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. 

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