Secrets of the Soul, Volume I: Self-Awareness & Dealing with Challenges
The book consists of a series of classes given by Rav Hoffman, recorded & transcripted.
Rav Hoffman wasn't well-known, but several Gedolei HaDor not only knew him, but consulted with him.
Other Gedolei HaDor served as his mentors.
I met Rav Hoffman a few times when he was around 80 and found him to be a sweet, gentle, patient person.
Though the book focuses on Rav Hoffman, the passages regarding Rav Isaac Sher of the original Slabodka Yeshivah really stand out.
A Brief Glimpse of Rav Isaac Sher of Slabodka
Rav Miller told people that when he didn't provide a source for an idea or hashkafah, then just know that it came from Rav Sher.
Initially, I assumed Rav Miller, in his humility, wished to deflect credit away from himself (and to a certain extent, that's true because Rav Miller certainly offered ideas of his own).
However, I'm pleasantly intrigued to discover how much Rav Sher's voice reminds me of Rav Miller—indicating that Rav Miller's humility really did allow him to be intrinsically influenced by great Rav Sher.
Rav Sher merited to survive the Holocaust, but he attributed his survival to one thing only (page 51):
"Do you know why I was saved? Among the millions who were killed, what merit did I have that HaKadosh Baruch Hu rescued me and brought me to Eretz Yisrael? The only reason I was saved, and the single merit I have, is that I have experience in 'smoothing down the sharp edges' of young students."
(Also, please note that Rav Sher attributed nothing innately to himself, but merely described himself as "experienced" in that particular area.)
But please, don't believe for one minute that was the only reason Hashem saved him!
Rav Sher was a tremendous Torah Sage and a wonderful person.
But in his humility, this is what he believed about himself and thus he dedicated the rest of his life to helping young men—including the young Rav Hoffman.
How to Cope with Yourself
"The problem is not sin, but how to cope with it."
Drawing on sources like Seforno, Targum Yonatan, the Vilna Gaon, the Ohr HaChaim, Targum Onkelos, and more, Rav Sher made the case of a positive attitude toward sinning & teshuvah.
- (1) EVERYONE SINS.
This is a normal, unavoidable part of being a human being.
That's why these Slabodka leaders (and the ancient Sages before them) placed so much emphasis on dwelling on the solution, rather than on the sin itself.
- (2) TESHUVAH REQUIRES OPTIMISM.
We need to be positive about our ability to change.
Here's Seforno on Beresheit 4:6, detailing what Hashem meant when He asked Kayin (Cain) why his face had fallen after he murdered his own brother (page 92):
"Why has your face fallen?"—When a fault can be repaired, it is not right to be upset about the past. It is proper to try to repair in the future instead.
This is authentic Torah wisdom. (Seforno lived in Italy 1475-1550.)
We need to look forward toward spiritual healing.
- (3) DON'T LEAVE YOUR GOOD PLACE.
This is a direct idea from Targum Yonatan on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 10:4, who stated:
"...do not abandon the good place that you had until then..."
Because the above rabbanim focused on their work with yeshivah bachurim (young men), they (and the above commentaries) emphasized the importance Torah study as the remedy itself to sin.
They opposed taking on all sorts of stringencies, self-punishments, fasts, acts of piety, and the like.
Don't leave your good place! You were learning Torah? Keep going with that!
The book also mentions that not abandoning your good place means to resist the pull to drop all the good things you are doing.
Don't let despair and self-loathing cause you to spiral downward.
The good things you do still retain their goodness despite the bad things you've done.
- (4) DON'T BROOD OVER THE SIN.
The Ohr HaChaim and others emphasize how thinking about the awfulness of your sin paradoxically brings you into temptation again.
In other words, all that brooding & self-recrimination lead you to dwell on the sin, which paradoxically reminds you of how alluring the sin was in the first place.
Rav Shlomo Hoffman states on page 102:
"Contemplation breeds desire."
Focus on fixing, on problem-solving instead!
BTW, while regret is integral to teshuvah, you need not brood & mope over the sin.
Saying, "Gosh, I sure do regret that, Hashem!" is enough, especially if sinking deeper into regret will cause you unproductive pain and even paradoxically awaken the desire to sin again.
- (5) FOCUS ON WHAT TO DO NOW.
In Parshat Metzora 33:8, the Kli Yakar (1550-1619) states:
"...there is no person on earth who is so tzaddik that he has not sinned in some minor folly."
In the original context, he uses this as proof of why you shouldn't indulge in fault-finding because you can actually find a genuine fault in everybody.
So what's the point?
NO ONE IS PERFECT & NO ONE CAN EVER BE PERFECT FROM BIRTH UNTIL DEATH.
So why bother picking people apart—including yourself?
Here's Rav Isaac Sher (page 108):
"Do not think about your sins. HaKadosh Baruch Hu created you with a yetzer ha'ra. It's natural. Everyone has a yetzer ha'ra. The only issue is how to cope with that, which is something you must learn."
Authentic Torah Guidance
These attitudes derive from the surrounding non-Jewish society, but we unfortunately encounter them among some frum people—including some of those whom we innocently turn to for guidance.
But the guidance presented in this post emanates from true talmidei chachamim throughout the ages—in other words, authentic Torah guidance.
About Secrets of the Soul
In Europe, this book is distributed by Lehmanns.
In Australia, it's distributed by Golds World of Judaica.
I found it in the English section of my local Israeli bookstore (which hosts a limited selection of English books, but sometimes I get lucky—like with this book).
For me, its most valuable aspects are the sourced commentaries sprinkled throughout and the direct conversations of guidance & advice from some of the greatest Torah Sages of the 20th century.
Many of these Torah Sages are no longer among the living, so it's very precious to have access to their literal words featured in this book.
Rav Hoffman worked with a wide variety of Jews across Israeli society, including hardened criminals. The book also contains illuminating stories & observations & insights from Rav Shlomo Hoffman (including his own inner struggles), who was a talmid chacham in his own right.
I found these Sages so helpful because following some of the popular advice can davka harm you with regard to certain kinds of difficult people—as happened to me.
It was also validating to read the timely words of these towering Sages. They definitely understood the pain & harm caused by critics, fault-finders, and snipers—the Pele Yoetz even describes such interactions as to "gore each other."
Anyone who has ever suffered from such a "friend" understands exactly what this means!
Modern English describes feeling "gutted" or "stabbed in the back" or "punched in the stomach." Likewise, the Pele Yoetz likens it to being gored by the horn of a bull.
Pretty descriptive—and accurate.
So I wrote up that post in the hope of providing authentic Torah validation & guidance to others via the actual words of our Sages.
In modern times, it seems the Kli Yakar's insights about blabber-mouthed fault-finders also apply to blogs & media outlets who indulge in that behavior.
But always remember this reassuring fact: