August 13, 2013
Rabbi Yisroel Harpaz in #892, Viewpoint

The world is changingNew technologies are plummeting us to lower depths of disconnectedness or propelling us greater heights of interactivity, depending who you ask. Power is shifting in the stage for global military and economic superiority. New paradigms are being created in virtually every field of inquiry before we even have time to adjust to the old ones.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The world is definitely changing, but human behavior has for the most part remained the same. It is ironic that we find a way to dispose of the offensive byproducts of our existence through gentrified sanitation control mechanisms, but that we somehow ignore the equally offensive and dangerous byproducts of unhealthy and insensitive living; that we continue to innovate devices and software that enable and encourage uninterrupted communication, but we spend little time or energy improving the substance of that communication and interaction. It is especially ironic when the spiritual technology to deal with these maladies of the mind and heart have been around for over two centuries.

The areas of life readily accessible for improvement – thought, speech and action – are termed “garments” in Chassidic thought. They are part of us, but at the same time somewhat external, like our clothes. The garment metaphor implies that every healthy human being has the ability to control their thought, speech and action much the way we change or remove our clothing. Even thought, the most elusive of the three garments because we cannot easily remove it entirely except through intense concentration and meditation, is quite malleable when we consider that we can turn our thoughts effortlessly from one subject to another. Speech and action are even more controllable, since we can simply hold ourselves back from speaking or acting offensively. Our inner feelings and our intellects, on the other hand, require years of painstaking, incremental advancement to fully master; we cannot easily change how we feel our how we understand certain things the way we can change how we speak about them or react to them.

But just because the area is superficial, doesn’t mean our approach to it has to be. It is tempting to dismiss the outer garments as inconsequential, superficial manifestations of who we are, but mastering them is the secret to experiencing growth and discovering the inner self. Unlike the intellect and emotions, the outer garments are completely under our dominion; I might not always be able to dictate how my mind processes ideas or how my heart experiences emotions, but I can always control what I think about, what I say, and what I do. Always. The outer garments provide the most fertile ground for change because they are malleable by even the gentlest force of will.

This approach should not be confused with the cognitive behavioral approach of medieval ethicists and modern psychiatrists, who crush the human spirit by denying us its power. The idea of controlling the outer garments does not focus on treating symptoms through behavior modification. Though this is sometimes necessary in extreme situations when time or circumstances do not allow for the process of real change to play itself out, it is never really desirable. Behavior only deals with the outer self, and ignores completely the inner self and the power I have to transform from within. Denying this power is an excuse, an escape from the responsibility it entails; it is much easier to say that I cannot, and meekly wither away, than to acknowledge that I can, and face the subsequent battle.

This is why the term garments is used, to emphasize that the cognitive behavioral approach to change – where we condition ourselves to overcome addictions or negative behaviors through physical consequences or stimuli (much the way dogs are trained) is, quite literally, only skin deep. The individual is not transformed by the process, which ignores the cause of the malaise. In some cases the behavior is improved, but often at the expense of real inner discovery. I could spend my whole life continuously modifying my external behavior without ever changing who I am. Or I could empower myself to change what I am into, which garments I immerse my being into – changing not merely what I think, but what I am into thinking; not what I say, but what I am into speaking; not what I do, but what I am into doing.

Reprinted with permission from Exodus Magazine


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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