Complacency – And How To Be Dissatisfied With It

Koby Berkovits
Essays 2020 / Finalists

The issue: 

Often I spend a minute or two, every few months, analysing my accomplishments, achievements and  the like in the given duration.  

Have I done the best I can? How come I keep getting the same results in this area? What am I doing  wrong? 

Most times I perform these little “self-accounting” exercises, the results remain stagnant. I don’t  really feel like I’ve grown from month to month, year to year. Sure, I volunteer once a week, attend  a Torah class or two during the week, pray throughout the day and the list goes on in my head. I  don’t feel like there’s room for growth. Often I feel I’ve reached the max, when of course, this is far  from the truth.  

Self-development is essential to the human definition. The Torah, in describing Angels, refers to  them as “those who stand” 1, their spiritual ascent to the next stage is relative, the previous rung  from which they ascended is comparable to their current standing, and their goals, too, are  comparable to their current standing.  

However, us humans with divine souls, are superior in the sense we are called Mehalchim2, each  step of progress is a quantum leap in comparison to our previous standing, we continuously ascend,  level by level. We work on ourselves and experience personal growth, facilitated by positive activity.3 

Therefore, when we feel complacent, content with our current achievements, we are defying the  nature of our soul. We are rebelling against the system, stumping our personal development.  

The commandment to never feel content: 

But hold on, doesn’t the Mishnah advise us: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what has!”4?  Seemingly, we mustn’t take advantage of life. We were given this divine gift, the gift of life and all  that we have should be cherished. It’s a basic calculation, the more we are in contempt of, the more  depressed we are because of the void. Therefore, the Mishnah gives us wise guidance; be happy  with what we have, appreciate that we have what we need and don’t be jealous of our friends’  possessions. 


That seems to make sense, however only in regard to physicality are the words of the Mishnah  correct. However, we can’t use this approach when dealing with the meta-physical; relationships,  spirituality, emotional health, our relationship with G-d etc.  

Liozna 1795. Reb Zev Dov, a brilliant young scholar who worked tirelessly for months improving his  flaws of egotism according to the teachings of Chassidus, entered into the Alter Rebbe’s room for his  first Yechidus, a one-on-one encounter with his spiritual master and mentor.  

The Alter Rebbe asked him “What are you lacking?” 

He replied “I don’t know what I am lacking. I don’t feel that I am lacking anything.” 

To this, the Rebbe placed his hands on his head and in a state of trance and taught Reb Zev a  fundamental principle in Chassidus: 

“Spirituality and physicality are intrinsically opposites. A material virtue is a spiritual disadvantage. 

Materially, one who is ‘satisfied with his lot’ is the loftiest of men, and his Divine service will lead  him to the highest rungs. Spiritually, by contrast, being ‘satisfied with one’s lot’ is the greatest  failing. It causes one to decline and fall [spiritually], Heaven forbid.”5 

In a letter to Rabbi Chanoch Hendel Havlin, the Previous Rebbe responds to his plight about  resentment over his financially inferior situation. The Rebbe suggests that he should learn to rejoice  over his current fortune and be happy with what he has.6 

Ironically, the opposite approach is true when dealing with the spiritual. If one were to be satisfied  with their lot, spiritual service would halt and lead to an eventual downfall.  

Stumping our spiritual growth by choice: 

The Torah commands “There shouldn’t be a barren woman in your land” 7. The obvious question  arises how can G-d command us to prevent something only in His hands? Chassidus teaches that  really the implication of this verse is metaphoric in nature, rather referring to being “barren” in our  Divine service.  

How, unfortunately, can a woman be barren? If she doesn’t have an embryotic sack, if she’s missing  the vital housing organ for the foetus. 

Spiritually, this empty vessel can also refer to being content and so full, when we no longer have  room for growth. The Talmud8teaches a law of volume and displacement “A full vessel cannot  accept more liquid”. This seemingly obvious law in Physics has profound implications in Chassidus.  

Chassidus teaches us that when we fulfill all our goals and hit the bar we’ve set for ourselves, we  are, so to speak, ‘full vessels’ and are unable to contain more. We remain at a standstill, not wishing  to improve further.  

Identifying the issue in the language of Chassidus: 

This challenge in our service is called “Timtum Halev”9, literally a “Blockage of the Heart”, when we  feel complacent, uninspired, not interested in moving forward and growing. This universal issue is  dealt with at length in Tanya, when discussing the obligation of serving HaShem with joy and a full  heart. A problem that can arise when we progress and amylase our spiritual stance, is, that the  ultimate seems too distant to attain and we begin to become irreverent, apathetic to continuing  with our mission.  

This complacency doesn’t remain a drawback in the context of inaction, rather, also when we act  positively, we choose to not push our limits, which puts all our positive action into question of  authenticity.  

A waste of time and effort: 

The Torah tells us “Perceive the difference… between one who serves Gd and one who does not  serve Him.”10 The Tamud11 explains that both these individuals observe the Torah and its Mitzvos.  

So then how can both, who learn Torah and perform Mitzvos, be divided by the extremity of their  titles. 

One is called he “who serves Him”. 

And the other, he “who does not serve Him”. 

The Tanya12 explains that in the Talmudic period, the standard amount of times one would review  their study was 100 times. The latter personality “he who does not serve Him” would be those  people who fit the box, reviewing their studies 100 times. These men met the general quota, were  content with doing what comes naturally to them and got stamped with the label of someone who  doesn’t serve G-d.  

Alternatively, the “one who serves him” reviews his studies, not 100 times, but 101 times. Just one  extra revision session brings him to an entirely new identity, he is considered a man of G-d. Even  though he already maintains a thorough program of Torah study and observance, he is not satisfied,  but continually strives to deepen his understanding and raise the bar, creating space for growth.  

Furthermore, the Torah13 tells us “A poor man who brings the offering of a rich man has discharged  his obligation; a rich man who brings the offering of a poor man has not discharged his obligation.” 

The Mishnah14 rules accordingly. There are different socioeconomic divisions within the Jewish  people when it comes to Temple Sacrifices. Some can afford more than others, some less. However,  the Torah doesn’t suggest they not bring a sacrifice at all, rather do what they can. Those who were  given the great blessing of physical wealth, yet who are happy with bringing a “poor man’s offering”  haven’t fulfilled their obligation of bringing an offering at all! 

In this vein, the Talmud15 tells of Nakdimon Ben Gurion. He was extremely generous – but since he  was quite extraordinarily wealthy, even more was expected of him.  

From the above examples, we get an insight into the Torah’s attitude towards someone who can  achieve great things, be extra kind, generous, studious with whatever gifts or opportunities they  have, however, when the disease of complacency slithers its way into our conscious, all our prior  efforts are worthless. We are categorised as someone “who does not serve him” and our offering is  “invalid. 

We witness the stress the Torah puts on the importance of never being content, always striving for  more and giving life the best shot we can.  

Some hope – The enabling factor: 

The Rebbe further develops the metaphor16 of the “Rich man” bringing the “Poor man’s offering”  and comments: 

“The matter (of not being complacent) is totally reliant on one’s will. Every Jew equally internally  wants to learn Torah and do Mitzvos. For sure by someone already on their spiritual journey is this  true, for a Mitzvah leads to another Mitzvah.” 

The Rebbe’s attitude on the matter is that internally, being Jews with divine souls, we naturally,  deep down want to do the right thing. We just need to adopt a positivity mindset, where one  positive deed leads onto the next, breaking the iron wall in our way, complacency.  

The solution to it all: 

As we can see, I got a real problem on my hands. Anyone else in the same boat will feel the same.  So, what can we do? How can we break the barriers and promote a positivity mindset as the Rebbe  so strongly encourages? What shift in our psyche needs to take place in order to allow for a new me  – a non-complacent me?  

As most things are, the long-winded solution is three-fold, but don’t worry I’ll summarise it all in the  end. 

Before we get there, what does modern psychological science tell us about combating complacency  and what can Chassidus really add?  

The general advice, pre-Chassidus: 

The general advice is what you’d expect. Pretty general. And I quote17

“So how do you fight complacency? 

If complacency is a lack of reinforcement, then reinforce more. 

This is what your behavioural programs are designed to do. Prioritize your high hazard/high potential  loss tasks. Create checklists to guide observations in those areas. Do observations and reinforce safe  acts to lock them in place a little longer” 

In short, complacency is defined as a lack of reinforcement and the solution proposed is to reinforce  positive action. “Create Checklists” professionals advise, as well as “Prioritize … tasks”. 

While the suggestion of reinforcing more and adding in positive action is useful, positive action alone  won’t suffice in eradicating the issue altogether. This positive action needs to be accompanied with a  positive growth-mindset, this Chassidus will enable us with. 

When one recommits to positive action, complacency bares it ugly head yet again and plans its next  attack. Then we reinforce but once more, only to find ourselves facing laxness for the umpteenth  time. 

This vicious cycle, once set in motion, will continually repeat itself. While we will be temporarily  relieved of the difficulty at hand, nothing ensures we will change. Meaning, our habits will change,  superficially, we will build a positive action routine, yet, our mindset is bound to continually revert to  its original position if nothing is done to rewire the way we approach complacency intellectually.  

The revolutionary approach of Chassidus: 

As Chassidus is wont to do, it offers us solutions which will deal with the essence of our issue.  

Rather than applying an external cream to the rash, Chassidus is the antibiotic which enters our  bodies internally, cleaning out our system and healing the body as a whole, rather than just subduing  the rash in a temporary fashion.  

The diagnosis: 

In terms of spiritual illness, the Previous Rebbe’s words of wisdom18 resonate with us. 

“Most urgent of all, however, is that the patient make himself aware of two things: a) to know that  he is ill, and desire most fervently to be cured of his malady; b) to know that he can be cured, with  hope and absolute trust that, with Gd’s help, he will indeed be cured of his sickness.” 

If we can’t confidently diagnose ourselves as ill with content, how can we expect to every solve the  issue? 

Solution Part 1: A spiritual accounting: 

For a person to grow, they need to be honest with themselves in regard to their spiritual standpoint.  Just like a business person frequently takes a financial accounting, analysing the profits, flaws in the  business and strategies for future success, so too, every individual must make it a priority to take a  “soul accounting” to determine who they are, what they should be and what they can be.19 

This “soul accounting” consists of three stages20

  1. We need to determine what the ideal image of a wholesome person, a pious person looks  like. Even though we will never be “perfect”, it’s important to paint a portrait of the  ultimate, in order that we don’t set the bar too low for our actual expectations. Think of the  ideal spouse, the ideal friend, the ideal Rabbi or Rebbitzin, scholar, employee, employer… 
  2. Next, with the first stage in mind, we should be able to ascertain how much we can do to  come as close as possible to the ideal person. Of course, we can never be complete, perfect, the ideal, however, in the vein of this image we have conjured, we can strive to do what we  think we are capable of. We all have natural talents, abilities and strengths, we need to  acknowledge them and do our upmost to do as much as is in our power to improve.
  1. The hardest part of this accounting is to establish where we are currently holding. This is  quite a personal and taboo one. As the saying goes, no one sees their own faults. It’s hard to  be honest with ourselves and point out the places we need to grow in, where we are lacking.  Without fail, every time we take this self-assessment we will find there to be a gap between  stage 2 and 3. Our job? To fill the gap with whichever approach appropriate, depending on  the problem 

In our case, dealing with complacency, when we realise what we are missing out on, who we could be, we will become aware that action is necessary to fill the large void, to become better, more  wholesome and balanced people.  

Some may think that this conception of personal emptiness and deficiency is negative, however, the  Rebbe argued the contrary. 

When a doctor prepared to take a blood sample from the Rebbe, the Rebbe asked him what causes  the blood to leave the body; the stab of the needle or the vacuum created by the empty space in the  vial. When the doctor replied that it is caused by the vacuum, the Rebbe related that someone once  came to him and complained that he is void and incapable of accomplishing anything, and the Rebbe  had answered him that “on the contrary, emptiness suctions in much more; the fact that he feels  empty means that he is capable of being an even better vessel for all things good and holy.”21 

Solution Part 2: On a Journey 

The beginning of Parshas Ma’asei, the Torah says22 “These are the journeys of the children of Israel  with which they left Egypt in their legions…” 

The immediate question is why journeys? Why use the plural tense, if really, there was only one  journey, from within the Egyptian border, to the outskirts of Egypt?  

Rather, the word “Mitzrayim”, “Egypt”, etymologically stems from the same root as “Meitzarim”,  “boundaries”, personal limitations. Chassidus23 teaches us that all of the 42 journeys from Egypt to  Israel are a metaphor for our spiritual journey. Each new place the Jews encamped at, each new  stage in our lives, achievements and milestones, are all considered Meitzarim, limitations. 

Why so? I just donated $3, 600 to charity, and you’re telling me that’s no big deal?  

While that’s very nice and all, however, while $3, 600 is an “Exodus” from my previous “Egypt”, my  previous boundary of only $3, 000, in comparison to the new standard, the new stage I’ve entered,  $3, 600 is still an Egypt, one I need to be redeemed from. 

That’s why all the 42 journeys, level to level, despite going higher, closer to Egypt, the Jews found  themselves in a box, an Egypt, in comparison to the next stage in their journey.  

We need to employ a similar mindset. Whilst what we’re currently doing, compared to previous  achievements may be marvellous, nevertheless, in comparison to our next required stage, where  we’re holding now is considered a dark, suppressive exile, akin to Egypt.  

With this growth mindset, we are guaranteed to never feel complacent, but rather responsible to  soldier on and keep on moving up throughout the Journey of life. 

Solution Part 3: Time is precious! 

In Psalms24, it says “Days have been formed”, teaching us that G-d has designated each and every  one of us a certain amount of days on this planet Earth. 

When the famed sage of the Mishnah and leader of the Jews for a duration during the Second  Temple Period, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai was on his deathbed, he said “I do not know where the  Heavenly court is taking me!”25; he was unsure if he would make it through the gates of Heaven!  

How could this be? One of the greatest, most pious sages humanity has seen isn’t sure if he’ll make  it to Heaven? 

Chassidus explains26 that he in fact wasn’t sure which way his soul would be taken because he never  had time to make such a calculation.  

How so? 

He internalised the aphorism of Psalms, realising his days are limited and used out every single  second of his life to serve G-d, love his people, do good and study. He valued time so much, to the  extent, he thought it a waste of his precious time to calculate what afterlife he deserves! 

We can learn a valuable lesson from Rabbi Yochanan. We are only here for a certain amount of time  and we don’t quite know when that time will be up. So, let us do our best to maximise the time we  have here, never leaving a spare moment to rot and waste. Rather, “grab the bull by the horns”,  realising time is gift and we shouldn’t abuse it by giving in to complacency and stumping our  emotional, spiritual, intellectual, character growth.27 

Solutions in short: 

  1. Get out your spirit calculator, decide who you want to be, who you are now, and go for gold,  don’t be happy with who you are now! 
  2. You’re on a journey here, you absolutely cannot stay where you are, for where you are, is  exile, in comparison to where you can be! 
  3. Time is of the essence, don’t let it slip through your hands, take control of your life and  maximise the time you have to the fullest by always doing and never settling! 

Or even shorter, 1. Self-asses, 2. Journey on, and 3. Maximise your time!

1 Zechariah 3:7 

2 Lit., “One who walks, who is on the go” — who is dynamic as opposed to static; a play on the  words halachah and mehalech, which share the same root. 

3 Hayom Yom 6 Iyar 

4 Avos 4:1

5 Hayom Yom 30 Sivan; Igros Kodesh of the Rebbe Rayatz Vol. 4 p. 120-121 

6 Igros Kodesh of the Rebbe Rayatz, Vol. 5, p. 47 

7 Shemos 23:26 

8 Berachos 40a 

9 Tanya ch. 31

10 Malachi 3:18 

11 Chagiga 9b 

12 Chapter 15 

13 Vayikra 5:6 

14 Nega’im 14:12 

15 Kesubbos 66b-67a.

16 Igros Kodesh of the Rebbe, Vol. 13 p. 52, letter #4222 

17 Complacency comes when reinforcement goes, so reinforce more; International Safety and Hygiene News;  Timothy Ludwig Ph.D; so-reinforce-more

18 Hayom Yom 16 Sivan 

19 Hayom Yom 27 Av 

20 As told over by Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, who heard it from the Rebbe Rashab, to Reb Chaim Sholom  Deitch. Heichal Menachem’s “Monthly Disk” – Disk 11 on the Month of Elul (2011).

21 Derher Kislev 5777; “The Complete Story of Rosh Chodesh Kislev” 

22 Bamidbar 33:1 

23 Likkutei Sichos Vol. 2 Parshas Matos-Ma’asei p. 351 (Seif 5)

24 Tehillim 139:16 

25 Bero hos 28b 

26 Kitzurim and He’oros on Tanya p. 47 

27 Lo Siye Meshekeila 5712 – Sefer Hama’amorim 5711-5712 p. 218 ff. See pp 222-223