Dr. Middos is not just for kids
Rabbi Chaim Vital asks a fascinating question: Why does the Torah not specifically command us to avoid negative middos like anger or to develop those associated with the talmidim of Avraham Avinu (Avos 5:19) – a good eye, humble spirit, and restrained soul? He answers that these middos precede the Torah itself, for without them one cannot truly be an acceptor of the Torah.
The above-cited Mishnah in Avos states that the distinction between those who enjoy the fruits of this world and inherit the world to come depends on whether they are the students of Avraham Avinu or Bilaam. And that depends on the possession of the three middos enumerated in the Mishnah. In other words, even one who is meticulous in the observance of every mitzvah in the Torah, will inherit Gehinnom and descend into a pit of destruction if he is lacking the three qualities mentioned, for he has not truly accepted the Torah.
Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary to Avos describes the three positive middos mentioned in the Mishnah as the essence of all good middos. Their presence makes possible the interrelatedness of all beings in the world in the way that Hashem intended; and their absence makes such a world impossible, for it makes it impossible to form lasting bonds between people. Those who view Hashem's world as limited will inevitably see everyone else as competitors for scarce goods. Haughty individuals perceive others of as value only insofar as they satisfy their needs for kavod (honor). And those in thrall to their desires will swallow all in their path to satisfy their desires.
The three negative middos attributed to the students of Bilaam parallel the jealousy, desire, and pursuit of honor that "take a person out of the world," (Avos 4:28), i.e., render him unfit to exist in the world that Hashem desires. They also make life in the world not worth living.
The foregoing analysis has practical consequences. If a good eye, a humble spirit, and restrained desires are the necessary prerequisites for a genuine acceptance of the Torah, perhaps we should be placing more emphasis on middos development in both our formal and informal education. If the development of these middos is essential for our children's happiness and ability to live in harmony with others, we should be thinking very hard about how to instill these middos in our children.
Too often developing good middos is treated as something primarily of concern for young children. Much creative energy, for instance, has been devoted over the years to producing excellent children's tapes on the subject. But while middos development ideally starts early in life, it is far from child's play. Certainly, the Ramchal and later the ba'alei mussar did not see it that way. The fullest middos development requires an intimate knowledge of the human psyche and all the stratagems of the yetzer.
Yet too often today, middos development gets pushed towards the bottom of a crowded curriculum. If a yeshiva describes itself as placing a strong emphasis on middos development, our initial reaction is likely to be that it is not for "top" boys. Some of the most innovative materials I've seen for inculcating middos have been developed for use in the state school system in Israel. That is fantastic. But the subject is not only relevant for introducing Torah ideas to non-observant students, who do not learn Gemara.
True, refinement of middos is not dependent on a high natural intelligence, and there is no necessary correlation between early excellence in Gemara studies and refinement of character. (That by itself might be a tertiary reason for more stress on middos development: it could help alleviate some of the hyper-competitiveness that leaves many students feeling left behind.) But early promise in Gemara studies is not the only measure of worth in Hashem's eyes, and we do our sons great harm – both those to whom learning comes more easily and those for whom it is more difficult – by pretending that it is.
All our children – the brilliant and not so brilliant -- need to be acceptors of the Torah, and they all must be able to live in harmony with others.
I would like to hear from parents and educators about interesting materials and initiatives in middos development to be shared with other parents and educators.
Down with Bashar Assad
It will be a long-time before the full impact of Arab Spring is clear. But the most salutary consequence imaginable – at least if you are not a Syrian Alawite – would be the fall of the Assad regime. For decades the Assads have pursued a consistent anti-American policy, while always offering American diplomats just enough to keep their fantasies of their moderation afloat.
Syria is Iran's primary state ally in the Arab world. It provides headquarters for a large range of terrorist organizations, including Hamas, and it is the main direct supplier of arms to Hizbullah, through which it has successfully reasserted its dominance in Lebanon. Finally, Syria, aided by North Korea, embarked on its own nuclear weapons program.
In the wake of its brutal suppression of nation-wide demonstrations now in their fourth month, the Assad regime is teetering. As a consequence, Hizbullah's status in Lebanon has been dramatically undermined, as attention focuses on Hizbullah's alliance with the Alawites, who are massacring Sunnis. Hamas head Khaled Mashaal is looking searching for a new base of operations.
If popular demonstrations bring down the Assads after forty years in power, it will embolden the Iranian population. Bashar Assad and his clansmen know that they are literally fighting for their lives, and that if the regime falls, Syria's Sunni majority will wreak horrible revenge on the Alawite minority that has ruled them for decades. The Assads' reputation for brutality is well-earned and is being buttressed now. Should they nevertheless be defeated, it will signal to the Iranians that the Revolutionary Guard, equally prepared to slaughter thousands to maintain the rule of the mullahs, can also be defeated. The Iranian theocrats know this full well, and have been actively aiding the Syrian regime in the suppression of demonstrations.
That the fall of Assad would be a boon to American interests is obvious to all except for the Obama administration foreign policy team, which has not taken a single step to help bring down Bashar Assad. The President demanded that long-time ally Hosni Mubarak step down, but has made no such demand on Assad, a consistent enemy. Secretary of State Clinton initially described Assad as a "reformer," even as his troops had taken to shooting unarmed demonstrators. One day the administration describes the Assad tyranny as losing legitimacy and the next urges the opposition to "conciliate" with it. The administration recognized the Libyan rebels as Libya's legitimate government, giving them access to billions of dollars of Libyan assets in the United States, and has gone to war against the long-neutered (from a Western point of view) Gaddafi, but has eschewed the mildest of non-military sanctions against Bashar Assad.
Why is Obama so afraid of the fall of the Assads?
More on Campus Kiruv
Rabbi Meir Goldberg, who lives in Lakewood and works in kiruv on the Rutgers campus, wrote last week,to the Magazine in response to my piece on teens from shomer Shabbos homes texting on Shabbos. He pleaded for more outreach to Modern Orthodox students on campus. I'd just like to add a couple of points, in part based on our private correspondence.
The rapid decline in religious observance among many products of Modern Orthodox institutions on campus cannot be completely separated from campus kiruv. Kiruv efforts aimed at those from minimal Jewish backgrounds are undermined when the newcomers observe that so many of their peers from day school backgrounds abandon religious observance the first opportunity they get.
Rabbi Goldberg shared with me two important observations -- the first obvious and the second of wide application. Those students who have spent one or more years in seminary or yeshiva in Israel following high school are far better able to resist the temptations of campus life. And those students who are actively involved in sharing their Torah and Jewish knowledge with less identified Jewish friends fare the best. (I have previously described an initiative begun by recent University of Pennsylvania graduate Hart Levine to spread such activities on nine campuses with large numbers of day school graduates.)
Drawing upon the natural idealism of youth is one of the most important elements in maintaining a positive, as opposed to passive, religious identity. That is true for Orthodox youth across the spectrum. And teaching our children to view themselves as Kiddush Hashem ambassadors is the best way to do so.