Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 23 July 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776

Born this Way

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Megan

Dear Rabbi,

I don’t understand this concept of working on myself to make myself better, a different person than I am. I like who I am, what I am. As Lady Gaga’s song goes, “I was born this way!” Or in rabbi-talk, “G-d made me as I am”. If so, why should I change what He willed?

Dear Megan,

Pardon me for saying this, but from a Torah perspective, what you’re saying is a bit “gaga”.

The reason is because, since you’re talking about personality and not physique, even Lady Gaga would agree that G-d did not actually make you as you are. True, G-d creates each of us with basic traits or tendencies. But any number of factors, together with decisions we choose to make, affect these traits, and are collectively what makes us who we are at any given moment.

Therefore, as far as who we are (and not how we look), the only aspect in which we may say “I was born this way”, is regarding free-will. Or in “rabbi-talk”, meaning from the Torah point of view, it would actually be more correct to say “G-d made me able to make myself”.

In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 1:4) writes that there are three main factors which create any attribute: 1. Being born with the trait as one’s nature; 2. Having a natural pre-disposition for the trait; 3. Acquiring, or being conditioned to acquire, the trait.

Take for example anger. One may be born with an ingrained angry temperament which naturally results in the person being easily angered. Another person may not be “naturally” angry, but he may nevertheless be pre-disposed more than others, or be inclined, to get angry. Yet a third person might not be “naturally” nor “inclined” to be angry, but may nevertheless choose to acquire the trait of anger for any particular reason — for example to intimidate others in order to get what he wants.

However, regardless of the cause in all of the above cases, G-d does not want the person to be angry. He wants the person to exercise the free-will with which he was created in order to overcome whatever factor would otherwise lead him to anger. The same applies with all of the other negative attributes or traits that one has.

Even positive traits are not to be accepted “as is” simply because they were implanted within us by G-d. For one, they are not always manifested positively. For example, regarding mercy, our Sages (Tanchuma, Metzora) tell us that one who has mercy on the wicked is actually wicked to the merciful. One explanation of this is that having mercy on the wicked enables them to continue to be wicked to the innocent. Secondly, even a person who is naturally inclined to kindness can always refine, improve and perfect his trait of kindness.

So, far from accepting ourselves as we are, the Torah approach is to first recognize who we are at any given time, understand how we got to be that way, and to use our free-will to bring ourselves in line with the way G-d wants us to be. This can be done either by changing or modifying negative traits, or by improving or perfecting positive ones.

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