Friday, October 16, 2009

Character Traits

It's late, but I need to compose something before my mind can rest...

Have you ever had someone you know point out an inherently negative trait of yours - and be completely correct? There is no use denying the claim, because deep down, you know it to be true. But what if having that negative trait really isn't the pitfall that you (and that other person) might have thought it was?

I have been called pessimistic on a few occasions by someone close to me. Admittedly, I have a certain pessimistic side that can take hold, given enough "encouragement" (and by that I mean a number of bad/wrong things happening in my life, usually all around the same time, or at the very same time). But I resent being called a pessimist, not because it isn't actually true, but because I think I can rise above that and become something greater.

This particular notion was crystalized for me by Rabbi Natanel Lebowitz, a rebbe at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah. While I did not attend Lev HaTorah during my time in Israel, I did have Rabbi Lebowitz as my shiur rebbe at NCSY Kollel the summer before my senior year in high school. He is extremely charismatic, pulls no punches when it comes to mussar, and is a very emes-dik person who is certainly worth the admiration he receives from his students. If there is anyone who can be said to have single-handedly influenced me to spend a year in Israel before college, it was Rabbi Lebowitz. When Rabbi Lebowitz gave a special mussar schmooze last year at YU, I couldn't help but attend, even if I was basically the only non-Lev HaTorah alumnus there. I was expecting to hear some inspirational divrei Torah (since most everything I ever heard him say was indeed inspirational), but I didn't expect to be blown away as I was.

I forget what source Rabbi Lebowitz cited, but this is the basic idea: While we know the Avos as being renowned for possessing specific traits, namely Avraham with Chessed, Yitzchak with Gevura, and Yaakov with Emes/Tiferes, the truth behind those designations are that the Avos were in fact born with the inherent opposite trait. The best example that he brought (with the most examples, although Avraham had a few, and Yitzchak as well) was Yaakov Avinu.

Yaakov is know throughout our rabbinic commentaries as being a man of Emes - Truth. But when you examine the parts of the Torah that tell us stories about his life, we see a bit of a different picture. First, there is the tricky bit about convincing Esav to sell the birthright. Even if you hold of the midrashim that expand the background of the story, and that Esav knew he couldn't handle the kehuna and Yaakov knew he was better suited for that, nevertheless, Yaakov still concluded the deal with Esav under duress from his exhaustion.

Esav's later claim against Yaakov that he makes to Yitzchak when Yaakov "steals" the brachos - that Yaakov is a trickster of sorts, is fairly on target. Yaakov doesn't resist too much when his mother offers the suggestion to play dress up and convince his blind, elderly father that he was in fact Esav. Seemingly a man of Emes would have no part in such a deception, no matter how righteous his cause. His response of "here I am, Esav is your first born" is a creative reading of the words, but Yaakov also intended to answer his father is such a way to successfully carry out the scheme to obtain the brachos of the first born.

Lastly, commentaries regarding Yaakov's dealings with his father-in-law Lavan are quite clear that Yaakov believed he could be just as much of a swindler as Lavan, should Lavan try to make an example of him and attempt to assume the title of best underhanded businessman. And Yaakov certainly does out perform Lavan with his strategy for breeding certain coat colorations in his flock, thus taking basically every bit of wealth Lavan had, as we are told (in Rashi, I believe).

So what's the point of all this? I'm certainly not trying to drag Yaakov's name through the mud - and neither was Rabbi Lebowitz. The important point to focus on is the fact that in spite of this inherent dishonest nature that Yaakov possessed, he overcame these tendencies to define himself as a man of absolute Truth. He didn't blame this inherent negative characteristic of his and use it as an excuse for anything he did. When it was necessary to utilize these tendencies for a more positive goal, he did so. Nevertheless, Yaakov is not defined for posterity as a man who went around being dishonest. He is forever known as a man of Emes, because he made the effort to conquer the negative trait that indeed was his given nature, and was successful.

Without claiming in any way that I possess the intestinal fortitude of our forefather, I do believe that we should all think about this example - as we should with everything the Avos did (ma'aseh avos siman l'banim, after all), and draw inspiration for our own lives. True, everyone has some negative trait(s) that they possess, that is undeniable, since no one is completely perfect these days (or ever, I guess). Nevertheless, we should do out very best to be motivated by the recognition of our negative traits, and be spurred to overcome them, effectively using them as a springboard to become better people.

So while I do have a pessimistic side, and I know for a fact that I demonstrated that trait far more often that I would like to admit in my past (certainly before I spent two years in Israel), I don't like the idea of being defined as a negative, pessimistic person. It simply isn't true, not because I don't have that trait, but because I reject it as a defining characteristic, because I know I can rise above that negativity and be a better person. As a result, I try very hard to be optimistic about most everything in life, and do my best to find the positive in everything and everyone I encounter.

I love the feelings of positive energy and simcha that are to found in simple, everyday life. True, there are moments where I can't ride the high of that positivity, and that's fine since life isn't perfect to begin with. I will still rise against those feelings and push back the darkness, a defiant light shining brightly amidst the blackness that can be the reality of the world we live in.

So the person who called me pessimistic wasn't wrong, per se, but I hope to prove to them that they were in fact incorrect about who I am now (and maybe someday they will recognize the change within me). I truly believe I have implanted the notion of being a positive person within my heart, and that such a concept has taken root. I'm not infallible, but I don't expect to be. I simply must do the best I can, and never, ever give up.

And with that, I'll depart for dreamland...

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