Sure, certain behaviors change in a snap.
For example, if you indulged in a certain undesirable behavior without thinking about it until someone pointed it out AND you clearly understood its negative effect AND you weren't emotionally attached to the behavior...then desisting from it occurs almost automatically.
But other behaviors are more deeply entrenched.
The 3 Major Influences on Middot
- (1) It's innate; you were born with it.
- (2) Upbringing; you were raised that way.
- (3) Culture; your environment encourages that behavior.
This is why one sibling raised by physically & verbally abusive parents will develop into a person of solid middot and abhor hurtful words or violence of any kind...while another will also become physically & verbally abusive—or worse.
It used to be that a person raised by dysfunctional parents had at least one positive influence going for them: the surrounding culture.
But nowadays, the surrounding secular Western culture has decayed so badly that even a person with innately good tendencies may have nowhere to turn outside of himself for guidance.
But some people have all 3 influences going against them.
That's the worst.
Yet improvement is still possible.
So let's look at that.
The 3 Strikes against Rav Hoffman
Just the thought of difficulty in this area boggles the mind of some people.
For example, in the perky smiley culture of America, smiling & pleasant countenances are expected. Sure, some people go around like a gloomy Gus and some American subcultures thrive on bitterness & melancholy.
But a permanently dour expression is not socially acceptable. It's even considered weird.
To naturally upbeat, happy-hearted people who even smile or laugh when they shouldn't, the idea also sounds strange.
Yet we all have at least one middah that for us personally, it's a big struggle to master.
So let's take a look at Rav Hoffman's own description of himself before his rabbanim started working with him on sever panim yafot & connecting to others:
He also possessed a superior intellect from the time he was young.
He revealed that he'd never felt much social need. He also said he possessed a tendency toward sadness and introversion.
Rav Hoffman also admitted that back then, he thought he should be grave & somber—he saw it as a virtue.
Rav Gedaliah Eiseman (in a sincere effort to help the young Rav Hoffman) once told the young Rav Hoffman that Rav Hoffman was a good-hearted person, but a sad type.
"You enjoy your sadness more than being happy with life," Rav Eiseman once told him (page 271).
The Spinka Rebbe once told Rav Hoffman, "Rebbe Shlom'ke [the Rebbe of Zvhil] planted within you the ability to listen to the plight of others, share their burden, and help them."
"Planted within you" sounds like the ability didn't exist on its own prior to the Zvhiler Rebbe's intervention.
It's clear that both his parents were good, dedicated parents. But what about happiness or outgoingness?
Yet we know Rav Hoffman endured ongoing stress & trauma throughout in his childhood from other causes.
Born in Czechoslovaki in 1922, he grew up in Selish in a chassidish family, followers of the Spinka Rebbe. (Selish is the same town featured in A Daughter of Two Mothers.)
The young Rav Hoffman quickly surpassed the level of the local cheder, so his father hired private tutors to learn with him.
But his father suffered from asthma, which worsened in 1933.
Realizing that the climate of Eretz Yisrael could help his asthma, the entire family set out for Eretz Yisrael...but encountered many hardships along the way, which stretched out the journey for months.
Finally, the family settled in Haifa.
Haifa summers are hot & humid—a big change from Selish. Also, a secular Leftist presence overwhelmed Haifa, which is why it used to be known as "Red" Haifa.
How did it feel to be a devotedly chassidish boy in Haifa at that time?
Not sure. The book doesn't say.
In addition, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael still chafed under British occupation.
The Nazi Holocaust was just beginning, which meant a continuous stream heart-breaking news from Europe over the next 12 years, plus dealing with traumas of those who managed to flee.
At age 14, Rav Hoffman moved to a yeshivah in Yerushalayim.
Impoverished like most of the country at that time, the yeshivah lacked the means to adequately care for a young student so far from home, and he found the transition difficult & unpleasant for a long time.
Only at age 16 did he enter into the heartfelt care of Rav Isaac Sher & Rav Meir Chadash at Yeshivat Chevron.
4 years later, when Rav Hoffman was age 20, his father passed away, giving Rav Hoffman even less reason to smile.
So the circumstances of his upbringing (through no fault of his devoted parents) did not exactly facilitate a happy heart.
Culture shock, poverty, being among anti-religious Jews and increasingly hostile Arabs & Brits (though the Muslim mayor of that time was friendly toward Jews) don't sound like happy influences.
Based both on what is known & what can be inferred, it seems like Rav Hoffman had all 3 strikes against him.
He even suffered from what many people suffer from: the certainty that his problematic behavior is not only not a problem, but that it's even a virtue!
In other words, as Rav Eiseman noted above, Rav Hoffman wanted to remain in his self-absorption & moroseness.
(Apparently, he was never rude or mean to people. As Rav Eiseman said, he was a good-hearted person. But the young Rav Hoffman did not seem to connect to others emotionally & he was not a happy person.)
Yet when I knew him in his 80s, he had a permanently pleasant expression on his face, even when not actively smiling. He appeared soft & approachable. He smiled and laughed easily.
But apparently, that change did not come easily.
As Rav Hoffman himself stated (page 218):
"People think I was born this way, but the truth is that had it not been for Rav Isaac, I would rarely ever smile."
The Influence of Rav Isaac Sher
Very slowly over many years.
First of all, Rav Isaac Sher (Rav Avigdor Miller's rav from Slabodka) started off by teaching the young Rav Hoffman not to fear his yetzer hara.
Rav Sher held many private sessions with Rav Hoffman dedicated to self-improvement via self-awareness.
Initially, Rav Sher's desire to discuss Rav Hoffman's yetzer hara offended Rav Hoffman. Rav Hoffman invested so much in his Torah learning and following halacha, he perceived the discussion as unwarranted criticism.
But upon perceiving Rav Hoffman's hurt feelings, Rav Sher immediately reminded him of the Gemara Sukkah 52a, which states that a greater person possesses a greater yetzer hara.
Knowing that Rav Hoffman considered Rav Sher to be much greater than him, Rav Sher said (page 190), "So if I am greater than you, apparently I have an even bigger yetzer hara. So don't be offended when I say that you have a yetzer hara too."
Then Rav Sher explained that the only difference between him and Rav Hoffman is that Rav Sher had spent 60 years dealing with his yetzer hara, and therefore gained the experience and coping mechanisms necessary to teach others.
"So don't be offended when I tell you that you have yetzer hara," said Rav Sher. "We all have a yetzer hara. The only question is how we deal with it."
Furthermore, Rav Sher empathized with Rav Hoffman, revealing that when the Alter of Slabodka first confronted the younger Rav Sher with an aspect of Rav Sher's yetzer hara, Rav Sher also took offense!
Over time, Rav Sher even shared his own inner conflicts & struggles against his yetzer hara with Rav Hoffman.
First, Rav Sher shared his own weaknesses, and only after sharing his own, he discussed Rav Hoffman's weaknesses.
At one point, Rav Sher even said (page 314), "When you get old, your yetzer just gets more powerful. You have no idea what a hard battle I have against it, now in my old age. You don't understand that for old people, it even harder to work on our middos."
On page 216, Rav Hoffman presents an anecdote from one of his private sessions with Rav Sher.
Rav Sher even assigned Rav Hoffman "smiling" homework, such Rav Sher's insistence on him wearing a smile whenever he entered Rav Sher's house.
In addition, Rav Sher gave him chessed homework, such a taking on a small resolution in chessed on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
Interestingly, Rav Hoffman asked him why Slabodka yeshivah placed such an emphasis on chessed.
Rather than berating him for asking such an obvious question or mocking him or giving him that raised-eyebrow look meant to make the questioner feel innately defective, Rav Sher simply explained why chessed was so important.
Rav Sher also used humor to give mussar.
And yes, Rav Sher occasionally spoke to Rav Hoffman with more bluntness, like the time Rav Sher compared him to a hazardous pit in a public street, causing damage to everyone around him with "that glum expression on your face."
But not out of impatience or snarkiness or insensitivity; only when Rav Sher saw bluntness as truly the right method for that moment.
Rav Sher's investment in bringing out Rav Hoffman's sever panim yafot, his ease of smiling & laughing, and consideration of others (especially within Rav Hoffman's marriage) continued until Rav Sher's passing in 1952.
The Influence of Rav Meir Chadash
"Ever since you came to the yeshivah, your gravity and your moroseness have just been getting worse. For some bachurim, it can take half a year to free themselves of it, and for others even a whole year. I've been waiting for you for three and a half years to break out of it. When are you going to grow up and stop with your narishkeit?"
And yes, the 20-year-old Rav Hoffman felt insulted.
He felt he was doing his best to learn with hasmadah and expected a compliment, not a rebuke.
Yet the idea that his gravity & moroseness displayed immaturity rather than superiority sank in after a while.
He later noted that he davka needed these exact words, especially his behavior reframed as "narishkeit" to break out of his unhealthy mentality.
Please also note that Rav Chadash refrained from anger or shouting. Nor did he speak out of impatience.
Rav Chadash saw Rav Hoffman every day for nearly 4 years and only chose those specific words when he saw that not only was nothing else working, but that Rav Hoffman was even getting worse.
3½ years is a long time to wait before getting tough with someone you see every day.
The Influence of Rebbe Shlom'ke of Zhvil
So the boys rented rooms in the homes of nearby families.
Rav Hoffman merited to stay in the home of the Rebbe of Zhvil.
In addition to absorbing the Rebbe's influence via observation, the Rebbe stimulated the middah of empathy within Rav Hoffman by having Rav Hoffman read the Rebbe's kvitelach (written requests from his chassidim) to teach Rav Hoffman to feel the pain of others and help them carry their load.
9 Lessons Learned from the Above
Anyway, what can we learn from all this?
After all, you might be thinking to yourself: Oh, for crying out loud! Do you know how spectacular I would be by now if Rav Sher had invested in me with a self-improvement program specially designed for my particular needs, and if Rav Chadash also invested so much in me, along with other great Sages, AND I had lived in the home of the Rebbe of Zhvil?
It's true that Rav Hoffman got very, very lucky. And he was always the first to admit that.
Now, I don't know if Rav Hoffman is being too harsh in his own self-description.
Was he really that emotionally stunted in his youth? Did he really lack a certain amount of empathy? He certainly presents himself that way and quotes his rabbanim as viewing him that way. But who knows for sure?
Regardless, the first lesson is that despite Rav Hoffman's initial offense and hurt feelings upon receiving mussar from the these great Sages, he listened.
Even when he argued back to defend himself, he did so with questions ("Why does the Rosh Yeshivah think I have a yetzer hara?...What did I do wrong?") and then actually listened to the answers.
So that's Lesson #1: If someone whom you know is a great person offers you a critique, you should listen & try to understand as much as you can. Sure, you question the person. But make sure you listen to the answers.
There's no shame in hurt feelings or feeling offended. It's all part of the process. The truth hurts...and that's okay. It's normal. Feeling hurt doesn't mean you're silly or inferior.
Progress in the toughest, most ingrained areas can take years. That's normal and you should not be put down for that, nor should you feel ashamed or like a failure.
A tough case is no cause for hopelessness.
Look at how Rav Chadash & others worked with the young Rav Hoffman for nearly 4 years—and Rav Hoffman not only showed no improvement, he even got worse!
According to their own words quoted in the book, it simply took the rabbanim a while to figure out the right way to get through to Rav Hoffman. And it took Rav Hoffman a while to even understand what was wrong.
Everyone faces an inner challenge hard for them individually.
Most us probably feel mystified by the thought that merely smiling—or simply not going around all morose—could take years.
For most of us, that would be a very easy issue.
But for Rav Hoffman, it was one of the most difficult things for him to deal with.
So even if we don't have that particular issue, we have another one.
Likewise, we should strive for compassion toward others who struggle with an issue that we find all easy-shmeezy.
We all have a yetzer hara. EVERYONE. What makes you greater or lesser is how you deal with yours. That's all.
That's basically the only difference between a great person and a lowlife.
If you can, find a mentor. A genuinely good mentor is invaluable.
This is increasingly challenging in our generation. But prayer helps achieve this.
Even with everything against you, you can still make progress. You can even succeed.
Learn not to fear your yetzer hara.
Learn to cope with it instead.
There are more lessons, but that's all I could come up with for now.