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o you remember when you first learned to drive? You can probably recall the paralyzing fear you felt the first time you sat behind the wheel — even though you had already mastered the rules and passed the permit test. Why? If you knew all the rules, why weren’t you able to just get into the car and drive off?

Do you remember when you first started to play a musical instrument? You probably began with the simplest of musical exercises, even though you had already been taught musical scales, the proper placement of fingers on the keys, and more. Why weren’t you able to just sit down with your instrument and seamlessly play beautiful music?

As we know, everything in the physical world has a parallel in the ruchniyus world.

 

Again and Again and Again

In the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the pasuk, “Hold on to mussar, don’t let go; guard it, because it is your life” (Mishlei 4:13), he writes that a person is given life in order to correct his negative character traits. The Vilna Gaon goes on to say, “Therefore, a person needs to always strengthen himself. If he doesn’t strengthen himself, of what purpose is his life?”

We understand that this is true, so why don’t we spend our days working on our middos in a conscious, organized, and purposeful way? Perhaps one reason is because we don’t know how to do this. The goal feels vague and abstract — and therefore unattainable. We don’t know where to begin.

We recognize that a person will become proficient at driving only if he practices driving — again and again and again. We know that a person will become a skilled pianist only if he practices playing the piano — again and again and again. We need to recognize also that a person will become a baal middos only if he practices those middos — again and again and again.

 

Actions Build Nature

The Sefer Hachinuch elucidates this idea in his well-known commentary on the mitzvah of not breaking the bones when eating the Korban Pesach. He explains that this is because on Pesach night we are supposed to view ourselves as nobility, and it’s beneath the dignity of nobility to break bones and eat them. When we perform acts of royalty, then the concept of royalty will be implanted in our very souls.

The Sefer Hachinuch then expounds on this concept: “Da ki ha’adam nifal k’fi pe’ulosav — You should know that a person’s actions determine what he becomes.” He states that if a tzaddik were forced to engage in a cruel profession (e.g., an executioner) then eventually he would become a cruel person. And if a rasha were involved in kind actions, even if his intentions were purely for his own personal benefit, eventually he would become a kind person. One’s heart is drawn after one’s actions. (Sefer Hachinuch, mitzvah 16)

In a similar vein, the Ohr HaChaim explains that after commanding Klal Yisrael to kill the people in an ir hanidachas (a city where the majority of residents had engaged in idol worship), the Torah continues with the promise, “Hashem will give you compassion and He will have compassion on you.”

There is a legitimate concern that the act of killing the people in the ir hanidachas, even when done l’Sheim Shamayim, will have a negative effect on those who carry out the mitzvah. Therefore, the Ohr HaChaim says, the Torah reassures us that Hashem will provide them with an extra dose of compassion, to counteract the effect the act of killing would otherwise have had.

It is clear that the actions we perform have a powerful effect on us. It follows, therefore, that if we want to work on a middah, the most effective way is to consciously perform actions that reflect the positive middah and to consciously refrain from actions that reflect its negative counterpart.

 

Practice for Proficiency

When we first learn a new skill, everything feels hard. We need to concentrate intently on every small action that we perform, whether it’s merging onto a highway, or positioning fingers properly when playing the piano. After we practice and practice, and practice some more, however, those very same actions become easier. Driving becomes almost second nature. Playing simple exercises on the piano becomes effortless.

In the same way, when we begin to work on breaking a negative middah, it starts off as a great struggle. For example, if we set out to fight our natural impatience, it will most certainly feel enormously difficult at first. We shouldn’t become discouraged thinking, “I can’t keep struggling my whole life….” Eventually, the struggles will end and patience will become second nature.

What often happens is that we learn about a middah, or read about someone who has excelled in a middah, and we become inspired to improve in that very same trait. Then we’re faced with a challenge, and lo and behold, we fail! We’re disappointed and disheartened. “I thought I was going to be so patient! Why did I fail? There’s no use. I give up.”

Why did we fail? Because ha’adam nifal k’fi pe’ulosav. Reading and learning about patience will not automatically make us patient. The learning can inspire us and teach us how to go about working on a specific middah. The learning — unlike the drivers’ handbook and the piano book — also has the power to infuse kedushah in our neshamos. The only way, however, to become proficient in patience, is to consistently practice acts of patience — again and again and again. Each struggle, each act of patience, is part of the process of becoming a patient person.

 

Tailor-Made

Ramchal, in Derech Hashem (Part II, Chapter 3), explains that Hashem provides each individual with numerous opportunities to practice developing his middos, by placing him in various situations tailor-made for the unique middos that comprise his unique personality. We are accustomed to thinking: I was faced with a specific challenge and therefore I needed to respond in a certain way. The reality is: I needed to respond in a certain way and therefore I was faced with a specific challenge. Every incident that tests our patience, our generosity, our flexibility, is an opportunity that Hashem is providing us in order to practice and grow in a particular middah.

The meticulous observance of halachah with all its stringencies also provides a person with abundant opportunities to practice developing his middos, according to the Chazon Ish. While we generally compartmentalize most middos as belonging to bein adam l’chaveiro, and most halachos as belonging to bein adam l’Makom, the Chazon Ish tells us that in actuality, they are all connected. If a person is careful to follow every detail of halachah, he will often need to overcome feelings of laziness, he will need to patiently persevere despite obstacles, he will need the courage not to be swayed by others’ opinions, and more.

The Chazon Ish also writes that while our chachamim have categorized the middos into specific character traits and it’s beneficial to tackle each one separately, there is one trait that is the root of all negative middos and one trait that is at the root of all positive middos. The negative trait is that of simply going along with what feels natural, without making an effort to change. The Chazon Ish says that if a person doesn’t make any effort to overcome his natural tendencies, he will eventually become an expert in all the bad middos.

The positive trait is the absolute resolve to put what is right above what you naturally want to do. If a person is absolutely committed to choosing what is right over what is instinctive, that is the starting point from which he can fight against his all negative middos. (Chazon Ish, Sefer Emunah U’bitachon, Chapter 4)

Many good middos come naturally; unfortunately, many others do not. It’s well known that Rav Yisrael Salanter said that changing one middah is more difficult than mastering all of Shas. The task ahead of us is indeed daunting. But since it’s our life’s mission to uproot our negative middos, it would be wise to make that mission our overarching priority.

With consistent effort, persistent practice — and of course, heartfelt tefillah — we can be successful in training ourselves to excel in middos that are not part of our nature. If we can get through the difficult beginning and keep practicing, practicing, and practicing, then eventually, those middos will become our second nature.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 600. Rebbetzin Suri Gibber has been involved in chinuch habanos for decades, first as general studies principal in Bais Yaakov High School of Miami, and, for the past 15 years, as principal of Bais Yaakov High School of the Twin Cities. She gives adult education classes as well.