Middot - Anger

By Elisheva Maline

In his book Patience Rabbi Zelig Pliskin tackles that monster, impatience, by offering bite size pieces of advice on how to reign in emotional outbursts. One anecdote in particular caught my eye: someone's father was wont to have lapses of control whenever his wife or kids weren't on time for family events, work checks came in late or supper was burnt (the horror!). The man of the house admitted that he hadn't realized just how much his impatience was damaging his family until, one day, his daughter handed him a week's worth of recordings taping his bouts of anger. Horrified at how he sounded, the father immediately set out to reform his behavior. Rabbi Pliskin concludes that if we were able to get an outsider's perspective, or better yet, see our behavior reflected in other people's actions, we would have a more solid view on how we appeared in the eyes of others, and thus, make a change.    

So what exactly does anger look like? Is it a red faced punk with smoke coming out of his ears, shrieking about some grievance or other? Is it the painting of a sweater falling to bits, which modernists dubbed "Millennial Fraying Nerves"? While speculation about the root causes of anger may prove fodder for psychological discussion, spotting the actual process of fraying nerves does not require a four year stint in university. Anger, which usually stems from one's frustrated desire to be in control, can show itself in one's striking another with his words, cold shoulders or. even fists.  

There's also the question of why anger is such an issue in G-d's court. A gemara in Nedarim (22a) [an inference from a verse earlier on in the gemara] talks about how one who lives in Bavel (i.e. outside of Israel) is prone to anger, and [also] that one who gets angry pushes away the Shechinah (the manifestation of G-d in this world). Similarly, a Gemara in Shabbos (105b) says that one who breaks objects in anger is akin to one who serves avodah zarah (serving strange gods). Irascibility has led people to delusions of grandeur (think Joseph Stalin beating his way to the top), the belief that one's family and friends respect him (or her) when, in fact, they're just afraid of him. Worst of all, anger has managed to totally leave Hashem in the dark. In three words, it's not good.

If you'd like to keep an eye out for a lost temper, take note of those wretched moments when you find yourself hitting a short circuit and ask, "Why is this happening?" Once you identify the root causes of your anger, you can bring G-d into the picture. Daven (pray) for patience. Until then, the adage "Fake it till you make it," has helped many a parent embrace  children who, after having broken some expensive household item or other, are trembling with remorse. Be gentle. Remember: one who is prone to anger also has a great capacity for equanimity. And just to make mention of one of life's absolutes: none of us has control over anything, not our actions, not our speech nor even our thoughts. The only ground upon which we have room to tread is in the arena of ratzon: it's a pure, raw and unadulterated desire for change, and the will to be more than what we already are.

Being a Sponge - an Absorber of Experiences

In my previous article on middot, I mentioned that middot (character traits) are neither good or bad; they're the bedrocks of individual personalities, springboards from which growth happens. In fact, since G-d charged each of us with making use of the "toolboxes" He gave us at birth, it's not a far jump to figure that a person's nature was meant for channeling, not pruning.

"Who is the wise man? One who learns from every person" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). A wise person once said (and that wise person happened to be me) that there are only two ways a person can learn from others: what to do and what NOT to do. The following story illustrates the above saying, "Who is wise? One who learns from everyone," by giving us the back story to one of the most popular, globe trotting speakers of our day. Obviously, Rav Yaakov Galinsky, the protagonist of my anecdote, wasn't motivated by desire for glory and wide acclaim (he evaded honor with a delicious self deprecation and often poked fun at himself). The Novordicker began lecturing a wide range of Jews because he was a man inspired. Everyplace he looked sprouted  opportunities for growth.

When Yankele (as he was affectionately termed by his friends and well wishers) was eight, the Chofetz Chaim passed through the child's small Polish town, trying to raise money for the va'ad hayeshivos (institutions of Torah learning). As Yankele's neighbors and friends gathered in the town square, the famous Rav began his lecture. He started with a mashal (parable), "There was a meshuganer (crazy person) who lived in such and such village. \He didn't work, had never married and spent his days wandering from this place to that, muttering all the while and smiling at the townspeople's children. Since he was virtually harmless, though, the inhabitants left him alone. And since they left him alone, he left them alone. That's how things were," the Chofetz Chaim reminisced, "Every town had its rabbi; every town had its grocer and cobbler, and every town had its meshuganer.

"Anyway, every year, in a neighboring area, there was a three day fair. People came from near and far to buy and sell merchandise. Many bought items at wholesale prices, lugging the goods back to their hometowns in the hopes that they'd earn a living and put bread on the table. One year, the meshugner decided to travel to the fair as well. He left town with a smile on his face; people wondered at how he could look so hopeful: the meshuganer had nothing to sell, he didn't even have enough money for transportation! 'What's he going for already?' people asked one another.

One week passed, then a week and a half, two weeks, and the meshuganer came home. The men and women noted his disheveled, pale appearance and asked him how his trip had been. 'Amazing,' he cried, with the same smile he'd had when he departed. 'I went, I circled the vendors and spoke to many interesting people.' 'And what did you bring back with you?' the townspeople wondered. What could he have brought back with him? He was dirt poor. He didn't have two grushim to rub together. 'Well,' the meshuganer carried on, 'I met a very nice fellow who had the most wonderful smell about him. When I asked him about it, he told me it was snuff. Then I wanted to try some of the stuff for myself. So the man offered me a sniff. For free!'"

With that, the Chofetz Chaim finished his parable. His audience laughed. The man was surely a meshuganer: traveling for over a week by foot and  having nothing to show for it but a pinch of powder. The Chofetz Chaim was not finished, however. "Are we not like that meshuganer?" he cried. "What will we say to the Creator of the Universe when we go up to shamayyim (the heavenly court) and are shown that we aimed for nothing more than a pinch of snuff?" The sage burst into tears.  
When Rav Yankele would recall this story, he'd say that it was one of the events that colored all his life long decisions. Was he looking for nothing more than a pinch of snuff, he always asked himself, or was he aiming higher?

The examples given in Rav Yankele's biography attest to the fact that he was a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He ate, drank and breathed sanctifying G-d's name. For years he served as the head of a yeshivah (Torah institution) that took children who knew practically nothing about Judaism and made Torah faithful Jews out of them. For years he went around fundraising for and supporting over forty kollelim (learning institutions for married men). And all throughout, he traveled around Israel and overseas speaking (wherever he was invited) for free! He saw his work, that of bringing Jews closer to the Creator, as a mission, not a career. He dedicated his entire life to it.  

Becoming open to growth is about experiencing every so-called occurrence as a lesson on how to be. Everyone and everything has something to teach, whether it be your friends, parents, an experience on the bus, at the post office, in the classroom, walking home from college or while sitting in shul (synagogue). With our heightened awareness we could learn more, we would also get the gift of perspective. Outlooks like this bring about true, long lasting change. 

pirkei avot 3:11 - Whoever Profanes G-d will Get Locked out of Heaven

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
By Elisheva Maline

Rabbi Elazar the Mo'adi used to say, "The one who profanes the holy things (specifically, the holy vessels consecrated for the service at the Temple), is brazen about the Jewish holidays, insults his friend publicly, abrogates the covenant of Avraham avinu [our forefather Abraham] i.e. circumcision, or interprets Torah contrary to its true intent... although he may possess torah knowledge and good deeds he has no share in the World to Come." 

Rabbi Elazar was born after the Heit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) was destroyed. In his time, the holy vessels which had been used in the Temple service were long gone. Therefore, Rabbi Elazar must have been referring to the idea of desecration and not to some public display of obnoxiousness. Commentaries conclude that his comment, "The one who profanes the holy things" must be a reference to insulting that which is sacred. In seeing pirkei avot this way, we come to an understanding that everything which follows Rabbi Elazar's first phrase constitutes some form of sanctity. Therefore, just as with the first, desecrating any of the other things on the list is tantamount to losing one's portion in the World of Truth.

In a religion that feels strongly about repentance, so strongly that nearly the entire year is dedicated to doing it, how is it that the list above closes all doors? The Rebbe from Lubavitch was heard to say, "One who undermines any of these hallowed institutions forfeits his portion in the World to Come, for he rejects a fundamental principle of G-d's world: every Jew can sanctify the mundane." 

What does this mean? G-d created Heaven and earth separate. The angels are kept upstairs while this world remained on a wholly physical plain. Then, G-d formed humans, the speakers and holders of freewill, with the intention of having them bridge the gap between the material and the divine. Open to the first chapter of Genesis if you want to see ink on paper; it states that G-d made the world incomplete so that we could take part in the Creation process. He wanted us to seize as many pieces of this world as a lifetime allows and to lift them up to Heaven. This is why we sow, grow, pick, winnow and grind wheat into flour etc. etc. instead of plucking the sliced bread straight off the bush.  Now, if some moron came along and tried to scorn you out of seeing things this way, you'd probably want to tout him out of the World of Truth also.

A lot of people have the wrong idea about G-d. Anthropomorphically, more than a few compare Him to a sadistic sibling (pushing us and pushing us until we fall and He gets a good laugh) or to a dysfunctional father (whose magnanimity and cruelty are dependent upon whether He's having a good day or not). Another misconception: "G-d created a broken world and our job is to fix it" Maggie Sif. This depressing drivel is all wrong. By making room for us to complete the process of creation, G-d gave us a means for emulating Him. How empowering is that?

Parshat Shavua - Vayeira

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama. 

by Elisheva Maline
taken from Avraham hosts the Angels

In this week's Parshas Vayeira (and He appeared), Avraham Avinu (our forefather) is sick, but still sitting out in the heat of the day (Bereishis 18:1) scanning the horizon for guests.  

When a trio of men (angels) appear in the distance, he rushes forth and announces, "I will bring a morsel of bread for you. Nourish yourselves on it. Thus, you may pass on your way." (18:5) He scampers off to fetch three whole calves so that each man can feast on the choicest bit, its tongue. There's a lesson in this: "Say a little and do a lot," Ethics of Our Fathers (1:15). 

It's an inspiring story; applicable on several levels. Yet there's more here than meets the eye. For instance, in the previous pasuk, the first words Avraham spoke to the angels were in a detached manner, "Let water be brought," (18:4). His choice of wording had the taste of an emperor who with sweeping arm might say, "Something will appear, as if by magic."  The more appropriate for him to state would have been, "My son will bring you some water etc," which was what he had intended all along anyway. 

Our Rabbis say, "Ma'ase avos siman l'banim (the deeds of our forefathers are a sign for how our children will behave)." Rashi comments (18:4), "Since Avraham spoke in a removed manner, saying, "water would be brought" instead of letting the guests know that his son would bring the water, Moshe, later on, failed to bring forth water from the rock using his words." Instead, "He raised his hand to hit the rock," (Bamidbar 20:11).  It is due to this mishap that he was not allowed to enter the Holy Land. "Ma'ase avos siman libanim." Avraham's choice of words had catastrophic consequences for Moshe.

The truth is, most people assume that child bearing starts with kids ages two and up. In Lawrence Kelemen's book on raising children, "To Kindle a Soul," it says that the best way to educate one's children is to begin with building his own character. As in, right now. One has no idea how his actions will effect the lives of his descendants.

How does one begin? Picture this. You've just returned home from the dentist. All four of your wisdom teeth have been yanked out of your mouth and your cheeks are so swollen that when you ask someone to pass you the gauze, it comes out sounding like, "quoodjaasmehsoguz?"

It's not your best face day.

There's a knock on the door. It's your mother-in-law: "Hi, I came to surprise you," she says and ambles into your living room. She plunks her tape recorder down, begins to play a Rabbi Kelemen lecture on Shalom Bayis (peace in the home), and parks herself into your green armchair. The impression you get is that she isn't leaving anytime soon. How will you act in this situation?

Note to reader: your children are watching you.

Middot - What are They?

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.

By Elisheva Maline

Taken from My Jewish Learning

In Mishlei (Proverbs), King Solomon instructs parents and educators alike חנוך לנער על פי דרכו גם כי יזקין לא יסור ממנה" "Educate a child according to his nature so that when s/he grows up, s/he will not turn from it" (Mishlei 24:6).

The wisest of all men was giving one of the greatest tips on how to raise children (or students) so that they'd follow in their parents' footsteps. He was also pointing out a fundamental truth, according to commentaries on his work: in educating young minds, parents and teachers must recognize that middot (personality traits) cannot be labeled as either good or evil, resulting in a cutting away or denial of certain aspects of one's psyche. They're meant to be viewed as the bedrocks of individual natures - natures which can be channeled in emotionally and spiritually healthy directions.  If one feels like s/he is at the far end of one middah (character trait), s/he can draw hope from the fact that s/he has room for growth. The word מידה character trait shares the same root as the word למדוד to measure. In Judaism, we don't hand angry, depressed and/or impulsive people a free pass if they bleat out that they were born this way and therefore unable to change. Either way, neither a slice and dice to our natural dispositions or taking a tone of helplessness leads to positive, innovative growth. 

The Eish Kodesh, a great rabbi from early 1900's Warsaw as well as an authority on education, authored a book called Chovot Hatalmidim (a student's obligations) which added a lot of flavor to the way Jews view education today. In his book's introduction, he advised both teachers and parents to focus on the inner potential of a child's characteristics, rather than get caught up in the kid's present day behaviors. If, for instance, the young one is sitting at his desk, refusing to open a book or put pen to paper, one must not admonish his stubborn ways. If an educator has the capacity, in fact, he can approach the situation by praising the child's inner potential. One day, this very child will have the strength of character to stand as tall and immovable as a wall for his values system. 

Looking at character traits like confidence, shyness, compassion, happiness, gloominess, dependence, anger, laziness, sadness, zaniness, optimism, curiosity, helpfulness, cooperativeness, stubbornness, and being sensitive as items swinging along the tip of a pendulum can help us actively head toward long term growth. A pendulum has only two directions to sway in: right and left. If one's environment was not conducive toward healthy growth, his character traits could end up on the extreme left and s/he can spend an entire lifetime trying to get to the other side refining and perfecting each middah. If s/he's determined, though, and s/he has a support system which will cater to his specific personality traits, the pendulum will eventually find middle ground. 

Regardless of outside influences, if the kid's a real worker, one who learns to view this world as a corridor and a preparation for the world to come, his middot will slowly but surely swing all the way to the right.

Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, in his book To Kindle a Soul Ancient Wisdom for Modern Minds adds that the phrase, "Spare the rod, spoil the child" (another of King Solomon's quotes) isn't an excuse to use harsh methods or submit to spoiling one's children. Rods aren't necessarily sticks (or belts) for hitting kids over the head. Sticks, when connotative of scepters for instance, can also be used to encourage. Little, well timed candies or prizes are considered "rods" of encouragement as well. And there's a lot to say for a few well timed, softly spoken words of admonition. They go much further by way of raising a child than yelling ever could. 

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh