About 15 years ago, I began to seriously study “Pirkei Avos,” Ethics of the Fathers, a part of the Talmud that deals with character improvement. Last year, working with Rabbi Menashe Goldberger, I began to summarize what I learned that I expect to become a book on the subject. This article is merely the beginning if you want to improve your behavior based on Torah values.
What is good character?
Jews and Christians have concluded that the only moral code that applies to humanity is the moral code given by God. If you don’t follow God’s ways, you will be a slave to your passions, the mores of society, or controlled by fashionable cultures. The Jewish view is that such a moral code comes directly from the Torah. The greatest rabbis have discerned what that moral code is, and they have written various commentaries to explain the code over time.
What God wants
God has provided a roadmap in the Torah on how to improve. God did this because we are created in the image of God, and we have the potential to be Godlike, to develop Divine qualities. So, where do you find God’s attributes? The answer is in the Torah. Some of them are: mercy, compassion, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, forgiver of sin if the sinner repents, and holiness. These are some of the characteristics that we should emulate. It is the proper way to live.
When is the right time to change your behavior for the better?
There is a famous story attributed to Rabbi Israel Salanter, the creator of mussar, Jewish ethics. The rabbi lived in the 1800s and told the following story: “One night as I walked past the home of a shoemaker. I noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. I asked him why he was still working when it was so late, and the shoemaker said that as long as the candle is still burning, it is still possible to accomplish and to mend.” The rabbi thought that if the shoemaker can work at a late hour as long as there is light, then “why can’t I improve my life as long as I am alive?” It was a remarkable insight that the light of the candle, as long as it is burning, is an analogy to the light of your life. As long as you are alive, you have the chance to mend your ways and to improve your behavior.
A partial list of traits you might want to change
Here is a partial list of behavior changes that you might want to consider, if you believe they apply to you:
1. Do you want to do more Torah learning?
2. Do you have a hard time controlling your anger?
3. Do you consider yourself a miser? Do you want to be liberal with your money?
4. Do you often interrupt people, or a specific person, like your wife, your husband or your children?
5. Are you often rude or dishonest?
6. Do you avoid helping the poor, orphans, widows and strangers?
7. Do you care and inquire about friends and relatives that become sick?
8. Do you offer gratitude to others who help you?
9. Do you ask forgiveness when you make a serious mistake?
10. Are you discouraged with your life?
Unless you master your negative character traits, you will be eaten up by frustration, anger, greed, envy, and lust. Only when you have mastery over your negative traits can you live a completely happy life.
Perhaps you know the person you want to be and also the person you don’t want to be. You may not want to be angry, discouraged, unhappy, jealous and arrogant, among other negative traits. Perhaps you want to be: mellow, unafraid, wise, never in a rush, never lost, never confused, always with the right answers, facing life with equanimity for yourself and for others.
The goal in life is to be happy and joyous as often as possible. Yet, we have to deal with so many other emotions that prevent that. Happiness is this easy-to-remember formula: difficulty leads to a challenge; a challenge leads to a solution; and a solution leads to joy.
Success in changing your behavior for the better comes one step at a time. You take the first step to begin and you work on the change over time. Make the decision right now to take control of your life. If not now, when? Stop procrastinating. If you do not begin today, you may never do it.