1 Adar I 5760
This is Part 4 in a series of letters written by Rabbi Leib Keleman to a student in medical school.
Human Divinity exists mostly in potential. The average person often allows his short-sighted, pleasure-oriented body to dictate decisions. He befriends those who meet his personal needs, works at a job that maximally benefits himself, and spends his money for his own satisfaction.
Hoe much mankind has realized its overall Divine potential could probably be charted in a bell curve that looks something like this:
There are a handful of individuals who genuinely act like animals; most people alternate giving and taking; and a minority have achieved most of their Divine potential and spend most of their waking moments immersed in altruism, consciously and effectively making the world a better place.
How much Divine potential we have realized can be measured with a single index: Altruism. People who spend a higher percentage of their lives thinking about and taking care of others score high on this single-index measurement, and usually they indeed have realized more of their Divine potential. The single-index measurement is valuable for getting a general reading of one’s spiritual health.
However, the single-index reading is not that valuable when we are trying to come up with a practical prescription for taking the next step in our spritual growth. People have a hard time working on something as vague as “Try to be more altruistic.”
Therefore, God provides thousands of more precise indices by which human development can be measured. These indices are called middos (in the plural). Each middah (in the singular) is an internalized pattern of thought, speech or behavior – a behavioral subroutine. For example, orderliness is a middah, as is patience, concentration, and appreciation. An addiction to cigarettes is also a middah, as is the habit of shoplifting. Stuttering and over-eating are also middos.
A middah can be likened to an internal videotape. The Torah teaches that each time we confront a situation we consult our internal video library to determine how we should react. These are not necessarily videos of things we’ve actually experienced. These videos are imaginative portrayals of situations and how we might react. Let’s illustrate. Say that someone punches me in the nose and I scream. A layman might think that I screamed because it hurt. A Talmud scholar has a different perspective. He will explain that this is what happened:
As the fist was moving towards my nose, I realized that it was going to impact at 25 miles per hour. My lightning-fast internal system then searched for the appropriate video:
“Hmmm, here’s the video of someone kicking me. No. Hmmm, here’s the video of someone pinching me. No. Oh, over here are the videos of someone punching me. Here’s 10 MPH. No, that’s not it. Here’s 20 MPH. No. Here it is! Someone punching me at 25 MPH. Okay, I’ll just fast-forward. There’s someone punching my arm. No. There’s someone punching my back. No, that’s not it yet. Here it is! Someone punching my nose at 25 MPH. Heh! Look at that! There I am, walking along innocently and… Heh! Look! There’s a guy walking right up to me! He’s about to punch me! He hit me! Look at that! I’m screaming. Okay, now I know how to react. I’ll just turn off this videotape and go back to real life…”
And then I scream when he punches me. I screamed, not because it hurt, but because I saw on my internal video that screaming was the appropriate response. If the internal video would have been different, I would have reacted differently.
Internal videos have three sources:
(a) We are born with a full array of habits and addictions which manifest themselves as we mature.
(b) We take video-movies of individuals we admire, copying their patterns of thoght, speech and behavior. It is very common that people copy middos in this way from their parents, teachers, and favorite television characters. Children also copy the middos of their closest friends or those they perceived to be heroic or “cool” at school or extracurricular events.
(c) We may show ourselves commercials for patterns of thought, speech or behavior that we wish to internalize. This is where the mitzvah system comes in to play. Mitzvahs are commercials which cultivate appropriate internal videos. Eah mitzvah develops a different aspect of human behavior. Mitzvahs create appropriate internal videos even if we aren’t aware of the proces, although being aware of the process accelerates it and permits us precise control over exactly how we want the final video to look.
Item C above is thrilling, for it accurately implies that human character is malleable. By editing our internal videos (or, in the language of the Talmud, by “working on our middos”), we can eliminate any addiction or bad habit – be it a pattern of thought, speech or behavior. We can also plant, deeply in our personality, any positive pattern of thought, speech or behavior.
There is even more to be thrilled about, however.
While secular psychologists say that a variety of therapies succeed in changing people superficially, authorities agree that these changes exist only in the most exterior layers of human personality, and under stress the patient will likely revert to his deeply rooted habits and addictions. Thus, a participant in an Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeathres Anonymous meeting will introduce himself by saying, “Hello, my name is Fred, and I am a recoverng alcoholic [or overeater].” He will refer to himself as “recovering” even if he has not touched alcohol or overeaten for fifteen years, for there is a sober realization among psychologists taht they can never rip the addiction or bad habit out by its roots. The best they can do is erase it from the surface of human behavior and protect the individual from the sorts of stresses that might reveal the lingering roots.
Using Torah, we can accomplish much more. The mitzvah system, when handled by an expert, can entirely root out unwanted middos and replace them with desired middos. I don’t refer to myself as a “recovering secularist.” In the few areas where I have worked on my middos, I am a religious Jew… to the core. Moreover, because Torah works on the human being at such a deep level, the results are absolutely permanent. A person who, for example, overcomes anger and develops patience using the Torah system is really like someone who was born patient. There is no trace whatsoever of the former, inappropriate middah.
In the next note I hope to write a little about seven bsic middos that exist in spiritually healthy people. Until then, continue practicing the exercise of leaving a little food and drink over.