Do you know the true meaning of “tov” and “rah?” No, not the common translation: “good” and “bad.” Such english words lack any understanding of what makes something “good” or “bad.”
I believe that King David hints at the proper meaning in Tehilim 78 when he writes, קִ֥רְבַ֥ת אֱלֹקים לִ֫י־ט֥וֹב “Closeness to G-d is good.” He tells us, Tov is closeness to Gd. Closeness to Gd is the very definition of good! The Ramchal says similarly in Derech Hashem. Gd wanted to give us the ultimate good. So He put in us the capacity to come close to Him. This is the greatest possible gift He could have given us, as true goodness is closeness to Him.
So tov and rah are not “good” and “bad” but rather connected closeness or disconnected distance. To say Tov is not to say, “good,” but rather, “this thing connects us to Good.”
This gives us a profound framework for our lives. We are meant to live lives of biror, of filtering. But not filtering the good from the bad, but that which connects from that which disconnects. This is YOUR work, the work of the individual, because tov and rah, while certainly cosmically objective, cannot be determined by anyone but you, for you, from the place where you are now. For in the subjective reality in which we exist, within subjective time, tov and rah are subjective. And only by engaging them entirely in their subjectivity can we possibly reach any understanding of their objective nature. You and I both made such a decision when we ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Connected and Disconnected! With that first bite, we made ourselves into a creature capable of experiencing disconnection from Him – and thus, connection! This is why He only spoke to us for the first time afterwards. Before, there was no one to talk to.
How do we know whether something is tov or rah? Because we have all been giving a guidance system that tells us when we are connected or disconnected. We must become sensitive to our inner world to know this. Our natural state of being is one of connection. However, the klipot – the layers upon layers of disconnecting thoughts and actions – build a wall between us and Him. It comes as numbness and confusion. It comes as resentment and blame.
So the process of connection is not to seek something outside of ourselves. It is to become intimately aware of what it is the disconnects us and stop doing it. Our emotions always tell us if what we are thinking or doing is connecting or disconnecting. That is why Hashem gave them to us. Our middot are not things to crush and suppress anymore then they are there for us to identify with and pour out onto others. Our middot are like the indicator lights in the car. You would no more ignore a feeling of anger or laziness than you would place a happy face sticker over the light telling you your gas is low.
If you feel positive emotions such as love, compassion, inspiration, creativity, wonder, joy and appreciation, then you are in a place of connection. If you are feeling anger, resentment, numbness, depression, confusion, or lethargy, then you are in a place of disconnection. It does not matter how much Torah we are learning or how much we are praying, if we are not moving towards those positive emotions and seeing their expression in our lives, then all the work of holiness is not bringing us closer to being a tzelem Elokim, the very reason we were placed in this world, as stated by the Ramchal.
It always returns to our thoughts. You see, the same action can be disconnecting or connecting to two different people. Cleaning the house as a gift to one’s partner can be a holy act or a destructive act depending on the thoughts one harbors when one performs the action. Does one think, “I love my partner and I am genuinely enjoying doing these dishes because I love to give to them”? Or does one think, “I can’t believe I am always stuck doing these dishes. My partner better recognize me for doing them.” One person is elevated while the other sinks deeper into darkness, dragging down all those around them.
Anything we do that we have lots of resistance to will lead us further into disconnect. Forcing ourselves to do something – long term – is never wise. The mitzvot are supposed to be expressions of our love and connection to Hashem. They do not necessarily bring us into connection with Him. If we resent them or do not connect to them, then they will lead us further into darkness. Consider the metaphor of our relationship with Gd when compared to a husband and a wife. While, there certainly is place for doing something you don’t want to do in a marriage, a good partner must change their thoughts and intentions around the action for it to become tov. It is better not to do the dishes and say, “I was simply not in a place where I could do this without it leading to more disconnect,” rather than do it with resentment in one’s heart. I believe the same holds true with regards to religious acts.
The secular world looks upon us and is all too fast to point out this inconsistency in us. Holy acts do not make us holy. Our practice is empty if it is not tov. And it is not tov if it is not leading us to be tzelem Elokim. It is not tov if we are not experiencing connection in the act. And we will never know if it is leading us to be a tzelem Elokim if we are not in touch with out inner compass.
This is our work as human beings. Do not listen to the words your mind tells you, for the Yetzer Hora can wear many hats and sweeten its tongue. Rather, look into your heart to see whether the feeling behind the thought is one of connection or disconnection. This is wisdom. This is self-mastery. Wisdom is not being trapped in the mind, caught in the twisted delusions of pure intellect. Nor does it mean to be lost in one’s heart, rationalizing lusts and jealousies and harm. Rather, wisdom is the conscious understandings of all the parts in their messages to the whole. It is a system tuned to connection as a status quo and intimately aware when thoughts or actions are disconnecting. The heart is our compass towards connection. Our mind is our powerful processing unit.
Let’s explore one final example: prayer. Prayer can be one of the most connecting actions or it can be disconnecting. It can be tov or rah! If your prayer is an expression of love and desire for closeness to Hashem, then it is tov. If we leave prayer feeling elevated, compassionate, inspired, more open, then our prayer was tov. However, if our prayer is a struggle, full of self-judgement, and feels like a burden, then it is actually rah. A friend of mine made me smile when he commented on how he feels such shame when he wakes up for Netz and then feels judgement arise towards the person who enters 5 minutes late. I am familiar with such thoughts.
As Chazal expands upon in the Gemera (Yoma, Daf 72b) on the line: “This is the Torah that Moshe places before Israel.” (Deuteronomy 4:44) — the word “placed – שָׂ֣ם – can also mean drug. The Gemera says that for the person who is deserving, the Torah is a drug of life. For those who are undeserving, Torah is a drug of death. Even Torah can be used for tov and rah. Is it connecting you? Or is it filling you with more judgement? Is it making you kinder to all, including yourself, or is filling the world with more pain? Do not think that holiness and Torah cannot be corrupted and used for rah as much (or more) as anything in this world.
Only when we have made our heart sensitive and our mind wise can we feel the truth of our actions, the vibration behind our thoughts. Only then can we practice true birorim in this world. Only then will we allow yourself to let go of those thoughts we thought were holy, but were actually rah. Those judgements we thought were helping, but were actually harming. Those fears we thought were saving us, but were actually just blocking the light. Only then can we step into our role as independent beings, dancing with the Divine through eternity.
Close your eyes. Hashem will always show you what is tov and rah if you listen closely.