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.

This article first appeared in Mishpacha, July 30.

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11 Responses

  1. Neil Harris says:

    I know that our day school ran a program called M.A.P. (Middos Awareness Program), that highlighted a middah a month.

    Also, there’s a program called Project D.E.R.E.C.H. that seem to be very popular in many Torah u’Messorah schools.

  2. micha says:

    We have numerous middos curricula, some of them decades old, and as far as I can tell it is not self-evident they actually impart much. I think the problem is that values require examples, role models, more than formal education. People don’t fly off the handle in anger because they don’t realize that doing so is a bad thing. And so these curricula end up trying to impart self-evident truths: anger is bad, egotism is bad, generosity is good, trust in G-d is good, etc… At older ages, it comes across as trite — which may be why middos curricula taper off
    in the Jr High grades. And at those ages and into adulthood, we deal more with questions of when those allegedly “bad” middos are actually appropriate. “For everything there is a time, and a season for every goal…”

    In addition, we have the problem of people who feel reduced to cheftzah shel mitzvah, objects used as a mitzvah. Like the single who is tired of being invited to Shabbos meals where “I get to be their tefillin” — they can’t do the mitzvah of welcoming guests without a guest, but they don’t relate to the person on a human level. My son with Downs tires of teens who come by to entertain him on Shabbos once he realizes that teen views him as a chessed project rather than a real friend. Teaching middos as a topic has to avoid making it a set of required actions rather than actual character development. Again, hard to do as a curriculum.

    In short: middos need to be inculcated, not taught. As R’ Elya Lopian zt”l, “Mussar is the art of moving something an ammah [cubit] — from the head to the heart.” Entering the head is the far easier part.

    Perhaps parenting tools are therefore more important than school ones.

    But we could also try an entirely different approach to teaching the middos themselves. We could instead interevene one step earlier and teach a middos orientation. “Oh, Shloime won’t share the ball?” “How did that make you feel? Which middos caused that feeling?” And separately, with Shloime, “Shloimele… Which middah came out when Duvidl asked for the ball?” “Why that one?” “Do you think it was the right choice?” (And it might have been, David may be a greedy kid…) “Which middah should you have responded with instead?”

    Get children used to being aware of their middos and how they interact. Then they can be aware of when they are applying or misapplying those values they were taught about.

    Similarly, the best advice I could give those potential role models, including the one writing this comment, is to keep a cheshbon hanefesh, a journal or some other record of their actions and reactions throughout the day. That too habituates us in being more aware of our decisions. Only once aware can we actually apply the truths we learned from teachers, rabbeim and books when the actual decision is before us.


  3. micha says:

    To answer the question as asked, my daughter uses a program put together by the Chofetz Chaim Foundation.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Even though yeshivos should place a proper emphasis on middos, are all essential functions of the home to be delegated now to schools? Is there such a thing as too much outsourcing of parenting?

  5. Neil Harris says:

    The problem is (and I am talking as a parent and former full-time kiruv-type) that the parents put the burden of teaching middos on the schools and the schools expect middos to come from the home.

  6. Simcha Younger says:

    I agree with what micha wrote, that middos are not taught. I think the formal training of middos will not only fail, but will harm the child’s ability to absorb proper midos. The attempt to teach midos makes them dry and mechanical, and they become ‘mitzvos’ instead of ‘midos’, an external behavior rather than a part of their personality.

  7. Ori says:

    Maybe we need curricula on how to teach your children to be have good Middot. People will be less resistant to that than to curricula aimed at changing them.

  8. Woman Educator says:

    This is a well-researched program that is used in many public schools and Catholic Schools. Their research from Harvard on improving social interactions and changing school climate to one of mutual respect is very compelling and extensive. Their premise is that by educating students to be self-aware of their mood and emotions and learning how to de-escalate their emotional state, they can regulate their reactions. The program also focuses on other behaviors that improve relationships. They teach the children to cause others to feel positive emotions that they would like to feel themselves and avoid causing others to feel negative emotions that they would like to avoid.

  9. Neil Harris says:

    What is the program called?

    Had “experts” looked into how Catholics and other religions deal with their teens who went “of the derech” 20 years ago, our teen and 20-something landscape would look very different today.

  10. Woman Educator says:

    The name of the program mentioned in the above comment is The RULER Approach founded by Dr. Marc Brackett

  11. Allan Katz says:

    Thanks Micah and the lady who recommended the Ruler approach.

    I think we can learn from Alfie Kohn – see his article on ‘How not to teach values ‘ , his books Beyond discipline , moving from compliance to community , ‘ Punished by rewards

    As the title of his book says – we need to build caring communities of learners rather than focus on compliance. We cannot promote midos in schools if we rank kids against each other, use competition and grades to motivate kids. Kids then see others obstacles to their success. Instead we should be promoting cooperative learning in the tradition of the Beis medrash – chavrutas and chaburas – where excellence is measured by one’s contribution to others

    The second problem is the use of rewards to promote middos. Schools have various mitvah campaigns with stickers and prizes. Rav Dessler and R’ Issac Sher have warned against using trying to promote spirituality by bribing kids – she’lo lishmah bu lishmah is not automatic. This behavioristic approach focuses on behavior , on chitzoniyos. If we want kids to internalize the value, we need to focus on intentions, motives and the feelings behind the actions. A kid can do a chesed and give a sweet to another kid for different reasons – to impress the teacher standing close by , to get a piece of chocolate the other kid is eating, or an act of altuism – just to make the kid feel good.
    A school tried to promote returning lost items and money found on the playground by giving kids rewards – the result , all of a sudden , kids were finding so many ‘ lost’ items in the playground . The same goes for punishments and consequences. A kid kicked a ball that hit a teacher who then fell and hurt herself. The kid ran. When asked why he did not offer help – he said he was scared of the punishment. Two egs -how rewards or punishments ‘ promote’ ‘ moral’ development.

    Rewards and punishment/ consequences get in the way of the kid asking – is this the type of person I want to be , are these my values – I am a kid who would not like to hurt others and not because what will happen to him.

    In all learning , not just socio-moral learning kids need to reflect and do the thinking , make meaning of what they learn, internalize the message and not just give back what others before him have said.

    Marvin Marshall’s DWS discipline without stress does not use reward and punishment but helps kids to reflect on the impact of their behavior on others – CPS collaborative problem solving by Ross Greene helps teachers and parents to solve problems in a collabrative way rather than use reward or punishment and of course Alfie Kohn’s work.

    Dr Benzion Sorotzkin has an article of the dangers of rewards and competition.

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