Harvey S. Hecker Character Development Series: Our words are a powerful force to build – and destroy.
#1 The Art of Character Perfection
Originally published by Rabbi Shraga Simmons on aish.com
We all dream of achieving personal greatness and of living in a world filled with beauty and wisdom.
Yet this seems so difficult to achieve. We lose our temper, creating strife. We overindulge and later regret it. We put down others – and lower ourselves. The result is a negative self-esteem that radiates negatively toward others and spews negativity into the spiritual atmosphere.
How do we get out of this destructive loop?
The Jewish solution is Tikkun HaMidot – fixing one’s character traits. The Hebrew word midot (character traits) literally means “measure,” i.e. each of our traits needs to be meted out properly and within limits. For example, it is not “compassionate” to let a killer go unpunished and be a menace to society. Nor is it “kind” to allow a child to play with fire, however attractive and interesting it may appear.
Correcting one’s defects is the very reason our soul is sent to this world.1 We are each born with a unique mix of abilities, inclinations, circumstances and traits to correct.2 Some of us are naturally more irritable, others more calm. Some are arrogant, others humble. Some are greedy, others generous.
By improving our character, we build ourselves into what no other human is capable of.
There is no such thing as an absolute “bad” or a “good” trait.3 The only question is how it’s used. As a rule, a “good” trait is one used in proper balance with its opposite.
For example, the traits of kindness and strictness are neither “good” not “bad.” Weaning an addict from his addiction – by strictly denying that which he desperately seeks – is a good, even “kind” act.4
The way to restore proper balance is to apply more weight to the opposite side.
Any sailor knows the way to restore proper balance is to apply more weight to the opposite side. Someone who is cruel should act with extreme compassion. One who is impulsive should display unconditional patience.
The goal, according to Maimonides, is to achieve the “Golden Path,” the midpoint of two extremes:5
- Courage is the midpoint between reckless risk-taking and meek cowardice.
- Self-respect is the midpoint between narcissism and self-deprecation.
- Contentedness is the midpoint between greed and laziness.
- Happiness is the midpoint between frivolity and melancholy.
The purpose of all this: to become Adam Ha’Shalem, “the complete human.”6
Perhaps the most famous Torah verse is Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am God.” In Judaism, our actions toward others – “Love your neighbor” – is of paramount importance.7
Yet a careful reading of this verse reveals three distinct elements: Others, Self, and God. Working backwards, the verse teaches us the essential and complementary nature of all three:
1. “I am God” – your role model.
Our first task is to appreciate the unique human virtue of “created in the image of God.” God is the very definition of perfection, e.g. the ultimate balance of kindness and discipline.
As such, human achievement can be measured by our personal degree of “Godliness” – i.e. how closely we emulate God as our role model.
The more we mold ourselves to resemble God – in biblical terms, to “Walk in God’s ways”8 – the more perfect we become. The setting of our compass on that target is where it all starts.
2. “As yourself” – to strive for self-perfection.
As physical beings, we have base instincts that can “drag us onto all fours.”9 Our distinction from animals, however, is the ability to control these baser instincts. For example, Rabbi Alexander Ziskind10 would break the Yom Kippur fast with fish containing many bones, to ensure he’d eat slowly and with discipline.
You can’t be a good person while ignoring the world.
As we grow to more closely resemble God’s perfection – bringing our own character into balance and alignment – we make the world a better place. These go hand in hand. You can’t be a good person while ignoring the world, just as you can’t fight the world’s problems without turning a mirror on oneself.
Trying to “fix others” is typically easier than self-introspection. As expressed by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the “Mussar” ethical movement: “I first wanted to change the world, but found it too hard, so I tried to change my city. I couldn’t do that, so I tried to change my family. I finally realized I could only change myself.”
Ironically, it is the act of self-repair which attunes us to assisting others and changing the world!
3. “Love your neighbor” – project positivity toward others.
This brings us back to the primary focus of our verse: “Love your neighbor.”
Understanding this core value begins with the question of what “motivated” God to create our world in the first place. The kabbalists explain that God – who by definition has no lack – performed an act of pure altruistic giving.
Our mission, therefore, is to walk in God’s ways by caring for others.
The quality of our interpersonal relations is the litmus test of Divine service. s symbiotic values, the commandments are only as good as they lead to perfection of character and striving to be like God.
The story is told of students en route to bake matzah before Passover, when Jewish legal stringencies abound to ensure the food is kosher. When asked which law to carefully observe, Rabbi Salanter told his students: “An elderly widow works at the bakery. Be careful not to hurt her feelings.”
With Divine precision, this ideal of “Love your neighbor” generates an infinite connective loop of God, self and others.
Character Refinement Precedes Torah
The Talmud says: Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah – “Refinement of character precedes Torah wisdom.”11
Intellect without proper character is destructive. Nazi Germany was known for its leading academic institutions, sophisticated arts, and impeccable social conduct. Where did it all lead? At the Wanasee Conference to formulate the “Final Solution” for extermination of European Jewry, 9 of the 13 participants were Ph.Ds.
Even in private, we either elevate or diminish the spiritual environment.
Our character is always, on some level, influencing and impacting others. Even in private, our thoughts lead to words and actions, which either elevate or diminish the spiritual environment.
And this work of self-improvement cannot be faked. At the moment when a driver cuts me off, when I stub my toe, or when the meeting starts late (again!)… do I have emotional control?12
None of this is easy. Rabbi Salanter said that repairing one bad character trait is more difficult than learning the entire Talmud. Achieving practical results requires constant awareness and effort.
But it’s totally worth it. Because (no matter what persona we may cultivate on Facebook) self-satisfaction is wholly defined by integrity of character.
Good character has many benefits. The Talmud13 speaks of mida knegged mida – literally “measure for measure.” God deals with us in the precise manner we treat others. If we act with compassion toward others, God responds to us, measure for measure.14 A meritorious act below awakens the corresponding force above.15
1. Shlah – Leviticus 1:18
2. Maimonides – Mishneh Torah (Deyos 1:2)
3. One notable exception is arrogance. Of the arrogant, God says, “I and he cannot dwell under one roof.” By contrast, humility is the good trait from which all other good traits stem. With humility, one’s mind and heart makes room to let others in and removes all self-centered barriers. This manifests in someone who makes his own goal helping others achieve theirs. Indeed, “exceedingly humble” constitutes the Torah’s loftiest praise of Moses (Numbers 12:3). Another exception is anger – one should go to the other extreme and never get angry (Mishneh Torah – Deyos 2:3).
4. The Sages warn: “One who has pity on the wicked, will in the end be wicked to the compassionate.” (Midrash Rabbah – Koheles 7:16)
5. Talmud – Avot 2:1; Mishneh Torah – Deyos 1:3-4.
6. Kuzari 1:1
7. Jerusalem Talmud – Nedarim 9:4
Deut. 11:22, 28:9
9. Rabbi Zev Leff
10. 19th century Lithuania
11. Midrash – Vayikra Rabba 9:3
12. The Talmud (Eruvin 65b) says that true character is revealed b’kiso, b’kaso, u’b’koso – by how a person deals in money matters, how they manage anger, and their behavior when imbibed.
13. Talmud – Sotah 8b
14. Talmud – Shabbos 151b
15. Zohar – Emor 91b