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’.
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.
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.
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?’
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
Food for Thought
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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