Middos Control Leads to Success in Learning

Before a child can effectively tap into his potential in
Torah learning and fulfillment, he needs to be guided and supported in his
personal character development. Why? For character – middos – development
is the control box of man’s Torah study and fulfillment. No matter how developed
one’s mind is, if either his potential is not realized or it begins to be
realized, but without proper guards and guidance, his level of intelligence will
be of no consequence and may even cause him harm.

As its meaning suggests,
מידות—measurement—means the proper
גבול (border) for each
potential. Before a Cohen did the service in the Beis Hamikdash he had to be
wearing fitted clothing. Why? Is it not enough for the Cohen to be respectfully
and modestly dressed? What is the message in this law?

The Torah is alluding to the necessity of the Cohen to make
sure his character traits (also called middos) are in line before he
approaches the actual Temple service.

One’s potential can be compared to a well. Once it is opened
and water begins to sprout outward, it is critical to quickly channel the water
in a controlled stream so that it can be used and will not go to waste. So too,
one’s potential needs to be channeled.

The middah of Chesed—giving—is compared to water. Just
as uncontrolled water will spread relentlessly, so too, unbridled Chesed,
without restriction, will pass over legitimate borders. This idea is alluded to
in the word חסד. The
letter חי"ת
(ches) represents the seven heavens and above.
סמך (samech) represents
600,000 Jews or the core of the entire Jewish nation. In addition, the round
form of the letter samech suggests endless movement. The letter
(daled) alludes to the four corners of the world, leaving no place

We see that Chesed without borders does not distinguish
between right and wrong. In fact, it can lead to the most abominable of sins, as
the Torah refers to the illicit act of incest [with a sister] as
חסד (Vayikra 20:17).
This is a חסד without
border, without guidance, without direction. We see that the great potential
represented by Chesed loses all its value when left to find its own boundaries.

Chazal refer to the act of Chesed as
חסדים (gemilas chasadim).
גמילת is from the root
גמל –camel. Maybe it is
used as the classic example of true חסד,
for just as the camel uses the water it collects in exacting measure—as it saves
it for gradual use over long periods of time—so too, when doing
חסד, one should do so in the
right measure.

In addition, גמילה
is similar in etymology to גבול—border—as
it has to be done within appropriate borders. The asimilar letters in each word
form the word בם, as in
בם"—"and you shall speak in
them [words of Torah]"
, teaching that Torah has to be learned within the
proper framework, with developed character traits. Only then can the potential
of each person, in his efforts to succeed in Torah, be realized.

Also, the ב
of the word בם can be
understood to represent בראשית—Creation—or
the ultimate act of Chesed, while מ
represents מתן
תורה—the giving of the
Torah. Without the limits and guidelines of Torah, the great act of Chesed at
Creation would lose its value.

On this, Chazal say (see Rashi on Bereishis 1:31), if
not for the giving of the Torah, Hashem would undo His Act of Creation. And,
just as Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave borders to Creation, before He gave the Torah,
which gives borders to mankind, so too, its incumbent upon each individual man
to give himself guidelines, i.e., controlled characteristic traits—before he
attempts to acquire Torah. This is what Chazal mean when they say, "דרך
לתורה"—"character trait
control must preceed Torah learning and fulfillment"

Rav Chaim Vital z"l explains that the obligation to work to
control one’s character traits is so basic that it is not mentioned as a mitzvah
in the Torah. It is an inherent obligation of man, and its lacking prevents the
possibility of succeeding in Torah.

This theme is expressed in the posuk, "והנה
השמימה" – "And behold, a
ladder is secure in the ground and its top reaches to the Heavens"

Chazal say the סולם
(ladder) represents Yaakov. He was able to reach great spiritual heights only
because he was securely planted בארץ—in
matters of דרך
ארץ and control of middos.
That the gematria of סולם
is סיני (representing
Torah) only strengthens this idea.

Also, it’s not enough to control one’s middos in a
mediocre manner. "מוצב
ארצה", according to
and Targum Yonason, means a secure, stable condition. Just as
a mechanic will not use a tool to fix a machine unless it has been proven to be
a secure and solid tool, so too, before one approaches Torah learning and seeks
out spiritual growth, he needs to be sure that his tools—middos —are

One may say to himself, "Before each session of learning or
performing of a mitzvah, I will put my middos in order, for what’s really
important is the Torah and it’s a waste of time to spend too much time working
on control over one’s middos."

However, a look at Onkelos and Targum Yonason
mentioned above teaches us that middos development is a great avodah
and thus worthy of one’s attention and effort, as we know that the great
Ba’alei Mussar
of Europe worked incessantly and with all their might to
develop and control their middos. Once one solidifies his middos
he will be able to approach any area of Torah and avodah and with
Hashem’s help, succeed.

Correcting of one’s middos before Torah learning is
alluded to as well in the posuk, "וידעת
לבבך" – "And you shall know
today and return to your heart"
(Devorim 4:39).

The posuk seems to mention two stages:

(1) ידיעה
– learning

(2) לבבך
– feeling / fulfilling.

Question: What is the meaning of
והשבות? If the first stage
mentioned in this posuk refers to learning, then after
וידעת, the posuk should read
לבבך. What does the addition
of והשבות teach us?

Answer: והשבות—Return
to your heart—
implies that a person’s avodah begins in his heart,
then moves to learning and then again returns to his heart. This first stage is
the battle in the heart of middos development. Only once one is
victorious can he move to the next stage: Torah learning (ידיעה).
And then, once he is filled with the wisdom of Torah, he becomes obligated to
fulfill the Torah, each time on a higher and higher level, as he moves up the
סולם of Torah.

R’ Benyamin Zilber shli"ta (in
הסכמה to
הידיעה) explains that this
posuk is the basis for R’ Yisroel Salanter’s foundation of Mussar, which
fits well with our explanation above.