The Wisdom to Know the Difference


Theme: Letting Go of Control

“G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer, written by Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr around 1932 and adopted by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1940, is familiar to millions of people, many who have never set foot in a 12-step meeting. It expresses a fundamental idea in spiritual growth and self improvement: there are things that transcend human control, or at least your individual control, and trying to control that which you can’t will drive you crazy.

And yet, despite what’s at stake, we don’t always know what is beyond our control what we can do ourselves. Fortunately, the 4000-year-old tradition of Kabbalah has some answers:

What You Cannot Change

You cannot change the past. However, once a person has messed up or has been messed up by others, he has the power not only to correct his ways, but his past can teach him (and all of us) new ways to reach heights that people without those experiences can never reach. This is not to say that suffering is preferable or justifiable — we have to avoid causing pain to others at all costs and treat those who suffer with compassion. But we cannot turn back the clock, and need to ask ourselves: How can I grow through my experience, and: What do I do next?

What You Can Change

The mystics teach that you can change yourself, and changing yourself has the power to effect the world through a spiritual ripple effect.  By recognizing our weaknesses and potential failings, by being accountable and assuming responsibility, by rectifying our errors – we actually demonstrate the ultimate human dignity: To repair a broken a world. After all, trust is built not on perfection but on accountability. It is human to err; it is Divine to repair. When we rise to the occasion and correct a crime of the past, we manifest the majestic Divine Image in which we were created – the ability to transcend our mortality, go beyond our humanity, our offenses, even beyond our pasts, and come out stronger than before the fall. The power and ability to transform our pasts is to use the newfound knowledge and methods that came from painful experiences to open up unprecedented channels of holiness and sanctity.

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

Wisdom comes from humility. A full cup cannot be filled. When you’re filled with yourself and your needs, “I and nothing else”, there is no room for more. When you “empty” yourself in the face of something greater than yourself, your capacity to receive increases beyond your previously perceived limits. Humility is the key to transcendence; to reach beyond yourself. Only true humility gives you the power of total objectivity. Humility is sensitivity; it is healthy shame out of recognition that you can be better than you are and that you can expect more of yourself.

Exercise: Examine a mistake from your past. What can you learn from it? How did it offer you the opportunity for meaningful change in your life? Journal about it in your MyMLC journal.

All content about Letting Go of Control: What You Can and Cannot Control | Free Will

Go deeper into this subject: All This Talk About G-d | The Eighth Dimension | Personal Transformation | Your Guide to Personal Freedom Counting the Omer: Week Five | Are You Forgetful? Five Secrets to a Better Memory |

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Free Choice vs. Determinism
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Rebecca Adams
2 years ago

Dear Rabbi Jacobson,

I think I have been waiting all my life to read this article.
I am liberated.
I don’t have to feel wretched for another decade or two about my sins of ommission or commision: I can go back, and rectify.
I will read this again: and again.

Thank you. For this teaching: and for everything you do.

Twenty years ago, I sat in your Wednesday night class in a shtiebel on the West Side while I lived in New York. One class of yours that I was blessed to atttend was on the portion Lech Lecha. You interpreteed this as – “Go towards yourSELF* …”

which i now understand means going towards Hasham, and union with G-d, at the same time (then, it meant for me to find my true Self. Now it means both, together.)

I am grateful that you are again my teacher, and that you have made this extraordinary website so that so many of us in the two diasporas (one from New York, one from Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem) can be gathered together.

Thank you. I don’t know the proper way to ‘sign off’ and bless you for being such a teacher. But if I did know, I would write it now.

Melbourne, Australia

*A patient of mine – not Jewish – said said recently she had overheard at a party a young man say- “Go toward yourself, and maintain discipline.”

The Meaningful Life Center