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Our Weakness - the Key to Greatness

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Noach Orlowek

We all have negative character traits. What counts is how we use them.

Jewish character development tells us that each of us has a dominant personality trait that sets us apart. The use or misuse of that characteristic decides, in the end, whether we end up our lives in the red or in the black.

No character trait is purely negative. They all have negative uses, but even the ones that seem purely bad can be channeled into positive actions. What counts is not which character traits you have, but how you use them.

For instance, someone with a hot-blooded nature will have a temper -- it's in his makeup. But that doesn't mean he gets off scot-free. He can control how he uses that tendency. He can channel his anger toward injustice and be persevering where other people would give up. He can use his angry nature to accomplish, or use it in a destructive way and probably ruin his life.

The reward comes in wisely using what you have. The aspects of your personality are your greatest natural resources; what you do with them is up to you.


It's the person who works on himself and learns how to use the dominant aspects of his personality for positive, constructive purposes who deserves praise. You can't get credit for controlling a problem you don't have.

So a person with an easy-going nature did not earn the title of "even-tempered" the way the angry man who overcame his fiery nature did.

The struggles he went through to create that even temperament gives his behavior an intensity and purity it would otherwise lack.

Conversely, you cannot say that a fiery person who always gets his way controls his temper. He still has a temper and an angry nature. It's just latent. He never tried to overcome it or turn it to a positive use.

Controlling our negative tendencies and channeling them in positive ways is a big part of the struggle of a righteous person. It's true growth.


Ironically, the areas in which you behave the worst are likely the areas in which you can be the most pure.

Pay attention to the areas you view as weaknesses. Your tendency to transgress in a particular area is a sign that that aspect of your personality is a basic part of your makeup and an area of possible strength for you.

There are two easy indicators of those areas: an intensity of feeling and a frequency of occurrence. This is true even when they are separate. If you can identify an area where they coexist, you've found your spot! For instance, if gossiping is something to which you're prone, you probably have a natural talent for communication and connecting with others -- if you choose to use it that way.

Once you've identified an area to work on, stay hopeful. Knowing your weakness is a powerful discovery. The very identification is like buried treasure. Once you know where the treasure is -- where your defect is -- keep digging, even when it's difficult. That is where your success is going to be.

The areas you behave the worst in are where you can be the most pure.

The best way of working on your problem may not be attacking it head-on. You may have to work on strengthening other areas to cause your defect to atrophy or enable you to channel the tendency in a productive way.

Most important is not letting yourself become discouraged. You can fortify yourself with the knowledge that you're not only uprooting something that drags you down, but identifying what will be something that can move you forward.


This is an insight woven deep in Jewish history.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, God tells Moses that He is going to destroy the Jewish people -- not because of what they did, but because they are “a stiff-necked people.” God's anger is sparked not by the actions, but by the character trait that caused the actions. In response, Moses tells God not to destroy them but rather that God should travel with the Jewish nation. Why? Because they are a stiff-necked people.

What kind of a defense attorney is that? The very thing that upsets the judge is what the lawyer says should spur him to show favor?

The quality that causes God to want to destroy us is the same quality that will save us. Being "stiff-necked" means being stubborn. And stubborn people are the least likely to change -- or admit a mistake. They don't listen. They know what they know and they're going to do whatever they please because of it.

But Moses understood the flip side to stubbornness.

You have to stand by us, because no other nation is going to stand by you.

Once a stubborn person's loyalty is assigned, he stays true to it.

The Jewish people, the stubborn nation, stayed true to God throughout history. They didn't accept false messiahs. They didn't accept distortions of God's words. Throughout history, they died rather than abandon their relationship with God.

The other nations of the world change their religious affiliation as soon as they were conquered but the stubborn nation of Israel just wandered around, always faithful to God. Moses understood that someone who is tough to convince can be a real pain, but once convinced, will solidly stand by you. You have to stand by us, Moses tells God, because no other nation is going to stand by you.

Our worst quality is also our greatest strength.


The Talmud tells us that a righteous person falls seven times and gets up. The defining characteristic is that he gets up -- not that he doesn't fall.

When trying to refine your character, giving up is seductive. It's too hard. I can't do it. I'll never reach success.

The righteous person knows that he or she has to be stubborn and keep trying. Once you've identified your area of weakness, you know you've found your strength. In times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the state of highest spiritual impurity was lifted only by a ceremony involving the ashes of a red heifer, the mother of the golden calf.

The thing itself is the solution.

Once you've found the area where you have your greatest problems, keep digging and stay stubborn because you've simultaneously identified the area of your greatest success.


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