Step by Step
Methods for Changing Character
The task of character development is often overwhelming. We see where we presently are, what we want to change into, and the gap between the two, and realize how difficult a task is in front of us. Because of this, many of our teachers encourage us to progress slowly, step by step. Rather than give up because the task is too hard, we should take on the challenge by breaking it into small pieces.
This is behind Rashi’s explanation of Mishlei 17:24. The verse says “Wisdom is before the understanding one, and the eyes of the fool are at the edge of the earth.” Rashi explains: ‘The eyes of the fool are at the edge of the earth, saying that wisdom is not accessible; it is far away from me. He says, ‘How can I learn all of Nezikin, which is 30 chapters, and Keilim that is 30 and Shabbat that is 24?’ But to the wise man it is easy. Today he learns two chapters, tomorrow another two. He says, ‘This is the way those who lived before me in the world.’”
Taking on too much at once — trying to change ourselves too quickly — ends up being counterproductive. The Kloizenberger Rebbe, zt”l, is quoted as giving over this idea through the verses of Yaakov’s dream. Yaakov saw a “ladder planted in the ground whose top reached the heavens, and behold there were angels of G-d going up and going down it” – “vehinei malakhei Elokim olim veyordim bo.” Says the Kloizenberger Rebbe: If we try to ascend and swiftly transform ourselves into angels – become ‘malakhei Elokim olim’ – we will fall right back down – ‘veyordim bo.’ People find themselves breaking under unnaturally high standards, trying to live at levels that they are not ready for.
Rav Wolbe shlita (notes from his Vaad of 26 Iyar, 5760 / May 31, 2000) gives some practical advice on how to develop character little by little:
- Learning kindness: Do three little acts of kindness in a day. After a couple of months one starts really developing sensitivity to people, seeing what they need, thinking how to help them.
- Kavana in prayer: One cannot right away begin saying all of his prayers with proper intention. Rather, he might begin by concentrating on every word of the first two blessings of the Shemoneh Esrei for several months. Then he can add more, and eventually reach a whole davening with kavana.
- Eating moderately: First take a couple of days to work out how much food you need. Then just at first focus on breakfast, and limit it to as much as is needed. Then, eventually move on to lunch, and then dinner. Eventually a person can reach a state where he is eating to fill his needs and not just his desires.
- Anger: Instead of just resolving to be patient and never lose one’s temper – try taking on a half hour of patience every day. He suggests a critical time, like right before coming home in the evening. One should try, for a couple of months, moving around this half hour, and get used to patience in all different situations.
- Concentration: This is a particularly difficult area, so starting small is crucial. Try going to a quiet place and for just five minutes focus on one thing without letting any foreign thoughts bother. After a couple of weeks move to eight minutes, then, eventually ten. Then try focusing one’s thoughts while walking in the street or being in a situation where there are distractions.