Rabbi Landau stood near the synagogue exit, shaking hands with his congregants as they left. But as Max approached, Rabbi Landau grabbed his hand, pulled him aside and said, "Max, I think you need to join the army of G‑d!"

"But I'm already in G‑d's army, Rabbi," Max replied.

"I'm in the secret service"

"So how come I don't see you in synagogue except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" asked the rabbi.

Max whispered, "Because I'm in the secret service.”

Army of G‑d

“The power of man has grown in every sphere, except over himself.”―Winston Churchill

The Jewish people are referred to by many descriptions throughout scripture: they are called G‑d’s nation, His servants, His priests, His children.

But in the book of Exodus—as the Israelites are about to leave Egypt after the plagues struck down their Egyptian oppressors—they are called G‑d’s army: “It was at the end of 430 years, and it was on this very day that all of G‑d’s soldiers left the land of Egypt.”1

G‑d’s soldiers? But hadn't the Egyptian enemy just been conquered?

It’s true that the Jewish people’s external enemy had just been vanquished, but the internal ones were about to be confronted. Over the next four decades, the Jewish people would struggle with an addiction to idolatry, infighting and petty politics, insubordination to authority and a pessimistic outlook developed over centuries of slavery. And they would learn a great truth about the human condition: that fighting external forces is often easier than fighting one’s own impulses and desires.

Our sages put it well when they said, “Who is mighty? He who conquers his own natural inclinations.”2

The 19th century English economist Nassau William Senior put it this way, "To abstain from the enjoyment which is in our power, or to seek distant rather than immediate results, are among the most painful exertions of the human will."

Judaism’s definition of true might has nothing to do with dominating or controlling someone else, and has everything to do with subduing and taming one’s own unhealthy ambitions and addictions. As so many powerful individuals throughout history have demonstrated, it is far easier to exercise power over another than it is to exercise willpower over oneself.

It is this war—the perpetual struggle for self-mastery—that our nation was called on to wage since its infancy. But in order to win this war, we must stock up on the life-tool we need most but want least: discipline.

A lack of self-discipline is what lies at the heart of so many of our generation’s social and behavioral ills. For example, the breakdown of marriages and child-parent relationships. Good relationships of any kind require an immense amount of self-control. Self-censorship in thought, word or deed are essential to any productive interpersonal endeavor.

Obesity is another example. Eating healthily requires a lot of willpower—a resource that many people claim they simply don’t possess.

And here’s the thing about self-control and discipline: like any muscle in the human body, they get stronger the more they are exercised.

But we live in a reality in which we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages reinforcing the ideal of instant gratification. We live in an environment that celebrates overnight and effortless success and teaches us that shortcuts in life do exist.

And there are no ideas and conditions more corrosive to the fabric of society than those of effortless success, instant gratification and a general lack of self-discipline.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University, led the Stanford marshmallow experiment, which was a series of studies on delayed gratification. In these studies, children were offered a choice between one smallThe ultimate privilege we can give our children is the ability to self-regulate reward provided immediately, or two small rewards that would be provided if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainments, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

But the Lubavitcher Rebbe's way of responding to what he perceived to be a major societal deficit in self-discipline in the ’70s, especially among the younger generation, was entirely different.

In response to someone who challenged him regarding the youth movement he founded in 1980, which was called Tzivos Hashem, or “The Army of Hashem (G‑d),” he wrote:

I thought long and hard about finding a way of inducing an American child to get used to the idea of subordination to a higher authority, despite all the influence to the contrary—in the school, in the street, and even at home, where parents—not wishing to be bothered by their children—have all too often abdicated their authority, and left it to others to deal with truancy, juvenile delinquency, etc.

I came to the conclusion that there was no other way than trying to effect a basic change in the nature, through a system of discipline and obedience to rules which she/he can be induced to get accustomed to. Moreover, for this method to be effective, it would be necessary that it should be freely and readily accepted without coercion.

This brings us to the point that although the ideal of peace is so prominent in the Torah, as mentioned, the fact is that G‑d designed and created the world in a way that leaves man subject to an almost constant inner strife, having to wage relentless a battle with the yetzer hara [evil inclination]. This is the only kind of “battle” the Tzivos Hashem are called upon to wage.3

To be successful in this relentless inner struggle, we need to build up an arsenal of meditations and exercises that strengthen our willpower and self-control. These tools are the greatest gifts we can give our children to help them succeed in their lifelong battle for self-development.

Each of us is born with the emotional capacity for generosity, the attribute of Chesed, as well as the capacity for restraint, the attribute of Gevurah. Society tends to associate acts of giving (Chesed) with love and selflessness, and acts of regulation and restriction (Gevurah) with severity or selfishness.

Saying yes is often easier than saying no. Giving is often more enjoyable than withholding. We all like to please and feel benevolent, especially when it comes to our children. Who doesn't want to be the nice guy? Who doesn't want their child to feel privileged? But in the end, what is the definition of privilege?

The ultimate privilege we can give our children is the ability to self-regulate. TheSaying yes is often easier than saying no ultimate life-skill we can teach our children is how to say no to themselves. And the ultimate vice we must prevent in them at all costs is a sense of entitlement and a tendency towards (and dependency on) indulgence. It’s often a parent or teacher’s act of setting boundaries that sets a child on a path of self-discovery.

It’s no wonder, then, that most of the mitzvahs (365 out of 613), whose aim it is to express G‑d’s love for his children, are commands that restrict and forbid. After all, tough love is often true love.