Posted on | September 16, 2009 | By Guest Contributor | 4 Comments
By Aryeh Taback
Rosh Hashona resolutions are not so much about changing what we do, as much as they are about changing who we are, and close to the core of who we are stand our middos. The word middos is often translated as “character traits” but a more literal meaning would be “measures”. Middos refer to the ingrained thresholds we all have in our character. In the area of gluttony, one person may be able to resist the double thick ice-cream sundae under almost all circumstances, whereas his friend may need little encouragement to wolf down three. For one person, laziness refers to the single day last year when he slept past six am, whereas for another, facing the world before ten is bordering on superhuman. These scales exist in all areas of our character; in some areas we may have low thresholds while in other measures we may have very high ones. The combination of all of these measurements is what makes up our unique middos constellation.
The Vilna Gaon writes: “All service of Hashem depends on the remedying of one’s middos …The primary reason for the existence of man is to be constantly exerting himself in the breaking of the middos. If he does not, why should he live?”
One of the great kabbalists, Rabbi Chaim Vital, states that not only is the improvement of ones middos of critical importance, but it is in fact more significant than the observance of the mitzvos. This does not meant that one can be lax in observing the mitzvos, but simply means that if one wishes to raise ones level of observance, more energy must go into repairing ones middos, because our middos are at the root of all of our mitzvah observance. Fixing a mitzvah without fixing the root middah is like cutting a weed without pulling up the root. At some stage the weed will again rear its ugly head.
Secular success literature has in recent years also moved in the direction of a deeper improvement of character rather than the “window dressing” of good manners. In one of the “bibles” of secular success literature, Steven Covey makes a distinction between what he calls a “personality ethic” and a “character ethic”, the latter being the preferred approach to a successful life. There is however a major difference between the secular approach and the Torah one, for the secular approach still sees the improvement of deep character as the means to an end, namely getting what you want out of life. Torah however views the improvement of character as an end in itself, and one of the major reasons we walk this earth. I quote Covey: “If I try use human influence strategies and tactics of how to get other people to do what I want, to work better, to be more motivated, to like me and each other — while my character is fundamentally flawed, marked by insincerity — then, in the long run, I cannot be successful. My duplicity will breed distrust and everything I do — even using so-called good human relations techniques — will be perceived as manipulative. It simply makes no difference how good the rhetoric is or even how good the intentions are; if there is little or no trust, there is no foundation for success. Only basic goodness gives life to technique. To focus on technique is like cramming your way through school…..”
A careful reading of his words reveals that fundamentally he does not disagree with the personality “quick-fix” approach, but simply sees that it will not always allow you to manipulate people and get what you want. Improving your character in his mind is simply a more effective method, like the crook who realizes that he must wear a suit and greet the guard if he wishes to be admitted into the bank he intends to rob.
But how does one go about changing or modifying a middah? One of the most important things to do is to first familiarize yourself with your unique “middos constellation”, the combination of thresholds that exist within you. Without knowing where your strong and weak points are, you cannot set out to improve them.
At the root of all middos improvement is one’s knowledge and awareness of the fact that a higher Power runs the world. A person who lives with an awareness of Hashem in his life is equipped to confront his ordeals and consequently shape and mold his middos.
For example, a person who struggles in the area of anger has just been told that his car was damaged and that he is not insured. His capacity to restrain himself and not vent his frustrations against the people around him is directly proportional to his awareness that Hashem is in control of his world. By wielding this tool, he extends his threshold and becomes a greater human being as a result. This is true with every middah, be it gluttony, arrogance, melancholia, anxiety or thriftiness. The more that we integrate the knowledge of Hashem into our lives the greater our chances are of standing up to our challenges and expanding our inner horizons. In truth, every struggle is actually a struggle of faith. The Orchos Tzaddikim, a classic work on the subject of Middos, sums this up in the following way:
“Any person who wishes to bring himself to fine middos, needs to blend Yiras Shomayim with every middah, for Yiras Shomayim is the knot which holds all the middos in place. This can be compared to a string which is threaded through the holes of pearls, and they tie a knot at the end to hold all the pearls. There is no doubt that if the knot unravels, all the pearls will fall. So to it is with Yirah; it maintains all the middos and if the knot of Yirah should unravel, all the fine middos will be separated from you. Moreover, when you do not have good middos, there is not in your hands Torah or Mitzvos, because the entire Torah hinges on remedying ones middos.”
May we all merit to a Shanah Tova filled with personal growth.