Improving Our Character: A Fundamental of Judaism

The verse in this week’s Torah reading says (28:9), “And you shall go in His [God’s] ways.” The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 611) says that this is a mitzvah (commandment) to emulate the character traits of God. For example, just as God is merciful, we should be merciful. In other words, it is a general commandment to have good character traits, as God has. This mitzvah is one of the most fundamental obligations of a Jew. The Vilna Gaon (in Even Shleima, chapter 1) writes that the quality of man’s service of God is determined by the extent to which he works on improving his character. Not only this, the Vilna Gaon writes that the focal point of a person’s life is to constantly strengthen himself in overcoming his faulty character traits, for if he is not improving his character, what point is there in living?

Being that this is so important, one may wonder why, in fact, there is no explicit commandment spelling out the good character traits that the Torah wants us to have. Rabbi Chaim Vital says (Sha’arei Kedushah. Part 1, Gate 2) that for the most part, the Torah talks about mitzvot but not character traits because character traits are the foundation and root for a person’s soul to perform the mitzvot. Having the virtues of the Torah is so essential that it comes before the actual mitzvot. Good character traits are the building blocks which are required for a Jew to have in order to perform mitzvot properly.

Working on our character is not just a nice thing to do if we have the patience to do so. It is a most fundamental obligation which is incumbent on every single Jew. In a certain sense, working on improving our character is much harder than keeping the laws of the Torah. It’s a matter of changing our habits and personality, and there are many levels to reach for each character trait which require constant work. As much as one achieves, there is always room for improvement.

He Took It All For Himself!

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik once traveled to Minsk to raise a large sum of money for his yeshivah (school for Talmud study) which was in dire straits. When he reached the town, he went to the home of a pious and generous person he knew, to ask him to help him out with raising the money he needed. The man assured Rabbi Soloveitchik that he will take care of it while the rabbi could spend his time studying Torah. After a couple of weeks, Rabbi Soloveitchik asked his host how the fundraising was coming along, and the man answered that he already had half the sum. After about a month, the host informed the Rabbi that he raised the full amount, and Rabbi Soloveitchik returned home happy with his success.

A short while later, the man who had raised the funds showed up together with his friend for Rabbi Soloveitchik to resolve a conflict. The friend claimed that they always partnered together in mitzvah projects, but this time his partner took the whole mitzvah for himself in contributing to the yeshivah. He demanded that he be given a chance to contribute half the amount that the Yeshivah needed. When Rabbi Soloveichik realized that the man had contributed the whole sum from his own money, he asked him why it was necessary to delay his stay for a month instead of giving him the money right away. The fellow then explained, “It wasn’t easy for me to give such a large amount of money. At first, I worked on myself to give half, and after a full month of working on myself, I succeeded in convincing myself to give the rest.”

Improving Our Character Takes a Lifetime of Effort

Working on having good character traits is not merely a social matter of having good manners; it is a most lofty task of emulating God Himself. As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (Da’at Chochmo Umussar, Vol.3 Ma’amar 10) points out, we see from here that a person is so great that he has the power, and is expected, to reflect the character of God. And, as quoted from the Vilna Gaon, this what the life of a Jew is all about. We must constantly aspire to become greater in all areas of our character. There is no end to becoming more compassionate, more humble and more generous. Every improvement we make is another step in accomplishing more reflection of God’s character.

Our character traits govern the way we act the entire day. If we examine our character, we can always find ways to improve our qualities. We don’t naturally pay attention to our faults, but with some honest introspection, we can see that there is so much we can accomplish in becoming greater people. Many books on many levels have been authored by respected Torah authorities on this topic. It requires time, study, and hard work. Although it may not be easy, we can’t afford to ignore this integral mission we have in life.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

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