Why Are We Who We Are?

Who am IA certain man wondered why the mussar works make such a big deal about rectifying one’s character traits. “After all, the Torah hardly deals with this area. Doesn’t that mean that middos are less important than mitzvos?” he posed.

Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, rejected such reasoning out of hand, however. “Middos are the most important aspect of a person since without good middos it is impossible to observe the Torah properly. Conversely, if one has good middos he will have an easy time fulfilling the mitzvos, as is fitting.”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories off the Daf
“Limbs of the Spirit”
Chullin 56

I wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself, thus inspiring the people around me.

-from the Jewish Learning Institute course
“Toward a Meaningful Life”

This is a continuation of the series of blogs I’ve been writing based on the JLI course Toward a Meaningful Life. If you haven’t done so yet, please review yesterday’s installment, Who Are We to God, then return here and continue reading.

Mitzvos vs. Middos. Mitzvos can be thought of as obedience to God’s commandments or performing acts of charity and righteousness. Middos are basically personality traits. Let’s take a look at the statement I quote from the JLI course “Toward a Meaningful Life”, focusing on just a few words:

I wake up in the morning with the knowledge that my unique opportunities will be used to convey my individual personality in the places I find myself…

According to Rav Chaim Vital, my personality traits (your personality traits, anyone’s personality traits) are more important than the acts we perform. Here’s why:

The Alter of Kelm, zt”l, expands on this point. “Just as a person was created with physical abilities that are manifest through the activity of his physical organs, so too does he possess spiritual abilities that are articulated through the middos. His spiritual strengths include the desire for truth and to hate lies; feeling disgusted with injustice; love and humility; a good eye; a modest spirit; love and fear of God and many others. Since we see that people have these middos we understand that these are spiritual attributes that we were created with, just like we were endowed with physical ones. And just like the lack of an essential physical organ renders an animal a treifah, the same is true regarding these character traits. One who lacks one is like a person who has no lungs or kidneys.”

He goes on to say that, “How great is a person who uses his middos single-mindedly to serve God! How much more can he accomplish! And how great is a household that focuses on serving God. The more people who bind together to serve God, focusing on the same goals, the more they can accomplish.”

There’s a certain assumption being made here. The assumption is that all people have the same basic raw materials or personality traits that enable them to serve God in the same way (at least that’s how I’m reading it). Look at the Alter of Kelm’s list:

  • The desire for truth and to hate lies
  • Feeling disgusted with injustice
  • Love and humility
  • A good eye (generosity)
  • A modest spirit
  • Love and fear of God

The question is, does everyone come equipped with these personality traits; these built-in characteristics that are available for use in the service of God?

I don’t think so.

DirectionsI don’t think everyone just naturally has a modest spirit. I don’t think all human beings everywhere spontaneously experience love and humility. Certainly we see evidence in both current events and human history of an abundant lack of love and fear of God in many people.

So does that mean only people who have these natural personality traits (provided by God) can love and serve God? If that were true, it would mean that God has pre-selected His people, those who will be “saved”, using the Christian term, just by creating those people and “wiring” and “programming” them to naturally possess the qualities in the aforementioned bullet list. Everyone else is doomed to failure, right out of the starting gate.

OK, lets assume that’s not true. Let’s assume that it’s possible for people who aren’t naturally inclined to love God, be modest and humble, and who don’t innately desire truth to still turn to God, to learn to love Him, and then learn to serve Him. How is this done?

As it turns out, there’s no end to ways to improve your middos. A quick Internet search yielded quite a few. Examples include Tefillah – When Your Situation Doesn’t Change, Rabbi Forsythe on Perfecting Your Relationships and Self, and The Yeshiva World News discussion topic how do you improve your middos?. In fact, the Mussar movement has existed in Judaism since the 19th century and is “devoted to character and behavioral improvement”, according to Rabbi Ephraim Becker. Probably one of the best known modern texts on Mussar is Alan Morinis’s book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. Face it. The Jewish “self-improvement” business is booming.

It seems, despite how the matter of middos was presented in the “Story off the Daf”, there is a significant acknowledgement in Judaism that not all people are “created equal” in terms of “positive” personality traits. Some of us have to face the challenge of overcoming our natural tendencies that lead us away from God, in order to turn to Him and to serve Him and the people around us.

While writing this blog, the thought of being made a certain way and having that be immutable stirred up some rather compelling and disturbing thoughts. If, as was suggested in the Daf, people are all created with the same set of positive qualities and the only difference between people is how we use them, then it would mean people are making very radical decisions. If everyone, literally everyone, is born with an innate love for God, where do atheists come from? If we are all born to be naturally generous, why does personal and corporate greed run rampant in the world? If we all burn with a desire for truth and we hate lies, why are so many people liars?

When the Alter of Kelm says that our personality traits stem from our spiritual gifts, and compares them to our physical attributes, I can’t help but think that physically, we aren’t all the same. Some people are gifted athletes while other people are terribly disabled. If lacking some of these essential spiritual traits is like being born with a severe physical handicap, and we know that some people are born this way, then are some human beings by their very nature, spiritually crippled? Is that how we answer the questions I asked in the previous paragraph? Does this explain how people who are gay or transgender, for example, can truthfully say they were “born this way”?

Those questions and the potential answers suggest startling issues about the nature of God, man, and reality.

We have to be more or at least different than the sum of our parts, or there is no hope for repentance. It would mean that God is setting significant portions of humanity up for failure by creating standards and goals they (we) couldn’t possibly meet.

From time to time, I do encounter someone who really does seem naturally cheerful and giving. A person who just “innately” loves God and other people. Someone who seems to be just “made” to serve God. I don’t meet many people like that, even in the community of faith. Why does doing good to others and loving God seem so hard for so many people, even when they…we desire it with all our hearts?

Who are we really? Are we only the way we were born and can’t become anything more? Why are we who we are?

To keep reading in this series, go to the next “morning meditation” Time is the Fire.

14 thoughts on “Why Are We Who We Are?”

  1. From what I’ve read, some Jews believe a Jewish soul is different from a Gentile soul. Wouldn’t the Alter of Kelm’s list of traits then apply to the Jewish soul?

  2. In mussar there is the idea of bechirah points. “Bechirah” comes from the Hebrew word meaning choice. So, the mussar masters teach us that everyone has free choice, but not at the same level. For me, I would never be tempted to steal. That is not really a bechirah point for me, a moment of free choice. It would be a ridiculous idea. So, I do not accomplish much by resisting stealing. On the other end, someone who was born into extreme poverty, and a social circumstance, that maybe even necessitated stealing to survive, also may not have free choice in this area. That person would never think to not steal. It would never cross their mind that such an action is wrong – it is just life. However, one of their bechirah points might be that they will choose to not harm someone in the process of stealing. So true free choice lies at the points where decisions are hard for us to make, and we really could go either way. In these situations we must choose the right path. The goal of mussar and of life is to advance that line towards greater areas of righteousness. May our bechirah points become minute decisions in the service of God and each other rather than significant moral dilemmas (This concept is explained in the first few chapters of Everyday Holiness)

    So, I do think that people may be born at different starting points, but they cannot be blamed for that. God expects each person to advance from where they are.

  3. I’ve been thinking lately about way middot are expressed in people who have “different starting points.” On one end of the spectrum is the person who is naturally and unaffectedly humble. At the way other end is the complete narcissist who has labored for years to achieve genuine humility. They may be “equally” humble, so to speak, but they are far from the same. Our life experiences, including the obstacles we’ve overcome, are all integrated in some way into who we are today.

  4. Thanks for commenting Joshua and Carl. So what you’re both saying is that we definitely aren’t all created equal, although it’s possible for us to end up in the same spot (all equally humble, for example) with a lot of hard work (though harder work for some than others). Does that mean each person is created with his or her own set of unique gifts and challenges, with no one being spared some sort of challenge, or do you believe God creates some people who just naturally are gifted with all the “positive” middos while others have to really, really struggle?

  5. I think you have summed up my thought well. I do think each person has their own set of unique challenges and gifts with which to approach those challenges. Each person has middos that are well refined and others that need refining. There is another thought coming from chassidus that every person must be involved in teshuvah. One could ask then, what about the righteous? What about a rebbe? How does such a holy person be involved in teshuvah? The chassidic tradition teaches that teshuvah is necessary even for these people in that everyone can always draw closer to God and serve him in an even more refined way. So for those born who “just naturally are gifted with all the ‘positive’ middos” they still have the work of refining their service more. Maybe not from bad to good, but from good to better.

    However, I would say it is the rare individual who is born on such a level or attains to such in this life.

  6. So for those born who “just naturally are gifted with all the ‘positive’ middos” they still have the work of refining their service more. Maybe not from bad to good, but from good to better.

    However, I would say it is the rare individual who is born on such a level or attains to such in this life.

    So then Joshua, it’s probably more common for people to struggle to refine our middos. This is what some folks might call “the human condition”.

  7. Thanks, Gene. What do you think of Mussar as a method of improving one’s middos (I know Joshua approves, of course. 😉 )? I think everyone can benefit from continuing to explore their own nature and the relationship with God, but are there different methods for different people?

  8. “What do you think of Mussar as a method of improving one’s middos?”

    James… it’s interesting and I am sure many find Mussar beneficial to them, although it’s not part of my family’s tradition (which is Chassidic). I have heard one chassidic person say this on Mussar (I am paraphrasing):

    “At its very basic level what sets Mussar & Chassidus apart is that Mussar is internally focused (how can I improve myself, what’s good for me and my spiritual life) vs. that of Chassidus that’s focused on what’s good for G-d (how can I serve Him better)”.

    How do you like’em apples?

  9. Interesting apples, though you could play it both ways. Serving God can, by virtue of those actions, help me improve my middos, or by improving my middos, I can better serve God. In today’s morning meditation, Loving God, I gave examples of how we can better love Him, not by waiting for a feeling (or to feel better) but by just performing acts of love. Sometimes therapists and counselors will advice people who are suffering from depression not to wait to “feel better” before doing the things they want to do once they stop feeling depressed, but to go out and do them anyway.

    What is good for God is good for you…and what is good for you is good for God (I mean “good for you” not in the sense of seeking pleasure or temporary satisfaction, but “good for you” in the sense of fulfilling the reason God made you).

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