"Improve Your Life"
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- March '03/Adar I-Adar II 5763

The Torah (Deuteronomy 21:10) says, "Kee saytzay lamilchomo al oyvecho [when you go out to war against your enemies]." Hebrew has separate singular and plural forms of expressing "you," depending on whether the speaker is addressing one person or more than one. In the above verse, the Torah is talking to the Jewish nation and should use the plural "saytzu [you go out]" as if talking to many, but yet the Torah uses the singular "saytzay [you go out]" as if talking to only one person.

The commentaries explain that the Torah is saying that the main war in life is the individual's war against the main "enemy," the yaitzer hora, the evil inclination within each person, that strives to keep each person from eternal life by making him sin and by being distracted from meritorious deeds or accomplishments.

In the generation since World War Two, there has been a marked increase in tzoros [troubles]: people coming down with serious and fatal diseases at young ages, injurious accidents, parents dying young and leaving many orphans, children dying before their parents, marital break-ups or anguish, more and older singles not finding their mates, terrorists, the painful list goes on. The Steipler Gaon was asked why in post-war times there has been this increase in tzoros. He replied that in the old days, there were despotic governments that brought on us pogroms, persecutions, murder and other tragedies. Now we live in an age of democratic governments. Jews are relatively safe and free. Since the evil inclination makes people sin, they need kaparos [atonements]. In the old days the kaparos came through tyrants outside. Since we don't live under evil dictators, most kaparos have to come from within.

In other words, we are not up to our obligations in the Torah obligation of "going out to war against the enemy" of the evil inclination within individuals. When there aren't an inquisition, pogrom or holocaust, there are tzoros. However the kapara is manifested, the message is that we are obligated to be at constant - AND VICTORIOUS - WAR against the enemy within, the yaitzer hora. If we don't win that war against our inner enemy, if there are too many sins or too few good deeds, G-d sends us other "wars," other "enemies" for kapara.

There is a gemora (Moed Koton 17a) which gives insight into the fundamentality of self-improvement and also is a superb example of how one cannot just "translate" Torah but must know how to learn and extract the meaning. Only with Rishonim and kosher meforshim will you understand Torah according to mesorah (its traditional meaning taught at Mount Sinai).

This gemora says, "If a person sees that his evil inclination is growing in power over him, let him travel to a place where the people do not recognize him, let him wear black clothes, let him wrap himself in black, and let him do what his heart desires and let him not profane the name of Heaven in public."

On superficial reading, one might seem to think the Torah just gave one a license to do any sin he likes, just as long as he pays the price of traveling to where he is unfamiliar and wears dark clothes. By the time we learn such giants of Talmudic commentary as Rashi, Tosfos and Rabainu Chananel, we see that there is found in this gemora no permission to do any sin. The goal is submission to the will of G-d, never its violation. If you recall from Parshas "Lech Lecha," Avraham is tested by G-d by being told to travel from his home. We learned there that travel wearies a person. Therefore, we know that travel breaks one's evil inclination. Wearing sordid and degrading clothes makes oneself very humble. You are less apt to be brazen in rags or a potato sack, wrapped up in them from head to toe, where everyone is a stranger who thinks you are a bum or pauper and you are embarrassed and "carry a low profile." This is not so when in a $1000 Italian designer suit among those people who consider you important or impressive. The things in the gemora break you and hold you back from sinning. If, after travel and assuming an inconspicuous and indigent role, you still have desire, you may eat and drink and sing songs, so that you gratify yourself in ways that are permissible, but you are never allowed to do a sin. Chazal are "keeping you busy" so much with breaking your ego and keeping you so distant from an actual sin, that you never get around to the sin. Rashi says that you are guaranteed to have lost interest in sin by the time you are done with this "procedure." When you initially saw, in the gemora, that in the foreign place you could do as your "heart desires," you might have assumed that you had permission to sin. The "desires" were only those still left after diligently working to kill or minimize your evil inclination, so you could be satisfied, if need be, with kosher means; and so that you don't profane G-d, as you would have done as a result of sinning in your home town under comfortable and unrestrained circumstances.

We see from this gemora, explained by the Rishonim, how important are 1. learning only according to da'as Torah [as Pirkei Avos says, "Do not rely on your own understanding" and "make for yourself a rov"] and 2. working to make yourself a sinless person. Spiritual growth is a constant, lifelong and central obligation. Key to this is nonstop work on midos [character traits].

Many of the prophets spoke to give admonition to work on mussar [self-perfection]. King Solomon makes many references to mussar in Proverbs, tells us to love it and even gives it as one of the reasons for his writing the book of Proverbs. The Midrash says on this, "If a person has no wisdom in him, he is not able to learn self-improvement (Yalkut Mishlay 909)." Rambam writes in Hilchos Tshuva that every individual has the choice to make himself into a tzadik and, in Hilchos Dayos, he says that one must go from personal faults to the opposite good extreme for as long as necessary until he can come to the perfect state for each personality trait. Rabainu Yonah [12th century] writes that the Divine Presence cannot rest on anyone who does not have good midos, even someone with much Torah learning. Chovos HaLevovos writes that a learned person with bad midos is equal to only a donkey carrying books. The Vilna Gaon wrote that the essential purpose of life is working constantly on improving midos and that at any moment one is not working on midos, he is wasting his life. Rabbi Elimelech of Lezensk writes that the only purpose of life is to keep constantly working on improving one's nature. Rabbi Chayim Veetal, the famed mystic, asked: if midos are so fundamental, why is there no mitzva among the 613 mitzvos to have good midos? Because midos are so fundamental that you can't have the 613 mitzvos without them! They are such a basic prerequisite that the Torah expects them to be there before the Torah can be learned or practiced! In other words, if good midos aren't there, Torah surely isn't there. No matter what sources in the "Torah world" you turn to; Chumash, NaCH, Chazal, Rishonim, Litvish, Chasidish or Sefardic; everyone agrees that the foundation of Judaism is good midos.

Avraham, who was living in Kana'an, instructed Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchok from Padan Aram, specifying not to bring a girl from Kana'an. In both countries the people were idolaters, so why did Avraham insist that Eliezer travel with a caravan for over 500 miles through a steamy hot desert? What stood to be the gain? The people in Kana'an were lacking in midos [character traits] while the people in Padan Aram had midos but were lacking in dayos [knowledge]. If someone has good midos, you can add good knowledge and work with that person, whereas if someone lacks good midos, you cannot work with that person (Drashos HaRan). We see from this that good midos are fundamental to marriage and to keeping the Torah tradition in the home.

When the Vilna Gaon was a little child, he went out to play with other children on a local "see-saw." However, just a few minutes later he came back. His father asked him why he came back so quickly. He said he could not ride on the "see-saw" because "A Yid is not allowed to make himself go up by making another Yid go down. I cannot violate the Torah's command to love every Jew like myself." Already as a little boy, the Gra had the sensitivity and consideration to know that interpersonal relating requires having superlative midos - and only good, loving impact on other people.

Relative to succeeding as a Torah Jew, and in interpersonal relationships in general, and in marriage in particular, coming articles in this series will explain some selected key midos (personality traits) that promote a success-perpetuating attitude and "track record." Remember, while working on developing and practicing the good, there is often a bad corollary which has to be smashed, as part of the work. A trait usually means not only the trait itself, but also the absence or violation of its opposite. For example, to become more humble, one must become less arrogant; to become more gentle, one must become less angry; to become more compassionate, one must become less cruel; to have more zeal, one must have less laziness; to have more patience, one must have less selfishness; etc. Many midos are required by the Shulchan Aruch or Chumash, such as zeal, fear of Hashem, pure belief in Hashem [temimus], intending everything you do for Hashem, holiness, etc. One cannot live as a Torah Jew without conquest of bad midos and a strong foundation in good midos.

For successful and meaningful work on midos, self-correction and spiritual elevation, it is highly recommended to have a learned guide: a Torah authority who is highly knowledgeable, has fear of Heaven, has internalized sterling midos and who will be understanding of you. We will proceed in the next installment with the beginning of "Thirty Good Midos Explained." To be continued.