A lot of good and true content has already been written about Rav Aharon Leib Steinman zatzal, who recently passed away.
I've always held him in high esteem, of course, but a letter that came to light around a year ago really showed his greatness (in my humble opinion).
In a 1941 letter to Rav Moshe Soleveitchik, Rav Steinman wrote of the harmful possibility of being returned to a Swiss work camp after having spent time in a sanatorium for a lung infection.
“At any rate, 'many are the thoughts [in a man’s heart],' [Mishlei/Proverbs 43:19] and whatever happens will be suitable and good. Do not be concerned for me, for as you know, it is my nature not to be bothered by such things.”
On the contrary, it would make perfect sense to be bothered by "such things." He was around 27-years-old and had just escaped the Nazis in Poland, and was pretty sick, yet facing forced physical labor.
But he stated that it wasn't his nature to be bothered by such things.
Then he ponders whether his aplomb is coming from genuine bitachon (trust in Hashem), as opposed to his innate nature and he quotes Devarim 10:16: "You shall cut out the blockage of your hearts and no longer harden your necks."
So while the rest of the letter contains impressive statements of gratitude and affirmations of Hashem's Goodness and Compassion, it was the above section that really struck me.
You see, this personality type tends to be calm and unruffled. Any emotional outbursts that occasionally occur tend to be short-lived and quickly forgotten.
Yet the seeming serenity often emanates from repression and disassociation, and not genuine serenity and acceptance.
Yes, this personality type possesses many wonderful qualities in its ideal form. These people possess the ability to step back with genuine yishuv hadaat (a composed mind) and respond with wisdom and insight.
In fact, if you can get them to open up about certain issues, they have many valuable insights to offer.
Due to their ability to see the other person's side of things, they can be empathetic, compassionate, and positive. In their ideal state, they make the most wonderful friends and advisers.
That's when they're functioning at an ideal level of spiritual and emotional health.
But when their calm and collected state emanates from their ability to mentally disassociate and their refusal to be emotionally "present," they display a lot of negative traits.
They refuse to stand up for what's right, they justify and excuse inexcusable behavior, they treat others badly and then pretend they didn't by "forgetting" what they did—even if it just happened a few minutes ago.
When religious, they abuse the concepts of emuna and bitachon to justify inaction, cowardice, laziness, and apathy. ("It'll be okay." "Everything always works out for the best." "I'm sure it didn't really happen like that." "S/he didn't mean it." "Don't forget that Hashem's in charge!")
In other words, they live a lie.
Note: The above expressions are often true. But they should never be used as excuses to avoid necessary and halachically obligatory actions. They certainly should not be used to lie or deny or to further victimize victims.
The hardest aspect of unhealthy expression of this type is their underlying arrogance.
They're so proud of their lack of emotion or lack of anger, and they can go out of their way to shame others for expressing negative emotion, no matter how much the person is suffering.
They especially do this by laughing at the other person and gently mocking him or her, which the sufferer can interpret as a knife in the heart depending on the level of suffering already experienced.
You can also see this type swelling up with pride as they proclaim their refusal to respond in kind to any provocation or get upset. (Although they may respond in a passive-aggressive manner at that time or later on.)
They literally look down their nose at others who aren't exactly like them, even though the truth is that they are disdaining others for not being repressed or not being disassociated.
And they are indeed some of the most stubborn stiff-necked people you'll meet.
Yes, they can be compliant and go-with-the flow, but if you ever try to inch them out of their disassociated bubble or get them to do something they are obligated to do (but don't want to because it's emotionally uncomfortable) or see a necessary and beneficial truth that makes them uncomfortable, then they dig in their heels like the hardiest mule and you cannot budge them one millimeter.
It may sound like I'm picking on them, but every person and personality type has their own blind spots and this is theirs: the profound pride they take in their repressive and disassociated state, and the accompanying dishonesty.
(But we all have something like this, whether it's in that area or another. They aren't worse than anyone else or worse than any other personality type.)
Anyway, the point is that I found it so awe-inspiring that:
- Rav Steinman immediately and humbly attributed his lack of anxiety to his nature. And then he analyzed whether it was real bitachon or stubborn disassociation.
- The verse he chose is telling, since it refers to a blocked heart (disassociation, blindness) and a stiff neck (obstinacy and arrogance).
I think other types don't realize how hard it is for this type to not disassociate, and to remain "present," and look at things that are emotionally discomfiting and definitely not reassuring.
And their insistence on their own superiority because of their repression and disassociation (in what's an otherwise humble personality type) is very real and very hard to break through.
The only way someone whose "nature is not to be bothered by such things" could ponder whether such a response is real bitachon or a blocked heart and a stiff neck is if this person engaged in regular genuine deep-digging cheshbon hanefesh (self-scrutiny for the sake of self-improvement).
This achievement calls for rare honesty and sincerity.
It may sound funny that after all the amazing and impressive things he achieved throughout his life, that the little bit of self-scrutiny he described in a letter written 77 years ago is what I found so impressive.
But after extensive experience with this personality type, this letter proved his spiritual greatness was the real deal and coming from a place of holiness.
May there be many more like him in Am Yisrael.