In Lashon HaKodesh (Hebrew – The Holy Tongue) man’s traits are called: “Middos”. What is the seeming connection between a man’s personality and “Middos” which — literally taken — means measurements of length, width and height? Why isn’t a negative trait referred to as a flawed characteristic, or a evil personality?
The answer is that the presence of negative traits alone, does not spell out a negative personality! Just like we would never define fire as a bad thing — we cannot consider man’s character traits as bad. It all depends on how the different personality traits are applied. If one harnesses envy, desire or a craving for honor in the right way, channelling these traits into positive applications — they can be constructive. But if they burn unchecked, in excess quantity, to the extent that they drive a person to unhealthy practices, the man must reign them in and trim the excess, to restore a healthy balance. It’s all about allowing each trait to abound in perfect measure.
This is the reason our sages often refer to refining our character as “breaking our middos”. Because when a man realizes that a certain character trait is overly prominent in his personality, protruding, so to speak, in a negative fashion, he must work to saw off the protuberance, the part of that trait that is overactive, until he has restored it to its ideal balance.
For example: excessive apathy is not a positive thing. “Kinas sofrim tarbeh chochma…” — Envy of scholars shall increase wisdom, (Baba Basra 21a). When envy exists between students and scholars, a student tells himself: “Why are my friends learning and developing, while I am lagging behind?!” — this is a positive form of envy, because it increases wisdom. But if a person envies the new dining room set his neighbors have just purchased, or the shiny new SUV parked in his neighbor’s driveway — he is experiencing a negative form of envy.
This is true for every character trait. When applied to the right degree, in the right context —a trait is a force for the good. When it isn’t — it becomes a negative trait.
A person cannot change the personality traits he has been born with. But he can work on his Middos, his measurements — adjusting the degree to which he applies them!
And just like there are character traits that appear, by any healthy logic, as negative — and yet they can be channelled to good things, to the same extent one can have seemingly positive character traits that are used in a negative fashion. For example, someone endowed at birth with a calm, placid personality who rarely gets excited about anything, is capable of hurting and inflicting great pain on another person — through his very apathy and calm demeanor! On the other hand, he has the wonderful ability to remain unruffled even when things aren’t going his way, and can get along peacefully with everyone.
In contrast, another man is warm and friendly. He is easily moved by another person’s sorrow and enthusiastically rushes to the aid of anyone in distress. At the same time, he is liable to get easily riled by anyone who doesn’t do his bidding, or even by someone who has a different way of thinking. It takes little to draw him into a fight or an argument.
Channelling our Personality Traits
In Maseches Shabbos (156a), the Gemara specifies the distinctive characteristics of each of the zodiac signs. A person born under the influence of Mars, for instance, will be inclined to spill blood. Chazal point out that he might become a Mohel, a ritual slaughterer or a surgeon, for instance. Alternatively, he could, G-d forbid, descend to murder.
The Gra, in his commentary on Mishlei (22;6) explains that Chazal aren’t attempting to predict the future for any one person, or other. Their words are meant to be used as a frame of reference when education ourselves and our children. A person who is naturally repulsed by the sight of blood, needn’t feel awkward or ashamed for being too tender-hearted. Likewise, a Mohel or a ritual slaughterer needn’t think that theirs is a base kind of personality. The world needs all kinds. A man should be happy with what he’s been allocated, for no trait or personality type is inherently bad. Rather, it is each man’s duty to figure out how to apply his specific set of characteristics for the good.
In his book “Ohr L’Tzion”, Rabbi Bentzion Abba Shaul, zt”l, compared this to a mountain upon which rainwater would fall. The water would make its way through a stream in the mountain to the wadi below where it would trickle down into the earth and vanish. A smart man might take note and say: “What a great pity! Why should so much good water be wasted?” He then proceeds to divert the stream to his nearby field, creating a brand-new water route of immense benefit to man. The original river bed, through which the waters originally streamed down to the wadi, slowly dries up, and disappears with time.
Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English