Growing Like Stocks
I once heard the following story from Rabbi Leib Kelemen: He met a Jewish woman who did not dress modestly, and had never kept Shabbos or kosher. After establishing this, he shared, “I can only hope and pray that I will be close to where this woman will be in Shamayim.”
After many in the audience expressed surprise, Rabbi Kelemen went on. “This woman was born to a heroin addict. She turned to crime by the time she was 13 to support her drug habits, but one day she saw a man in a wheelchair, almost comatose and shooting heroin and something clicked. She decided to immediately check herself into a drug rehabilitation center. She went through the grueling process to become sober.
“She didn’t stop there! She ended up becoming a therapist and saving thousands of people from their addictions.”
This woman’s greatness is measured not in her skirt length but the distance between where she came from and where she ended up. And that’s how our greatness will be measured, too.
Personal Growth Is Personal
Growth can’t be determined merely by where we are standing today. It’s about conquering our own unique challenges over time, and thus our starting place is just as important.
We can’t see this externally. If you saw Rabbi Kelemen in a suit and beard on the street beside a women mentioned above, who might you assume is more spiritual and achieved more? However, it’s not which rung on the ladder a person is on which determines their greatness, but how many they have climbed.
We each have our own ladder. It runs up between humanity to Hashem with 100 rungs. We may look at someone who’s on Rung 83 and think, Wow that’s amazing! But maybe not. Perhaps they were born into a home and circumstances which set them at 80 at birth.
Someone else could be on Rung 23 and we may think, Pshhh they aren’t spiritual…but what if they came from negative ten?
This process–of growth or stagnation–begins the moment we have desires and temptations that no one else sees. Our days are filled with choices. Am I going to yell at my kids when they want my attention but I’d rather look at Instagram? Will I give them the attention they need, calmly? On Shabbat, we could stretch out on our bed and sleep all day, or we could elevate Shabbat by praying and going over the parashah. Which will I choose?
Growth Is Like the Stock Market
Zoom in on one day of the stock market: The Dow is up! It’s down! The S & P 500 is mixed! But that doesn’t really give you the full picture. If you pull out to see a greater segment of time, you may see fluctuation, but that each peak is ideally higher than the one before, and none of the troughs are as low as earlier ones. The trend over time is up, even on a “bad” day.
Perfection is a lie. Real life is messy and failure is part of growth. We might have a short-term failure, having made the wrong choice today. But that doesn’t mean we are a failure or that over time, we’re not improving ourselves.
Another way personal growth is analogous to the stock market involves something called “Stop-Loss.” In this kind of trade, you and your broker set upper and lower limits for each stock you own. Say, you buy Coca Cola at $36 a share, and you tell the broker to sell it at $38, before the price goes back down. You can also say, “Don’t let it drop past $32! Sell immediately at that point.” You want to make a profit while simultaneously limiting potential loss. If you sell, you are out a few bucks, but if it crashes, you will have protected yourself from worse damage. Over time, you adjust the limits in order.
Grow in the Moment
In the writings of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, we have a concept called “nekudah habechira”–the “choice point.” When we are growing, all we have to worry about is the area between the stop loss and upper limit. It is between these boundaries where we must make a moral decision in this moment.
Suppose you have a young woman who is being exposed to Shabbat for the first time in her life. She likes it, but following all the laws seems waaay out of reach. The next week, she’s not going to stay out of a car and keep her phone off and walk to synagogue. Imagine a man: he’s walking by a luxury jeweler and sees a watch worth $135,000. He admires it, he pictures it on his wrist, but despite his longing, he doesn’t steal the watch. Instead he continues on his way along the sidewalk.
Hashem will neither reward nor punish either of those people. The choice to keep all the laws of Shabbat, all at once, isn’t a real choice for our young woman. It’s not where she is on her spiritual ladder. Nor will Hashem reward or punish our gentleman. He’s at a point far above stealing on his spiritual ladder.
Really, all the growth of a person takes place in a small area called a “choice box.” Inside that box resides only decisions which they would really struggle with.
Growth is a Process
Here’s a personal example: What if I have overheard a shocking piece of news about a neighbor, and I’m tempted to speak lashon hara at our family Shabbat table? Inside I’m asking myself, Is this how I want my children to hear me speak? Is this type of person I want to be? However, I’m also picturing the gasps and laughter of my family members upon hearing such juicy gossip.
It’s a hard decision! That means it’s precisely in my choice box. It’s the moment where I have the opportunity to grow…or otherwise..
The goal is for whatever we are working on now to eventually become so easy it’s like not stealing jewellery. The immoral choice no longer occurs to us as a possibility. Then we’re on a new run on the ladder, higher up, and it becomes the new baseline until we successfully meet the next challenge.
Slowly, slowly we climb.
We all have a point of choice. If we remember to compare our progress only to our past selves, if we focus only on our current rung as we climb the ladder, if we track the general trend instead of looking at the moment, and if we raise the stop-loss, we’ll be successful.
 Michtav Me’eliyahu I, pp. 113-116; Strive for Truth, Vol. 2, pp. 52-54