How Every Mitzvah Helps Improve Our Character
לֹא נִתְּנוּ הַמִּצְווֹת אֶלָּא לְצָרֵף בָּהֶם אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת (בראשית רבה מד:א)
Judaism regards improving character as the goal of life. As the Midrash teaches, “The Torah’s commandments were not given to mankind for any other purpose than to refine people.” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1) The Rabbis did not say that it is one of the purposes of the Torah and its commandments to not improve our character, but that this is their sole purpose.
The guideline enunciated in this Midrash - “to refine people” gives each of us a standard for determining whether we are leading a morally successful life. Are we growing in honesty, kindness, and compassion? If we are not more compassionate and empathetic at sixty than we were at twenty we lived a failed life.
Techniques for Refining Character
We become good people not by thinking good thoughts but by doing good deeds again and again, until they become part of our nature. That is why Maimonides taught that it is better to give needy recipients one gold coin on a thousand different occasions than to give someone a thousand gold coins all at the same time. True, the net good that one person may equal, or even surpass, the combined good to the recipients of the smaller donations. But for the person who gives the thousand gifts, “if he opens up his hand again and again one thousand times, the trait of giving becomes part of him.” Indeed when we give repeatedly or do any ethical deed again and again, it becomes part of our character.
(Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code Of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1,p. 37, 38)
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