3.12 – Using All Our Traits in the Service of God

Chovos HaLevavos, Shaar HaAvodah chapter 10

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Humans have traits that we consider to be “positive,” like mercy, humility, love and generosity. These have reciprocals that we consider “negative” – in these cases, harshness, pride, hatred and stinginess. All of a person’s traits should be used in the service of God. It’s easy to understand that we should so employ our “positive” characteristics but how does one utilize his “negative” qualities in the service of God? Actually, each trait has an appropriate time and context. Let us examine this principle by dividing some sample traits into opposing pairs.

  • Joy and sorrow. When something is all good, with no possibility of negative consequence, one should let joy flow. When something troublesome occurs and there is no possibility to obviate it, sorrow is appropriate.
  • Fear and hope. When facing unavoidable pain that will not have a positive outcome, fear is fitting. When starting an undertaking with the possibility of benefit, one should have hope.
  • Courage and meekness. When confronting enemies of God, one should demonstrate courage to combat them (“Because of You we are slain all day…” Psalms 44:23). When dealing with those who love God, one should be meek and not object to those who rebuke him (“…you humbled yourself before God” – II Kings 22:19).
  • Shame and audaciousness. When a person rebels against God and is put in his place, he should show shame (“…I am embarrassed and ashamed to raise my face to You, my God” – Ezra 9:6). When dealing with evil people, one should be audacious and brazen in order to stand up for what is right (“…I will not be meek” – Isaiah 50:7).
  • Anger and satisfaction. Anger is appropriate when things stray from the paths of truth and righteousness. Satisfaction is called for when everything is in order and follows the path of truth.
  • Mercy and harshness. Mercy should be extended to such people as the poor, the sick and the downtrodden, as well as those who regret their misdeeds. Harshness is appropriate when dealing with those who act corruptly, as per Deuteronomy 13:9, “Do not look upon him with pity, do not have mercy….”
  • Pride and humility. Pride – and even arrogance – is called for when dealing with those who would deny God. One should not be meek in such interactions out of the concern that one may appear to give credence to their views. (See, for example, how Mordechai acted towards Haman.) Humility is appropriate when one meets a pious, God-fearing individual, as well as when dealing with a person to whom one is indebted. It is also the proper trait when accepting God’s judgment as per Leviticus 26:41, “…then their uncircumcised heart will be humbled and they will accept their consequences.”
  • Love and hatred. Love is properly directed towards those who join you in the service of God. Hatred is appropriate for those who oppose God and the path of truth, as per Proverbs 28:4, “Enemies of Torah praise the wicked, those who keep the Torah strive against them.”
  • Generosity and stinginess. Generosity of both money and wisdom should be extended to every deserving person, giving each one what he has coming to him, as per Proverbs 3:27, “Do not withhold goodness from the one to whom it is due if it is within your ability.” Stinginess should be reserved for cruel people, fools, and those who cannot appreciate their lot, as per Proverbs 9:7, “One who corrects a scoffer get abused and one who rebukes the wicked gets a bruise.” Similarly, the Talmud (Chulin 133a) compares doing a favor for an ingrate to a form of idolatry.
  • Laziness and diligence. One should be lazy when it comes to fulfilling his physical urges, which are temporal pleasures that cause him shame in this world and punishment in the Next World. Diligence should be employed in spiritual matters that will draw one closer to God, as King David wrote, “I made haste and did not delay to observe Your commandments” (Psalms 119:60).


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