The Power of Imagination

Nov 26, 2014

Methods for Changing Character

How to Change?
This is the first of a series on methods for changing character. Much moral and ethical literature focuses on what or why to change. How to change gets much less attention. We collect some of the material in this series. We open with a discussion largely based on Rav Dessler’s Mikhtav Mei’Eliahu vol. 4, pp. 251-255.

Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm zt”l asked the question we all often ask: How did our forefathers and the great tzaddikim reach the heights they did? His answer: they knew how to harness the power of imagination. This is a particularly powerful way of fighting negative thoughts and character lapses. The yetzer hara (evil inclination) is completely fueled by imagination. For instance, the overeater sees a second ice-cream sundae as a rich source of pleasure. If, however, he had a vivid picture of the health problems his excesses would cause him, he might step in the direction away from his problem. (Problems like overeating can have complex causes and need to be attacked from a number of vantage points. Imaging is only one method that might be helpful.)

One who can harness the power of imagination for holiness can, according to Rav Simcha Zissel, beat the yetzer hara at its own game.

Rav Dessler speaks of three types of imaging:
1. Transforming abstract concepts into vivid images;
2. Preparing for spiritual or moral challenges by living them in our minds before they happen;
3. Taking advantage of life experience for spiritual imaging.

1. Abstract images transformed into vivid conceptions:
Halakha and aggada are full of imaging.
a. Gan Eden and its opposite as a vivid reality, not just an abstract concept.
b. Developing vivid images of holiness is behind much of how the Sages present concepts in the aggada. Rosh Hashana is not only the day of judgement, but it is the day that all pass before the Divine eye one by one like sheep before a shepherd (Rosh Hashana 16a).
c. There is a mitzva of remembering (zekhira) the exodus story every night, but on the Seder Night we tell the story (sippur), when the matza and maror is before us and we can internalize it vividly.
d. Prayer (even the laws of prayer) is spoken of as “standing before the King”, even including three steps back at its closing.

2. Preparing for spiritual challenges:
Rav Dessler builds on the Rabbi Akiva story (Berakhot 9a). His students see him saying the Shema as the Roman’s cruelly torture him. His students ask him, “Is this the extent we must go?” and he answers, “All my life I troubled myself over when I will be able to fulfill that verse – “With all of your soul; [explained by the Sages to mean] even if he takes your soul.” Rabbi Akiva’s students, he explains, wondered how he reached such a high level, totally concerned with G-d’s Unity even under the cruel tortures of the Romans. He answered that for his whole life he had imagined this moment, so when it actually came it was natural for him to actualize it.

We should, Rav Dessler suggests, condition ourselves for morally challenging situations by clearly imagining them before hand and seeing how we will properly act. (Two examples from outside the moral realm: a. Basketball players are said to imagine jumping high a moment before they go up for a rebound and are then actually able to reach the point. B. An acquaintance, a Russian artist living in Spain, created a very sophisticated wall mural when still young and inexperienced, and was asked by a friend how he did it. He replied that he imagined himself as a great artist and began to draw.)

3. Taking advantage of life experience for imaging:
During Rav Dessler’s time the holocaust refugees were stopped by the English when their boats reached the Haifa port and sent to Cyprus. “Imagine the feeling!” exclaimed Rav Dessler. Now, he says, imagine, after 120 years, getting to the gates of Paradise and getting turned back!

Similarly, our own life experiences can be harnessed for enriching our inner spiritual lives. It is also sensible that Hashem is communicating to us through our experiences. We are wise to take advantage of them and transform them into tools for moral development.

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