May 17, 2024
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Developing Our Positive Traits

As one reads through the parshiyos in Sefer Bamidbar, one could get overwhelmed by the amount of complaints, strife, discord, disunity, argumentative behavior, blasphemy and pursuit of pleasure. What’s happening here? This great Jewish nation was taken out of Egypt, witnessed the Splitting of the Sea and received the Torah at Har Sinai! Where did everything start to go wrong?

The commentaries refer to Sefer Bamidbar as Sefer HaMiddos—the book dealing with character traits. These include both the positive ones and the negative ones. If we analyze the 40 years that Bnei Yisrael lived in the desert, we see how negative traits were the cause of all the bad behaviors and positive traits were the cause of all successes.

The 40 years of a person’s life between the ages of 20-60 are generally full of accomplishments. The first 20 years focus on development. And after 60, people reap the benefits of their accomplishments. During those 40 years, a person struggles with all of life’s challenges. These correspond to the 40 years of Klal Yisrael in the desert. This is where they got caught up with the challenges to their middos. Like every human being, they had inner drives and self-interests.

Pirkei Avos lists three things that can remove a person from the world: jealousy, honor and the pursuit of pleasure. Getting caught up with these drives makes a person lose their share in this physical world and their share in the world to come. Clearly, these three areas represent our major daily struggles. On the surface, it’s deceiving, as these traits appear to be in one’s self interest if pursued. Honor and prestige are nice to experience. Pleasure? Everyone wants to have a good time. Jealousy is a trait one feels when wanting something that someone else has.

Pirkei Avos also says that whoever possesses these three positive qualities is considered a student of Avraham: a good eye, humble spirit and satisfied nature. And whoever possesses these three opposite qualities: an evil eye, haughty spirit and greedy nature, is considered a student of Bilam. The Sfas Emes says these negative qualities correspond to the other three negative traits. Evil eye corresponds to jealousy, haughty spirit to pursuit of honor and greedy nature to pursuit of pleasure.

These Mishnayos in Avos teach us an incredible lesson: All of our daily actions and struggles fall within these positive and negative traits. Nobody is born a champion—we all need to work at it. The Mishna classifies anyone who focuses on developing these traits as a “student”—someone who is learning and training. It’s a lifetime process. The common denominator of the three positive traits is that they are qualities which benefit other people: a good (helpful) eye, being humble and feeling satisfied. The three negative qualities of jealousy, honor and pleasure indicate a person just focused on himself:

These negative traits don’t hide; they attempt to be active in our lives no matter what. It takes training and discipline to prevent us from being pulled down by them. If we choose to focus on the good traits, we become students of Avraham’s yeshiva. If we let ourselves be guided by negative traits, then we join the academy of Bilam, which leads us to ruining our lives in this world and the next. Bilam chased after the three negative areas and lost everything.

The Mishna concludes that the students of Avraham will have existence and substance in this world and the next world and merit divine help to succeed in achieving their righteous goals. Focusing on the traits of a “good” eye, humble spirit and satisfied nature will lead to happiness, fulfillment and many positive results.

May Hashem give us siyata dishmaya (Heavenly help) to achieve success in these areas, thereby helping others and helping ourselves.


Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate Rosh Yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit pti.shulcloud.com.

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