Dr. Middos is Not Just for Kids


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.

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Allan Katz
4 years 1 month ago

Thanks Micah and the lady who recommended the Ruler approach.

I think we can learn from Alfie Kohn – see his article on ‘How not to teach values ‘ , his books Beyond discipline , moving from compliance to community , ‘ Punished by rewards

As the title of his book says – we need to build caring communities of learners rather than focus on compliance. We cannot promote midos in schools if we rank kids against each other, use competition and grades to motivate kids. Kids then see others obstacles to their success. Instead we should be promoting cooperative learning in the tradition of the Beis medrash – chavrutas and chaburas – where excellence is measured by one’s contribution to others

The second problem is the use of rewards to promote middos. Schools have various mitvah campaigns with stickers and prizes. Rav Dessler and R’ Issac Sher have warned against using trying to promote spirituality by bribing kids – she’lo lishmah bu lishmah is not automatic. This behavioristic approach focuses on behavior , on chitzoniyos. If we want kids to internalize the value, we need to focus on intentions, motives and the feelings behind the actions. A kid can do a chesed and give a sweet to another kid for different reasons – to impress the teacher standing close by , to get a piece of chocolate the other kid is eating, or an act of altuism – just to make the kid feel good.
A school tried to promote returning lost items and money found on the playground by giving kids rewards – the result , all of a sudden , kids were finding so many ‘ lost’ items in the playground . The same goes for punishments and consequences. A kid kicked a ball that hit a teacher who then fell and hurt herself. The kid ran. When asked why he did not offer help – he said he was scared of the punishment. Two egs -how rewards or punishments ‘ promote’ ‘ moral’ development.

Rewards and punishment/ consequences get in the way of the kid asking – is this the type of person I want to be , are these my values – I am a kid who would not like to hurt others and not because what will happen to him.

In all learning , not just socio-moral learning kids need to reflect and do the thinking , make meaning of what they learn, internalize the message and not just give back what others before him have said.

Marvin Marshall’s DWS discipline without stress does not use reward and punishment but helps kids to reflect on the impact of their behavior on others – CPS collaborative problem solving by Ross Greene helps teachers and parents to solve problems in a collabrative way rather than use reward or punishment and of course Alfie Kohn’s work.

Dr Benzion Sorotzkin has an article of the dangers of rewards and competition.

Woman Educator
4 years 2 months ago

The name of the program mentioned in the above comment is The RULER Approach founded by Dr. Marc Brackett

Neil Harris
4 years 2 months ago

What is the program called?

Had “experts” looked into how Catholics and other religions deal with their teens who went “of the derech” 20 years ago, our teen and 20-something landscape would look very different today.

Woman Educator
4 years 2 months ago

This is a well-researched program that is used in many public schools and Catholic Schools. Their research from Harvard on improving social interactions and changing school climate to one of mutual respect is very compelling and extensive. Their premise is that by educating students to be self-aware of their mood and emotions and learning how to de-escalate their emotional state, they can regulate their reactions. The program also focuses on other behaviors that improve relationships. They teach the children to cause others to feel positive emotions that they would like to feel themselves and avoid causing others to feel negative emotions that they would like to avoid.

4 years 2 months ago

Maybe we need curricula on how to teach your children to be have good Middot. People will be less resistant to that than to curricula aimed at changing them.