The Vilna Gaon – Tikkun Hamiddot ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 5

			His name was Eliyahu. By early adulthood he had become known as ‘the Hasid’. Sometime later he ‎was called ‘the Gaon, the Hasid, Rabbenu Eliyahu’. Future generations referred to him as the ‘Gra’ ‎‎(rhymes with raw), an acronym that stands for ‘Gaon Rav Eliyahu’. Some call him the Gaon of Vilna. ‎But he is usually referred to by the simple word ‘Gaon’. Judaism has had many more than its ‎proper share of gaonim (geniuses). There have literally been thousands. But there is only one ‎person who is called the ‘Gaon’. ‎
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The Gaon was born in 1720 in the city of Vilna to a family that was poor but steeped in rabbinic ‎tradition. The stories about his diligence in Torah study from an early age almost beg skepticism. ‎They are so ridiculous that one immediately thinks they are an exaggeration. The only problem is ‎that these aren’t miracle stories. They are told by so many first hand observers that one begins to ‎get the feeling that they actually happened. At the age of three he had mastered the Bible. At the ‎age of seven he was giving lectures on deep topics of Talmudic learning to accomplished scholars. ‎By eight he was immersed in Kabbala. By ten, even the greatest scholars considered him their ‎equal. ‎
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Lithuania was a rabbinic scholars’ paradise. Around the time of the Gaon, Lithuania, and the rest of ‎the vast region of Eastern Europe that Ashkenazi Jews lived in was entering into a century or so of ‎Talmudic, halachic, and mystical intensification that may have never been experienced in all of ‎Jewish history. There was plenty of controversy – with Hasidim, with the Haskalah, with gentiles – ‎but the scholarship was extraordinary. There were hundreds of major scholars found all over ‎Eastern Europe writing on every imaginable nuance of Judaism. Almost every one of them looked ‎to Vilna, and the Gaon, for the answers to the really tough questions. ‎
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He wrote on almost all existing works of Judaism. But he wrote briefly, as if he either expected his ‎reader to get it without much explanation, or as if he was only revealing what he wanted to. His ‎commentary to Mishle (Proverbs), is profound and far-reaching. His explanation of a verse of the ‎book (4:13) is particularly illuminating on his view of the purpose of life. The verse states: ‘Be ‎strong in Mussar (ethical instruction) and do not slacken, guard it – for it is your life’. The Gaon ‎found in this rather typical verse a jewel: ‘For it is your life – because a person lives in order to ‎break whatever trait he hasn’t broken up to now, therefore he needs to perpetually strengthen ‎himself, because if he doesn’t – why is he alive?’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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The first thing we notice about this little comment is that the Gaon did not say the purpose of life is ‎to study Torah. This is extremely surprising in light of the fact that he studied virtually every single ‎waking moment of his entire life. And he studied hard. He wasn’t just memorizing verses or fooling ‎around with numerical equivalents of words. He wouldn’t eat for a few days when he was working ‎on a tough question. He wrote repeatedly on the value of Torah study – its obligation and its ‎benefits both in this world and the next. But when given an opportunity to reveal the meaning of ‎life he didn’t push Torah study. Why not? ‎
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The answer is that Torah study is a means to an end. It is a mitzvah, perhaps the most important ‎mitzvah, but not the purpose of life. That elite title he reserved for one thing and one thing only, ‎for Mussar - the perfection of character traits and inner work on the personality. So what is Mussar ‎doing in the yeshiva section? The answer is that this is really where it belongs, in the Beit Midrash ‎‎(study hall) with all the Talmud and Halacha. All that stuff is challenging and illuminating and highly ‎intellectual, but it’s nothing without tikkun hamiddot. ‎
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Tikkun hamiddot – fixing the traits of the personality – is the Holy Grail of Talmud study. It is the ‎ultimate end goal of the Talmud student, though for most not only is it never attained, but never ‎even seriously attempted. It can be amazingly difficult to change even a single aspect of the ‎personality. Alterations of the personality do happen, that much is obvious, but they usually occur ‎through natural ‘life processes’ such as aging, experience, or situational changes. Self-induced ‎changes are an entirely different matter. This is the process of tikkun hamiddot. ‎
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Why is it so tough to do this? Nobody really knows the answer, though plenty of people have ‎made guesses. The usual answer is that it has something to do with the subconscious which is so ‎deeply embedded in the mind that we have almost no access to it. The Mussar people, by and ‎large, agree with this approach. They concentrated their efforts on ways of dealing with this ‎obstacle – tricks, inspirational pep talks, threats, meditation. The Gaon, while predating the Mussar ‎movement by a few generations, probably would have agreed with much that they had to say. The ‎verse quoted here even contains the word ‘Mussar’. But he approached the issue from a different ‎angle. ‎
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For the Gaon, tikkun hamiddot was not merely an extremely difficult lifelong task. It was life itself. ‎This is the reason we were given life to begin with. His focus is not on technique but on essence. ‎The task of changing the personality, of each person molding his or her self into something better ‎than it was previously, is the purpose of our being created. How is one to accomplish this? The key ‎word is ‘break’. ‎
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To change the personality, to make oneself into something other than what one is currently, ‎requires breakage. Something has to go - there is no way to become a different person and still ‎hold on to those nasty habits. It’s a battle in there, no different than the battle that goes on when ‎germs invade the body. The antibodies don’t negotiate with the germs and work something out. ‎They kill, or else they will be killed themselves. The mind is no different. The negative traits, ‎whatever they may be, have to be broken and defeated, or else they will take over. ‎
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The Gaon was keenly aware of the complex nature of the mind. He certainly did not consider ‎tikkun hamiddot to be as easy as cleaning the house or fixing a broken gadget, though the ‎comparison is not without merit. The common element that all processes of tikkun share is that all ‎require willpower. It simply won’t happen without the will. ‘Therefore he needs to perpetually ‎strengthen himself’ – this is the constant application of the will in this battle. There are other tools ‎we have at our disposal, but the matter hinges on the will. If there is will there is a battle, if not, ‎‎‘why is he alive?’ ‎
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What is this battle all about? It is about breaking those characteristics that we were born with, that ‎are genuine forces within the mind, and subduing them to the power of the will. Take any one of ‎those forces, anger for instance, and try to see what it does. It takes over the mind in situations ‎that allow it to come out and distracts the mind from all else. It is almost as if the mind has a mind ‎of its own. Breaking this force means overpowering the anger, both on the spot when it arises and ‎beforehand so that it does not arise to begin with. It is no easy task to break the power of anger. It ‎is so natural to us that we rarely see it as a force invading the mind and not the mind itself. The ‎difficulty in trying to control anger gives an idea of the nature of this battle. ‎
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It is easy to see that anger is a ‘foreign’ force. What is not so clear is the trait of arrogance. This is ‎the ego itself at work, and it is not at all clear where the line should be drawn between the ego and ‎the self. To modern psychologists they may be one and the same thing. But to one engaged in the ‎battle of tikkun hamiddot the distinction must be made. The nature of life is to protect itself. But ‎we also have a higher agenda to go with self-preservation - to understand why we are here to ‎begin with. To do this we need feel the presence of God. But God has no place in a mind filled up ‎with itself. Breaking the power of the ego may not be fun or pleasant, but it is essential for anyone ‎who truly wants to live. ‎
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These are two examples of middot that need reshaping and fixing in the lifelong process known as ‎tikkun hamiddot. There are other middot that are positive which do not need to be broken down, ‎but they do need to be broken in. They need to be strengthened and refined so that they can be ‎used as the valuable tools that they are. Love and joy are examples of this. They are both part of ‎human nature but we may not have learned to use them in a manner that is conducive to spiritual ‎growth. This is what the Gaon meant that breaking the middot – either by breaking them down or ‎by breaking them in – is the core task of a human being and the reason he or she was given such a ‎complex mind, complete with a set of powerful forces that are so challenging to control. We and ‎we alone, have the innate ability to perfect ourselves. ‎
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Practical ‎
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Most people don’t really want to go about this business of tikkun hamiddot. They have either ‎settled on the old ‘this is the way I am and there’s nothing I can do about it’ concession, or they ‎have figured that it is just too difficult a task and not worth the effort. This is a colossal obstacle ‎that must be overcome. ‎
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The first step is just doing it. Start small, with one little thing that you want to change. Make it an ‎easy one that you stand a good chance of winning, like getting a little more exercise. Once you ‎have realized that you can actually get somewhere, try something a little tougher, like changing ‎eating habits. These are behavioral changes and not really changes in the personality, but they get ‎you going in the right direction. When you are ready, try a real middot change like not blowing up ‎at people who annoy you. It may be difficult to sort out the necessary times from the unnecessary ‎ones, but experience will guide you. Keep adding more and more to your repertoire. Try a new ‎one every week. After a while it starts getting a little enjoyable. This is the wonderful and life-‎giving process of spiritual growth. ‎
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With time, you will want to get into your own mind and attack the problems at their source. This is ‎more advanced inner work and it requires great patience and diligence. It may require a spiritual ‎mentor. These are available to those who truly seek them. Some find that the process works best ‎with a group of fellow seekers who want to use each other as sounding boards and inspirations. ‎Will-boosters such as physically or mentally demanding habits can also be a great help. This is ‎where a strong discipline such as Torah study comes in. There are plenty of books out there that ‎specifically guide those who genuinely want to get somewhere in tikkun hamiddot. It’s tough and ‎it’s challenging. For every success, there will be a failure. But as the verse in Proverbs wrote and ‎the Gaon emphasized, ‘It is your life’. ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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Changing any aspect of the personality is enormously difficult. If it is so tough, and only a very small ‎percentage of people even attempt it, let alone actually succeed in it, how could it be the purpose ‎of life?‎

		


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