A 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”
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.
I 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.