The “Absolute Value” of Middos

VaYetzai 5774-An addendum in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Conventional wisdom dictates that when taking inventory of ourselves, that we should use a bookkeepers ledger sheet as a model. We divide our strengths and weaknesses along the lines of credits and debits but, generally speaking, we never insert the same item into both columns. We catalogue anger, stinginess and haughtiness as our bad middos – character traits on the negative side of the ledger and patience, humility and generosity as our good middos on the positive side. Never shall the twain meet.

But earlier this week, when probing Rachels middah of jealousy we learned that the Izhbitzer disabuses us of this notion and, basically, invalidates this bifurcated model of our kochos hanefesh-faculties of our souls.  He taught that (I paraphrase, remember, these are interpretive adaptations, not verbatim translations): “HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil. “

A good way to understand the Izhbitzer is by drawing on the mathematical concept of “absolute value”. The absolute value of a number is its distance from zero on the number line and it makes no difference if it is a positive or a negative number.

The absolute value of x, denoted “| x |” is the distance of x from zero. This is why absolute value is never negative; absolute value only addresses “how far?” not “in which direction?” This means not only that | 3 | = 3, because 3 is three units to the right of zero, but also that | –3 | = 3, because –3 is also three units to the left of zero.  It is the same for middos and kochos hanefesh, the absolute value of the negative/ evil ones and their positive/ good counterparts are equal. E.g. the | zealousness| (which is read as “the absolute value of zealousness) = passion.  But the | anger AKA – negative zealousness | = passion as well. Understanding that they share the same root “value” illustrates why sublimating the negative into the positive is eminently doable.

The Izhbitzers disciple, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, develops this concept making it a source of encouragement and a beacon of hope.

Each of us has a visceral awareness that our yetzer haras obsession should be our own. Those tendencies that the yetzer hara presses us most incessantly about are the precise ones that we could utilize to excel at with pristine goodness free of even a trace admixture of evil or ulterior motives.   The faculties that we’ve abused to sin most egregiously with are precisely the ones that we may use to maximize our capacity for goodness and holiness with.

This is why the Midrash teaches that we ought to do Mitzvahs with the same limbs that we’ve used to sin with. (VaYikra Rabbah 21).  This is much more than a mere means to repair the damage done by the sin midah k’neged midah -quid pro quo.  It is a mending of the sinners soul as well.

Every individual was created to be mesaken-repair and sanctify one particular thing.  Each of us is a super-specialist with a unique and inimitable mission of tikun. No two faces are clonishly alike because the face is the portal through which ones tzelem Elokim-image of G-d, may be perceived. Our faces are reflective of our Divine singularity for HaShem is not only אחד=one but יחיד ומיוחד=singular. Thus the subtext of the famous Talmudic query (Shabbos 118B) “Which matter was your father most careful about?” is; what was your fathers uniqueness? What was his understanding of his soul’s peerless mission that expressed itself in his placing the emphasis of his Avodah-Divine service, in a particular area?

The Gemara that teaches that “One does not stand on Torah matters until and unless he’s been tripped up by those (particular) Torah matters” (Gittin 43A) can be understood in the same vein. One doesn’t trip on generic, fungible Divrei Torah. The particular Divrei Torah that served as his customized stumbling blocks attune him to those selfsame Divrei Torah’s potential for being his personalized stairway to heaven.

Tzidkas haTzadik Inyan 49


2 comments on “The “Absolute Value” of Middos

  1. Under the nazi regime the Germans marshalled all their engineering, technical and organizational skills in the service of evil. After the war they sublimated these same skills in a more positive direction

  2. I am aware of Rebecca s deceiving Isaac but it was alright since Esau was evil and Jacob good. Nazi doctors who took the Hippocrates oath rationalized that it was ok to kill Jews as they were a cancer to society. Jews are now thw evil ones. How confusing.

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