Dealing with Adversity-The Primacy of Our Thoughts

The Gemara in Maseches Tamid (32a) asks, “Eizehu chacham? Haroeh es hanolad — Who is a wise man? The one who can see and anticipate the consequences of his conduct.”

A major way to avoid problems and mistakes is to think ahead. Use what you know to plan the best course of action. Regarding recurring mistakes, sometimes you can pinpoint a pattern of counterproductive decisions that led to those errors. Thinking ahead is about the next year, five years, or even a decade, not just about the next week and month.

Hagaon Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, had this ability. The following question was once posed to him. In a certain building in Eretz Yisrael a young person named Yonason had tragically passed away. Around the same time, another family in the same building had a baby boy and was considering naming him Yonason after the father’s father. Rav Shlomo Zalman was consulted about the name. He was concerned that in a few years when the youngster would grow up this mother would be calling him by name, which would be heard by the neighbors, and the other, bereaved mother would suffer grief upon hearing her late son’s name. He therefore advised the couple to select a different name.

Why is thinking ahead such a challenge? Mesillas Yesharim (perek beis, middas hazehirus) says that one of the stratagems the yetzer hara uses to trick people into not being careful with their actions is to burden them with various activities so that they have no time to think and contemplate the correctness of the path they are taking. It knows that if they devote attention to their ways, they will undertake to better themselves and avoid errors.

In Melachim I (third perek), Hashem offers to grant Shlomo Hamelech a request. Shlomo attests that he is lacking in his ability to lead Klal Yisrael and petitions: “Grant Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil.” His answer finds favor in Hashem’s eyes. He responds, “Because you have requested this thing, and have not asked for longevity; neither have you asked for riches … but have asked for understanding to discern judgment … I have given you a wise and understanding heart … and I have also given you that which you have not asked, both riches and honor … And if you walk in My ways, to keep My decrees and My commandments, as your father Dovid did, I will also lengthen your days.”

Shlomo Hamelech yearned for insight more than physical blessings such as wealth and arichas yamim; he was granted the latter as well.

The eminence of wisdom is seen in that we request it in the first of the brachos of the middle section of the weekday Shemoneh Esrei (Maseches Brachos 33a). Such wisdom enables us to recognize Who is the source of our needs. Chazal tell us elsewhere (Megillah 17b) that the juxtaposition of the brachos for wisdom and teshuvah indicates that the purpose of wisdom is teshuvah, citing the Navi Yeshayahu (6:10), “And his heart shall understand and he will repent and be healed.”

In Nedarim 41a Abaya states: A poor man is only one lacking in intellect. If one has the attribute of intelligence, he has everything. If he has not acquired this, what has he acquired?

Ben Zoma offers another definition of a wise person (Pirkei Avos 4:1): Eizehu chacham? Halomed mikol adam — Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” (Tehillim 119:99). Naturally, we need to be careful that the source of our wisdom is reliable, because our minds can be swayed by alien influences. Dovid Hamelech tells us in sefer Tehillim (73:22): “I was senseless and knowing nothing, like a beast was I with You.”

Yet, many so-called wise men readily peddle their wares. A respected academic taught a course on morals and ethics and yet was known for his immoral conduct. When confronted about his inconsistency, he responded, “In the classroom, I am a professor and do my job. Outside, what I do is my business.”

L’havdil, Yidden strive to ensure that their deeds are consistent with the Torah they study. We read in Tehillim (111:10): “Reishis chochmah yiras Hashem — the first part of wisdom is fear of Hashem.”

Harav Yehoshua Eizik Shapiro, zt”l, known as Rav Eizele Charif, “the sharp one,” was Rav of Slonim. He once traveled to Yeshivas Volozhin to select a chassan for his daughter. There, he posed a perplexing Talmudic question and said that the bachur who answered it would potentially become his son-in-law. The talmidim worked diligently but no one could resolve the question. As Rav Eizele was leaving, a bachur ran after his coach and called out, “Rebbi, I must know the answer.” The Rav responded, “You have a great thirst and love for Torah.” That bachur, Rav Yosef Shleifer, became Rav Eizele Charif’s son-in-law.

Rabbi Yosef Gesser is a longtime writer for Hamodia Newspaper as well as an inspirational speaker on various topics, including dealing with adversity. He can be reached at

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