when a generous person sees a miser who never gives charity nor invites guests to his home, he might be reminded of the reluctance he himself sometimes feels (though perhaps never acts upon) to interrupt something he is doing to come to the aid of another. The fact that one is irritated or critical of something “outside” indicates that it is time to rectify it more completely “inside.” This acknowledgement of imperfection is the first step of return to God through repentance (teshuva) and allows us to then proceed through the subsequent stages of regret and commitment to change.
This requirement of self-criticism must be confined to a circumscribed period of time and tempered by an understanding of change as a process that happens one step at a time. Otherwise, we might become so preoccupied and depressed by our current state of imperfection that we will lose all sense of joy in serving God and effectiveness in educating others. Therefore, we should designate a certain amount of time each day for constructive self-criticism. Within this circumscribed period, we should arouse a deep, overwhelming sense of sorrow for our imperfections that comes from realizing how we have estranged ourselves from our Creator.
This state of total regret arouses God’s mercy which brings with it forgiveness and strength to change. God has promised that sincere apologies will always be accepted, so we should leave each session of self-criticism joyfully, assured of absolution and purification. Those who do not transmute their regret to joy are expressing a lack of faith in God’s mercy, strengthening their self pity, and defeating their whole purpose of cleansing so as to draw closer to God. Therefore, the relief and peace of mind which follows is as essential as the self-criticism itself.
At other times throughout the day, when thoughts of guilt, inadequacy, or regret arise, we should dismiss them immediately, with the intention of addressing them at the time designated for that purpose, for only then will we have the space to really meditate on how our transgressions have affected our relationship with God. In this way, we avoid the debilitating anxiety that comes from constant, untempered self-criticism, the gnawing sense of inadequacy which diminishes our productivity by keeping us preoccupied with “self” rather than service. By instituting a daily discipline of honest self-reflection, we also avoid the equally devious trap of self-justification, the habit of rationalizing our misconduct. An inability to recognize and acknowledge our mistakes is the root of all evil properties in the soul, and self-criticism is the best weapon against this.