I would imagine that anyone reading this blog does not eat cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. Some things are so obviously wrong that it takes minimal self control and little emotional effort for us to stay away from. Many of us struggle with mitzvahs that are not as well known or as black-and-white or on days that are not as obviously sanctified. More of us struggle with the decision of what right thing we should be doing.
As we each grow in our quest for righteousness and greatness, we are increasingly faced with the dilemma of choosing between two good choices. We begin to realize that it is not enough to distance ourselves from spirituality harmful things, we need to focus on performing the best of the good things. As an example: on my way to visit a friend who is sick and in the hospital, I got a call about an important need in my own family that required my attention. My visit to the hospital is not an emergency and this family need is not an emergency. Yet, both are vitally important mitzvahs and I cannot do both—which need should I prioritize? They are both our responsibility and they are both amazing mitzvahs, but only one of them is the best thing to do. I believe that true goodness and even greatness can be found in this subtle balance.
Choosing Best Over Better
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the above scenario, as all the variables are far too case specific. However, all else equal, our sages teach us a tool that we can use to help us clarify what is the best mitzvah. We need to ask ourselves, why we gravitate toward a certain mitzvah? Sometimes the answer is because we sense the mitzvah’s innate value, and sometimes the answer is somewhat less laudatory. Perhaps we are drawn to a mitzvah because it brings us honor from those around us, or for some other ulterior motive. As an example: do I want to build a new hospital to help people who are sick or do I want to build a hospital because the “Davidowitz Children’s Wing” has a nice ring to it? To be clear, doing a mitzvah for any reason is amazing. Our sages teach that we should always perform mitzvahs even if we have ulterior motives, because, in time, those habits will lead us to perform mitzvahs altruistically. Yet, when we speak of true greatness, we speak of having our actions and emotions aligned in spiritual excellence. When I learn to identify what is really driving me I gain the tools to understand what I need to prioritize.
How Do We Know What Is Really Driving Us?
I read an idea in Mussar that I have found to be super helpful in identifying my deepest motives. Ask yourself: at the very first moment when the phone rang or when the idea of doing a particular mitzvah jumped into your mind, what were you thinking? Going back to the hospital example, when the hospital’s director of development called and asked for your help, were you first thinking of the sick children or were your first thoughts centered on how good your name would look in the lights? What entered your mind in that split second is likely your true motive and everything else that piled on later is peripheral. Again, I think that you should donate a wing to the hospital in any case, but I would love for you to have the self awareness to know what is really driving you.
What Will You Choose?
Going back to our example of visiting your sick friend vs taking care of your family need: I hope that I have provided a framework to help resolve this dilemma. By learning to identify what is really driving you, I hope that you can make a less biased decision and choose the best mitzvah.