Better a patient person than a warrior,
one with self-control than one who takes a city.
— Proverbs 16:32
Rabbi Israel Salanter, a renowned 19th-century rabbi from Lithuania, once made the following powerful statement: “The loudest sound in the universe is the breaking of a bad habit.”
What an eloquent way to capture the strength it takes and the difficulty involved in changing our ways for the better! This statement both validates our struggles and appreciates our victories in our inner self. It at once acknowledges that we will stumble, but encourages us to keep trying — trying to be more patient and less angry; to be more in control of our desires and less vulnerable to temptation; to be more forgiving and less begrudging. Whatever our own personal “bad habits” may be, we can break them no matter how difficult.
In Proverbs we read: “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.” Rabbi Salanter explained that this verse refers to two levels of self-mastery. The first part of the verse speaks of a person who has somewhat conquered a bad habit yet still struggles with it. He or she is compared to, and deemed greater than, a warrior.
This comparison recognizes that inner strength is even greater than outer physical might. Building internal, spiritual, and emotional muscles is a greater achievement than that of body-building. However, this individual has only achieved part of the ultimate goal.
The second line of the verse speaks about a person who has mastered self-control. This person is compared to one who has captured an entire city. Just as the conqueror of a city has complete control over the many parts and activities that occur within it, so the person who has mastered him or herself is able to completely rule over any inner temptations. This is complete victory — the level for which we should all strive to attain.
Let us be motivated by this verse and this teaching as we go about the most important work of our life — that is, of becoming a better and more godly person. Do not be discouraged by setbacks or intimidated by the challenge. Above all, do not give up even though the path to self-mastery may be long and tedious.
Moreover, celebrate achievements. Though it may take time to conquer our own inner selves, we can still be greater than the strongest, most able-bodied warrior when we achieve some degree of change in our inner self. We must believe that we can completely conquer those pesky bad habits. God has created us to do so, and He has equipped us to do so. We need only to keep trying and believe in ourselves. And once we do manage to master our tendencies, we will pierce the heavens with the loudest sound in the world and the greatest achievement of all.