Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Self-awareness and Inner Understanding
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Hana Bat Haim

Freedom of Will and Challenge

One of the misconceptions people have with regard to character traits is the belief that there are "good" character traits and "bad" character traits, and that a person who is born with "good" character traits does not have to work to improve them.


Rabbi Moshe Berliner

1. Freedom of Will
2. The Task and the Challenge
3. Anger
4. The End Result and the Effort

Freedom of Will
One of the most important foundations in understanding the human soul and improving character traits is the understanding that man is created with freedom of will. On the verse "Let us make man in our likeness" (Genesis 1:26), Meshekh Chokhma writes that the "likeness" referred to is freedom of will. It is our freedom which distinguishes us from other creatures. Freedom is one of the fundamental keys to a healthy life.

Human freedom of will is absolute, as Rambam writes (Hilkhot Teshuva 5:2):
"Do not accept for one moment that which the fools of the nations of the world and the majority of the unsophisticated among the Jews say, that the Almighty decrees upon man at his creation to be righteous or evil. This is not the case, rather, every human being can become as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam, wise or ignorant, merciful or cruel, stingy or generous, and so forth with all of the traits, and there is nobody who can compel him or decree upon him, and nobody who can pull him to one path more than another. Rather, he himself and of his own volition chooses whichever path he wants ..."

Regarding the improvement of one's character traits it should be emphasized that the capacity to choose is no promise that a person will succeed completely; rather, it is the freedom to say that, "I have such-and-such a character trait and I am free to make efforts to change it." On the one hand, there is a limit to one's ability; on the other hand, one should not play down the value of this ability. In addition, it is very important to known and to internalize that we have the ability to work on our character traits and change them.

The Task and the Challenge
It is important to realize that every human being is an entire world possessing all of the character traits. Each one of us possesses joy and sadness, nervousness and tranquility, enthusiasm and indifference, wisdom and ... a bit of stupidity. Sometimes we understand what another person tells us, and sometimes we refuse to understand at all. Our task is to provide the appropriate amount and the proper place for each character trait.

One of the misconceptions people have with regard to character traits is the belief that there are good character traits and bad character traits, and therefore a person who is born with good traits does not have to work to improve them.

The truth of the matter is that there are no two types of character traits. Rather, there are traits which are more easily employed for good, like sympathy, and there are traits which do not lend themselves so easily to doing good, like envy and hate. However, even these traits can, and must, be channeled toward good. Envy can be directed toward fulfilling the maxim that "emulative zeal increases Torah," and hate can be channeled into hating the evil in the world, hating Amalek.

The Sages teach us that one must "refrain from appeasing a person in his hour of anger" (Berakhot 7a). In other words, a person's time of anger is not the appropriate occasion for trying to appease him. One should first wait for him to calm down, then it is possible to sit calmly and talk.

Rabbi Kook explains this adage in a very novel manner. He says that the Sages wish to teach us that "of all the character traits which God has engraved into man's nature and his soul, not one is entirely bad to the point where its absence would benefit the soul. The Doer of Good has done everything an a good manner; one only need use each of them at the proper time and in the proper measure. Hence, one should not overly repress even an undesirable character trait to the point that it not be given any room. Rather, one should give it its own fitting and limited space, and attempt to fix it."

When a person checks his inner inventory, he must bear in mind that there is nothing that is absolutely evil. A person can never say, 'If only I did not have this trait." Every trait has a good foundation, and it follows that our task is not to uproot traits, but to direct them and cultivate them. Even the least desirable of traits, like envy and hatred, are not to be repressed completely; they must be given their proper place, even if it is very restricted.

Rabbi Kook therefore says that one must "refrain from appeasing a person in his hour of anger, since it is possible for even a perfect person to become angry. Hence, though it is fitting for a person to be appeased immediately, nonetheless anger as a trait must be present, for to say that anger has no place would imply that an evil force has been created in man's soul, and this cannot be said (and, in my humble opinion, the words of the saint in chapter eleven of 'The Path of the Just,' where he writes that the level of the perfectly clean individual is that anger never makes any impression upon him, call for further examination).
"And in keeping with the appropriate level of completion for the man of perfection, the Supreme Power, in His inclusive providence, established forces in the universe which have a purpose similar to that of anger in man. And while it is indeed possible to conquer them through the prayer of the righteous and merits, it is best to leave them some space, for God has created everything with a worthy purpose."

Man's "hour of anger" is that time wherein even a person who is great and perfect can become angered, and therefore one must refrain from appeasing a person in his time of anger. If we were to say that anger has no place at all, this would imply that an undesirable force was created in man's soul, and this cannot be. And while it is possible to conquer this trait completely via "the prayer of the righteous and merits," this is not the proper course of action.

This faith-grounded insight regarding the soul of man provides us with a good opening position at the very outset of our work.

The End Result and the Effort
There is a fundamental difference between physical work on the one hand and the work involved in improving character traits on the other. When dealing in the physical realm, the most important thing is the outcome - without results, there is no value to all of the effort. If I invest days and nights in constructing a house, building its walls, floor, windows, etc., but forget to build the roof, my wife will not be very happy ...

When it comes to spiritual work, on the other hand, the most important thing is the effort itself. Success is not measured by the result but by the exertion. When we put this work in our sights and it becomes a central part of our personality, we check ourselves: did I behave as I should have in that situation? What caused me to act as I did? Was that behavior in keeping with my values. The desire and effort to perfect one's character traits itself improves the personality.

Before we move forward, I would like to propose some "homework" for whoever is interested, for whoever would like to develop and give direction to his character traits. This assignment includes two stages: First, an inner process, to make an "inventory," asking yourself, "What have I received from the Almighty?" Next, ask yourself, "What am I doing with all of this? Do I make good use of every trait I have received?"

Parenthetically, this process need not be restricted to character traits; it may be applied to every faculty in man. For example, it may be used in relation to the tools of thought: how does my mind work? Analytically? Cursorily? etc.

Question: How do I make such an inventory? Do I simply sit down and arrange a mental list of my traits?

Answer: One of the most central matters when it comes to character refinement is recognizing the uniqueness of every individual. Some people learn via reflection, others learn dialectically, through contradiction, and still others learn through real-life experiences. There are many ways to learn. If I were to tell a group of people to "go and reflect," some would say that, indeed, reflection is exactly what helps them. Others would say that they do not relate to this at all, that what helps them understand themselves is a good anecdote. Others need somebody else to do an exercise with them to help them understand.

It is possible to find in Mesilat Yesharim ("The Path of the Just" by Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto) a long list of character traits, but it is better for each individual to start with himself. Reliance upon the great minds of Israel is wonderful, but it can also hinder a person. Becoming overly dependent upon others can cause a person to lose his sense self-appreciation.

The same principle applies to Torah study: if a person studies the text of the Torah for ten minutes, asks himself questions and tries to understand what is going on, and then, after this process, moves on to see what the early authorities have to say, he will be able to enter into a dialog with them, for he has established a relationship with the verses.

On the other hand, if, after reading a verse, a person hurries to read Rashi without first exerting himself, he loses his independent power of thought. I would suggest that any person who wants to make a personal inventory should sit down alone and get to know his faculties. It is also possible to do this with a friend or a spouse, because sometimes the perspective of an additional, independent person is helpful.

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