How often do we wish we could be kinder and more loving? Who hasn’t wished that they could curb their impulses to satisfy momentary needs? Who doesn’t want their good deeds to outshine their selfish ones?

Everyone has the power to become the “better person” they know they are capable of being. Making positive changes is an ongoing part of spiritual growth. The question is, how?

A Jewish perspective can help answer that.

Our Sages teach1 that we each have two yetzers (inclinations) within us, one that seeks to serve our soul and spiritual drive, and one that caters to our ego and physical appetites. Our highest potential is achieved when we are able to channel both of these resident energies in the direction of the greatest possible health and holiness. This requires us to actively engage the positive inclination and work to transform the negative inclination.

Toward this end, Jewish thinkers have long debated the most advantageous approach to self-refinement: Should a person better themselves by primarily fighting or fixing the negative urges within them—or by primarily focusing their efforts on doing good, serving G‑d, and supporting others? Does one approach lead to the other? What are their respective benefits and logics?

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

In response to this question, two great 18th century Chasidic masters, R. Aryeh Leib of Shpole (known as the Shpoler Zeide) and R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad-Lubavitch, argued about the best way to positively shift the balance in the constant struggle between one’s negative and positive inclinations.2 Essentially, their respective approaches can be understood in classic conflict terminology: Should one invest their energy in first securing a good, solid line of defense, or in launching an early and bold offensive?

R. Aryeh Leib argued for a more defensive posture. According to this perspective, the most effective way to silence the inner voice of negativity is by ending any relationship with it. Only after expelling every impious thought, word, and deed, he said, could one devote energy to the performance of good. Paradoxically, this approach required one to focus heavily on their lower drives and negative traits in order to identify and deconstruct them.

To support his case, R. Aryeh Leib quoted King David: Turn from evil and do good,3 which he explained to mean that they must be in that order—first turning from evil and only then concentrating on doing good. The scriptural proof for this opinion is commonly bolstered with a simple analogy: “Does it make sense to bring ornate furniture into a home without cleaning it first? What’s the point of beautiful furnishings if they sit in filth?”4

R. Schneur Zalman disagreed; he argued in support of a more “offensive” strategy. He taught that by focusing and building on the good qualities already present within us, we can shift the momentum and diminish the magnetic pull of our negative feelings. Rather than putting one’s ego under a microscope, which only brings us into closer contact with the evil inclination, R. Schneur Zalman suggested instead that we should go straight for the soul, so to speak. As he wrote pointedly in the Tanya: “One who wrestles with a dirty opponent becomes dirty himself.”5 Most political campaigners can attest to this.

Don’t Focus on Yourself

The Rebbe took this approach even further. In keeping with Chabad teaching, he was unequivocally on the side of tending goodness through immersion in positivity and light, rather than on deconstructing darkness ad infinitum. He taught that by focusing your attention on others, you are able to rise above the petty claims and cravings of your ego.

When a man asked for advice on conquering a negative impulse that preoccupied him, the Rebbe wrote him this letter:6

Certainly, this is only the design of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). [In general,] it would be good for you to minimize your thoughts about yourself—even about those matters that appear to need correction—and exchange these thoughts for matters that involve others. How good would it be if those thoughts would focus on G‑d.

This change of focus is meant to correct our natural tendency to be self-absorbed. According to the Rebbe, even when such self-centered focus is directed at positive ends, such as refining the ego, it is still fixating on the self, and the person is therefore not connecting to G‑d or to others. The Rebbe sought to liberate us from the narrow confines of the isolated self by activating our higher spiritual natures in love, service, and connection with both Creator and creation for the good of all.

The Power of Doing Good

When people don’t take positive action, they risk getting stuck in the mire of negative thought. Most people have experienced the frustration of desperately trying to not think about something, believing that if they ignore it, it will just go away. It doesn’t; quite the opposite, actually.

However, by consciously shifting your focus from negative thoughts to the performance of good deeds, you can cause your negative urges to gradually recede or even cease altogether. Why? Because you have moved on to something better.

When you focus on the positive, there is an endless supply of good pursuits; volunteer in your community, tutor a child, donate food and clothing to people in need, study, pray, or raise money for a worthy cause. The list of ways to have a positive impact is endless.

Negative inclinations come in so many different forms: Materialism, greed, lust for power, arrogance, distractions, addictions, anger, and even just impatience with others. Working to analyze and curtail every aspect of the evil inclination can take a lifetime. Acting with loving, mindful intention can take but a moment.

When a person focuses on “doing good,” they will inevitably “turn from evil” as a natural consequence.

“A little bit of light dispels much darkness.”7

Night is banished through illumination, not elimination.

Don’t Fix the Past, Build the Future

A young man once came to the Rebbe, ashamed that he had distanced himself from Jewish observance. Now he was back and sought a path of penitence for straying. The Rebbe said, “Don’t focus on your past right now; rather, concern yourself with serving G‑d through joy, and you’ll take care of the past at a different time.”8

Don’t begin a new journey by recalling all of your previous missteps, because you may very well scare yourself away from any future progress. Begin instead with small but tangible movements in the right direction. These early successes will help you build momentum toward your goal, while at the same time whetting your soul’s appetite for the spiritual fruits of goodness and positivity.

Rise Above It

The Rebbe’s answer for those concerned about their negative impulses or inclinations was: “Rise above it.” This was not a way of saying, “Get over it!” Rather, he meant “rise above it” quite literally, in the spiritual realm.

This, he knew, could be especially challenging for restless adolescents. As a teenager in yeshivah, R. Leibel Kaplan would go home after having his dinner at school. Although he had eaten, he had a habit of heading for the refrigerator when he got home. He wasn’t hungry; he just wanted to see what his mother had made for dinner.

He went to the Rebbe to see if he could remove this habit. Now, on the scale of negative impulses and inclinations, this isn’t high on anyone’s list of “terrible sins,” but it troubled him, and he was determined to rise above it. The Rebbe advised him to imagine himself as the dean of a big rabbinical seminary or as a CEO of a great operation—some position where his influence reached far and wide and commanded the respect of his peers. If this were the case, the Rebbe suggested, checking out the fridge after having already eaten would be beneath his dignity.9

Here the Rebbe taught the student to discontinue a negative habit by projecting himself into a realm where the negative habit was beneath him. The Rebbe didn’t focus on the young man himself, nor on any lack of refinement, and as a result neither did the student. The Rebbe merely asked the student to engage with a visualization that would reveal his higher nature.

Don’t Be Influenced, Be an Influencer

Dov Lent, a young student, worried that the distractions and temptations of his new university would derail him from living an observant life. The Rebbe encouraged him not to allow the secular campus environment to consume too much of his attention. “The best way to deal with the evil inclination, and with a challenging environment in particular, is not to engage in a fight with it,” the Rebbe said. “Don’t put yourself in an encounter with it in the first place! Rather, take your mind away from the whole temptation by saying to yourself, ‘I am busy! I have no time for such things! I have learning to do, a mitzvah to fulfill, I’m helping someone.’”

Years later, R. Dov Lent reported that he’d spent his free time at university learning Torah with a similarly concerned study partner. Additionally, he helped organize campus Shabbatons for the whole community. “Rather than the secular environment influencing me in a negative way, I was able to spiritually influence it in a positive way.”10

No Time for Sin

The famed Chasidic Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel of Kotsk (1787–1859) once said, “I don’t expect my Chasidim not to sin. I expect them not to have time to sin.” As his advice to Dov Lent, the Rebbe was also a great believer in no time for sin.

To drive this point home, he often shared11 a story about the great Talmudic Sage, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai. On his deathbed,12 with his students gathered around him, he cried, saying that there were two paths before him, and he didn’t know down which path he would be taken. He had been so busy in life that he’d never had time to contemplate and take stock of his spiritual state of affairs. Good deeds had literally taken up all his time.

Don’t Fight, Flow

At some point, we have all found ourselves so busy and immersed in what we are doing at the moment that we enter a state of “flow.” It can captivate an attorney preparing for a trial, an author eager to finish writing a novel, or a new parent bathing their child. Such intense engagement can mute our physical awareness to the point of causing us to ignore bodily needs such as hunger or fatigue. When we mobilize our energies to accomplish a higher cause, we are naturally and joyfully immersed in overwhelming positivity.

So, fight evil or do good? Do good! Always and in all ways.