Iyar: Changing Character

Nov 17, 2014

Sefirat Haomer and Building Character

How can we become better people?

The period of Sefirat Haomer (and the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur) has traditionally been a time for focusing on improving character. Much of the ethical literature speaks of what kind of people we should become, or what we should do, but focuses less on how we should make those changes. We often find ourselves knowing what we want to change about ourselves but not succeeding in actually doing it. We often tread water in character development – always talking about the improvements we should be making, but finding ourselves with the same problems at the end of a year that we started with in its beginning — waving our arms but not moving anywhere.

We hope the following is helpful.

Advice for changing character:

  1. See which of your character traits is out of balance (for example, I am too lazy, too stingy, too disorganized, not self-disciplined enough, etc.) and then go to the opposite extreme (be extremely diligent, giving, organized, disciplined). You will eventually become a balanced individual. Balanced character traits are ideal (except with regards to arrogance and anger). (Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Dei’ot chapters 1,2)
  2. Take forty days and focus on a particular character problem. For those forty days go to the opposite extreme. (Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk in the Tzetel Katan)
  3. Our heart goes after our actions. (Our inner life is influenced by our outer life) Changing our actions will bring about a change in our character. (Sefer Hachinuch in explaining many of the Torah’s practical mitzvot).
  4. Find a social setting and environment that supports the kind of character changes you want to make. When asked by his teacher Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai what good path to take in life, Rabbi Yossi replied “[having] a good neighbor”. (Pirkei Avot 2:9) (Rambam in Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Deiot chapter 5 describes the mitzvah of clinging to Torah sages in order to learn from them and have their good character rub off on ours.)
  5. Learn the halakhot directly related to the character issues you are working on. (Rav Yisrael Salanter in his Igeret Hamussar)
  6. Pick a passage in Jewish literature related to the issue you are working on and repeat it over and over again. This type of meditation will bring about internalization. (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has a chapter on this type of Mussar meditation in his book, Jewish Meditation.)

Character-change strategies can be divided into inside-out and outside-in approaches. “Inside-out” approaches teach how to change from the inside, whether through contemplation, meditation, or intellectual activity (5 & 6 above). “Outside-in” approaches teach how to change from the outside — external changes, through activities or environment, bring about changes in our inner self (3 & 4). The Rambam’s go-to-the-opposite-extreme approach works with both.

These two general approaches to moral change later find their parallel in the psychological world, where some therapeutic approaches focus on the inner world and other’s work from the outside, on actions or setting.

There is clearly no contradiction between different approaches to change. Some people need to emphasize one or another approach, and some situations or problems are more easily solved in one way than another. It is often effective to attack a moral problem from a number of approaches at the same time.

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