The paradox of spiritual fortitude

The beginning of spiritual fortitude, an internal resilience that allows us to face all the challenges in life, comes from a paradox.

In moments of difficulty, we need strengthening. And yet, the same tools we use, they themselves need strengthening. This is the hidden lesson in this short line from the Talmud on ​Berakhot 32b​:

The rabbis taught in a baraita: four things require hizuk, strengthening, and these are they: Torah, good deeds, prayer, and derekh eretz, upright conduct.

Let’s unpack this with an analogy.

Human beings, among other creatures, need oxygen to breathe. This is created by plants when they “breathe.” They need carbon dioxide, which we create. Without one, there cannot be the other. They both need to exist, simultaneously, to provide the other with what it needs.

This interconnectedness is exactly what the rabbis are teaching us with these four things. Torah, good deeds, prayer, and derekh eretz. If we look closely, they are actually two pairs of ideas. Torah and Prayer are connected and good deeds and derekh eretz are, too.

Let’s break down this framework.

Torah and Prayer

We can understand Torah in two ways.

It is the receiving portion of our relationship with the Divine and our ancestors. We use the word kabbalah, receiving, to denote this, though not necessarily in the mystical sense.

In the morning prayers, we take on the Kabbalat ol Mitzvot, the receiving the yoke of the commandments, to describe our obligations. Kabbalat haTorah, the receiving of the Torah, is the moment at Mt. Sinai. And we say Kabbalat Shabbat, which is when we receive Shabbat on Friday evenings.

At any moment when we are engaged with Torah, we are absorbing what God and the universe are telling us.

On the other hand, we relate to Torah when we engage over text, in partnership and in relationship, in the back and forth of discussion and disagreement.

It is the reliance on a study partner to pull us back from wild ideas while also trusting them to help you follow an unexplored path when there is wisdom to be found. This is where the wisdom of our ancestors, and God, comes in, as we study the words of those who came before us, guiding us today.

Prayer is the other side of the equation, the giving portion of our relationship with the divine when we share what is within us. It is a balance to the Torah we receive. It can be within prayer that we share what happens on the inside. We articulate our challenges, successes, hopes, and dreams.

We express the many feelings and ideas within, via its many forms, chanting, whispering, and singing.

Prayer, even wordless melodies, nigunim, have the power to stir and inspire.

The balance between Torah and Prayer, between giving and receiving, teaches us that we need to listen in some moments. And in others, we must speak. Each one strengthens the other. When we do not know what to say, this is a lesson that we must listen. When we have heard enough, it is time to express and share.

Good deeds and derekh eretz

In various places in the Tradition, we are reminded that the impact of our actions is a key measurement, not just our intentions. Here too, our good deeds are concrete. They are the force in our spiritual muscles that add good to the world.

It is not enough to think about something, we have to take action. The Rambam, ​in his ladder of giving​, begins with giving when we don’t to. While this is not the desirable place to complete our journey, it is a recognition that doing good deeds provides a level of impact, not just on the recipient, but on us the giver. This can strengthen us, but might also need to be strengthed.

Derekh eretz is the everyday enculturation of self that results in integrity and makes the world better.

Derekh eretz literally translates to “the way of the land,” but is really understood to describe the good, upright conduct that makes the world worth living in. It is in contrast to the concrete actions of good deeds, it describes the inner journey, the ever-growing improvement of self.

The balance between good deeds and derekh eretz is the dynamic of the external and the internal, the actionable and the cultural.

For example, even if we don’t want to, doing good deeds still creates good in the world, like the Rambam noted. This is the externalization that can bolster us when our heart isn’t in it.

On the other side, we might have the internal drive to do what is right. This can guide us, even if we don’t know what action to take.

The rabbis tell us that each of these actions requires strengthening. This is true.

But the lesson is that all of them are part of the spiritual resources we can muster when one is lacking. Each needs strengthening, but we have the others to provide support.

It is the understanding of each pair and how they manifest in your life. It is about knowing which one to lean on in that moment, as it coaxes its opposite into greater existence. It is this skill that helps us cultivate spiritual fortitude.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.