Rabbi Chaim Vital asks a fascinating question: Why does the Torah not specifically command us to avoid negative middos like anger or to develop those associated with the talmidim of Avraham Avinu (Avos 5:19) – a good eye, humble spirit, and restrained soul? He answers that these middos precede the Torah itself, for without them one cannot truly be an acceptor of the Torah.
The above-cited Mishnah in Avos states that the distinction between those who enjoy the fruits of this world and inherit the world to come depends on whether they are the students of Avraham Avinu or Bilaam. And that depends on the possession of the three middos enumerated in the Mishnah. In other words, even one who is meticulous in the observance of every mitzvah in the Torah, will inherit Gehinnom and descend into a pit of destruction if he is lacking the three qualities mentioned, for he has not truly accepted the Torah.
Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary to Avos describes the three positive middos mentioned in the Mishnah as the essence of all good middos. Their presence makes possible the interrelatedness of all beings in the world in the way that Hashem intended; and their absence makes such a world impossible, for it makes it impossible to form lasting bonds between people. Those who view Hashem’s world as limited will inevitably see everyone else as competitors for scarce goods. Haughty individuals perceive others of as value only insofar as they satisfy their needs for kavod (honor). And those in thrall to their desires will swallow all in their path to satisfy their desires.
The three negative middos attributed to the students of Bilaam parallel the jealousy, desire, and pursuit of honor that “take a person out of the world,” (Avos 4:28), i.e., render him unfit to exist in the world that Hashem desires. They also make life in the world not worth living.
The foregoing analysis has practical consequences. If a good eye, a humble spirit, and restrained desires are the necessary prerequisites for a genuine acceptance of the Torah, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on middos development in both our formal and informal education. If the development of these middos is essential for our children’s happiness and ability to live in harmony with others, we should be thinking very hard about how to instill these middos in our children.
Too often developing good middos is treated as something primarily of concern for young children. Much creative energy, for instance, has been devoted over the years to producing excellent children’s tapes on the subject. But while middos development ideally starts early in life, it is far from child’s play. Certainly, the Ramchal and later the ba’alei mussar did not see it that way. The fullest middos development requires an intimate knowledge of the human psyche and all the stratagems of the yetzer.
Yet too often today, middos development gets pushed towards the bottom of a crowded curriculum. If a yeshiva describes itself as placing a strong emphasis on middos development, our initial reaction is likely to be that it is not for “top” boys. Some of the most innovative materials I’ve seen for inculcating middos have been developed for use in the state school system in Israel. That is fantastic. But the subject is not only relevant for introducing Torah ideas to non-observant students, who do not learn Gemara.
True, refinement of middos is not dependent on a high natural intelligence, and there is no necessary correlation between early excellence in Gemara studies and refinement of character. (That by itself might be a tertiary reason for more stress on middos development: it could help alleviate some of the hyper-competitiveness that leaves many students feeling left behind.) But early promise in Gemara studies is not the only measure of worth in Hashem’s eyes, and we do our sons great harm – both those to whom learning comes more easily and those for whom it is more difficult – by pretending that it is.
All our children – the brilliant and not so brilliant — need to be acceptors of the Torah, and they all must be able to live in harmony with others.
I would like to hear from parents and educators about interesting materials and initiatives in middos development to be shared with other parents and educators.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha, July 30.