Some flaws may be obvious to others, but other flaws tend toward more private displays (which should usually remain private).
Furthermore, the depths & lengths to which we find we need to work on ourselves often remains private because of healthy shame.
Yet anecdotes trickle out about great talmidei chachamim, which gives us insight into how we should work on ourselves—and also our attitude toward that inner work.
Rav Scheinberg Makes a Kiddush over His "Minor" Spiritual Victory
Being so young, Rav Scheinberg acclimated to the American Jewish society of 1920s, attended American public school before managing to attend yeshivah, and became known as "Lefty Scheinberg" for his skill at playing shortstop in baseball.
After his marriage, Rav Scheinberg & his beloved wife went to the Mirrer Yeshivah in Poland, where he gained the reputation of a masmid (one who learns Torah with perseverance).
After surviving the Holocaust in Shanghai, he & his family moved to Yerushalayim.
Rav Scheinberg ended up establishing his own yeshivah & earned both the title of talmid chacham & the description: "one of the Gadolei Hador."
Recently, I came across a little-known story about Rav Scheinberg.
Someone saw him making a kiddush & asked him why.
Rav Scheinberg answered that upon realizing that he no longer felt disappointed when his once-favorite sports team lost a game, he decided to celebrate that deep-seated accomplishment.
Look at that!
Rav Scheinberg steeped himself in the world of Torah and polished all his middot.
Yet he struggled to uproot an ingrained attachment to his once-favorite sports team.
However, he finally succeeded.
And what did he do?
He made a kiddush!
Uprooting that non-Torah attachment is a HUGE accomplishment!
Contrast this to well-meaning people who tend to denigrate such accomplishments with phrases like:
- "What's the big deal? After all, it's just baseball..."
- "Why was that even such a challenge for you? I mean, it's just a stupid sports team, for crying out loud..."
- "Seriously? You're making a kiddush about THAT?
- "Why does that matter so much to you? After all, there's nothing wrong with baseball!"
- "Lots of frum people play baseball & attend games. It's a harmless pastime! Are you sure you're not being kind of extreme?"
Needless to say, Rav Scheinberg was neither pathetic nor extreme.
This is a great example, both of how honest we need to be with ourselves regarding our inner selves and also with regard to the true significance of our spiritual accomplishments.
Rav Mordechai Gifter's Turnaround
Yet after arriving in Lithuania to attend yeshivah, the 18-year-old Rav Gifter encountered the original tziyonim and their root ideology—and discovered hate-filled Commies similar to the rabid extremists of today's Leftist movements.
You can see the letter describing his transformation (including an apology to the man with whom he previously sparred on the topic) here:
With the help of his study of Gemara, Rav Gifter executed a complete 180-degree turn on the issue.
Some of you may disagree with his conclusions on Tziyonut, but the point is to show a great Jew's self-introspection & openness to changing attitudes after receiving expanded knowledge on a topic.
A Glimpse into Rav Avigdor Miller's Personal Transformations
For example, a young Rav Avigdor Miller once got into fisticuffs while arguing in favor of socialism!
Given his later opposition to both any kind of physical aggression or liberalism (including socialism), this shows a sharp turn in his much younger self as opposed to his more mature & wiser self.
As Rav Miller tells it:
I remember when I was a boy, the fad of the day was Socialism. I once had a fistfight with somebody because I was fighting to defend Socialism.
I still remember that — I retired from that debate with a bleeding nose.
--Shavuos 3: Accepting the Torah
When the twentysomething Rav Miller first arrived in Lithuania to attend Slabodka yeshivah, he didn't take Jew-bullying passively.
Here's Rav Miller's first encounter with a drunk Jew-hating Lithuanian:
He had said something about me, “a dirty Jew” or something.
So I gave him a push.
I was an American so I wasn’t accustomed to bowing my head.
So my friends said to me, “What are you doing?! Are you crazy?!” and we quickly walked away. He could hardly keep his balance walking, so we just quickly walked away.
Every Lithuanian had a knife in his boots.
--Parshas Zos Habracha (page 23)
I was once walking in the street and I visited a friend of mine and he saw that I carried a stick, a heavy stick, on me.
It was many years ago, about thirty years ago and it was a dangerous neighborhood so I was holding a stick.
And this friend told me, “Don’t do that! It’s dangerous to carry a stick.”
It’s dangerous to carry a stick, because first of all they could take the stick away and hit you with it. That’s number one.
Secondly, with a stick, you become reckless. Without a stick, you’ll stay home. You’re safer off.
And it’s better always to avoid trouble.
— Rav Avigdor Miller on Carrying a Handgun
Therefore, the best defense is to stay out of trouble.
When you’re walking down the street, and you see a few bums, or even one bum, walking towards you, even if you’re not sure if it means trouble, just cross the street.
Just cross over to the other side! You’ll be surprised how lazy bums are.
— Rav Avigdor Miller on Karate Classes
Getting a bloody nose while fighting on behalf of socialism did not deter him from getting physically aggressive with a Jew-hating Lithuanian later.
In other words, he portrays his young self as a proudly Jewish, feisty American boy.
However, though he remained proudly Jewish, his Torah-washed mind enabled him to see the truth of an aggressive response to the point that, with specific & safe exceptions, he eventually discouraged confrontation (or even self-arming) in any way whatsoever.
Another time, Rav Miller passed by a bum lounging on the sidewalk, who snarled something to Rav Miller.
Instead of either dismissing it or getting offended by it, Rav Miller decided to utilize it as a message from Shamayim with the bum as the unsuspecting messenger:
If you want to really be a success, you’re going to have to be willing to listen to people who open their mouth to you.
It might even be an off-hand comment from a stranger who passes by you on the street.
Seventy years ago a homeless bum told me something, he criticized me about a detail of my behavior – I’m not going to tell you what – and to this day I still remember his every word.
And I’m a better man because of it.
--Parshat Vayigash: That Fearful Moment
And he never realized it until the vocalized observation from a bum on the street.
Here's a final view of inner change from Rav Avigdor Miller:
I remember when I was eleven years old, I was standing outside the shul and I heard a man – an old European Jew – he said, “Ahh! That was a geshmake ma’ariv.”
With his hands he made motions of excitement: “It was a pleasure!”
I was eleven years old and to this day, I can’t forget it.
I learned then that ma’ariv is fun!
— Parshas Ki Tisa 3: Getting Excited over Him
Obviously, he initially considered Maariv (Evening Prayer) as an unenjoyable religious duty.
But upon hearing the words from an older Jew with the right hashkafah, Rav Miller realized that tefillah not only can be enjoyable—it IS enjoyable.
Tefillah is fun!
Furthermore, even in his older years, Rav Miller remained spiritually young at heart.
When Rav Miller expressed regret over missing a Torah class while attending a grandchild's wedding, a former student respectfully questioned whether a grandchild's wedding is not in fact a great merit, and something to be both grateful & happy for?
Rav Miller mulled this over...and changed his perspective.
Later, Rav Miller possessed the humility to approach that same student & thank him for his words, expressing how helpful he found them and how they changed his attitude for the better, declaring that now he goes joyfully to his grandchildren's weddings (source).
4 Lessons Learned from the Above Self-Transformations of Real Torah Giants
- Observe your environment with the intention of gleaning life lessons.
- Keep both your ears & your mind open to receiving messages from Hashem (no matter how lowly or hostile the messenger).
- Investigate: What does the Torah say about it?
- Consider how to apply these messages & lessons to yourself.
- Take pleasure in these spiritual accomplishments, no matter how "pathetic" or minor or politically incorrect they may seem to others.
The Real Torah Perspective on Flaws & Teshuvah
We are not defined by those flaws.
ONLY HASHEM IS PERFECT.
It's HOW we face those flaws that defines us.
In the words of Rav Akiva Rabinovitz of Yerushalayim:
Hakadosh Baruch Hu [The Holy One Blessed Be He] holds absolutely no hakpadah [strict judgement, condemnation] against a Jewish person who possesses evil traits and lusts.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu does not come in accusations about this since He implanted these within him, and He brought us down here for this purpose.
If so, regarding what is the hakpadah?
The hakpadah occurs when the Jewish person does not strive to seek out the path and the counsel as to how to get out of [those evil traits and lusts].
Therefore, there exists the iron rule:
"As long as a person engages in battle, he is always called 'the victor' [hamenatze'ach]."
— page 170, Ahavat Kedumim (A Commentary on The Lost Princess) by Rav Ofer Erez