He [Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai] said [to his disciples]: go out [of the bais hamedrash] and see which is the good way to which a man should cleave? (Avos 2:13 in the The Lehmann-Prins edition)
Why did Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai ask his talmidim to identify one middah to which one should adhere? Why didn’t he urge them to work on all of their middos?
This question comes into sharp focus when we learn from the hakdama of Orchos Tzadikim:
And in this vein [of various tendencies in different people, e.g. angry or calm, proud or humble] are the rest of the middos. For example, one glad, one sorrowful, one miserly, one liberal, one cruel, one merciful, one tender of heart and one strong of heart, and all similar traits. There are some middos which a person has from the moment of his creation according to his nature. There are also middos which, by nature, some people are more prepared to integrate than other middos. There are some qualities that are not inherent in a person but he learns them from others, or at some point he feels inclined to develop on his own.
There are traits that one must use in many situations and there are traits which one should employ infrequently. This is like preparing a dish which needs vegetables, meat, water, salt, and pepper. Each of these ingredients must be taken in a certain measure, from this ingredient a little and from this ingredient much. If there is too little meat the dish will be meager and if there is too much salt then the dish cannot be eaten because it is too salty...the expert is the one who can take the proper measure of each ingredient. Then the food will be pleasant and sweet to those who eat it.
In a similar manner are the middos of a person. There are middos of which one ought to take much, for example, modesty, humility, and their like. And there are qualities of which one must take only a little, for example, pride, impudence, and cruelty. Therefore, when a person weighs his qualities in the balance of the scales, let him take from every quality its proper measure, not take less and not more. In this way he will reach the tachlis hatovah, the ultimate good.
According to Orchos Tzaddikim, every middah is essential. Why did Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai send his talmidim in search of a single middah?
Rabeinu Yonah provides the answer.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai... singles out one [middah suggested by his talmidim] as superior... It is advisable to choose one middah and work on it, and only when you have mastered that one, try to achieve perfection in another. According to this interpretation, Rabban Yochanan is asking, "Which is the first quality that a man should strive to perfect?"
(The Lehmann-Prins Pirkei Avoth, Feldheim, 1992, page 126)
Rabeinu Yonah explains how adhering to this first middah leads to acquiring the others.
Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. This is charitable nobility. From the peak of generosity, he will certainly reach the other middos as well.
Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Be a good friend. The good path to which man should adhere is that of being helpful and kind to all men. Once you have developed that virtue to perfection, the other good qualities of mind and character will also be yours. In order to be good to others you will need to use your intellect and judgment with greater care and to be humble and modest. You will learn to bear insults and take pains to be honest, practice charity and, above all, to love and fear G-d, all as a natural result of your goodness to others. (The Lehmann-Prins Pirkei Avoth, Feldheim, 1992, page 127)
Rabbi Yosi said: A good neighbor. One should be good to all of his neighbors. After being a trustworthy friend to five or eight others, it is likely that he will come to love all others. In this way he will be enriched with all of the good middos.
Rabbi Shimon says: Seeing the consequences of one's actions: To contemplate the potential outcomes of choices before making one. A person should cling to this path to weigh at the beginning that which will be at the end, and to weigh all of his affairs with this [approach]. [This will result in cultivating all the other middos needed to properly carry out the choices he makes.]
Rabbi Elazar says: A good heart: A good heart the middah of willpower. This is the tolerant one who is not short tempered, distances himself from the trait of anger and answers softly. Even when someone does evil to him, he tolerates him and there is no bitterness in his mouth for '[the words from] his palate are sweet and he is always pleasant.' (Shir haShirim 5:16)
It is most essential to hold onto our middos in our homes. When his talmidim asked Rabbi Zera how he merited longevity, he responded, Lo hikpadti b’soch baisi I never showed any strictness [implying that he never displayed anger] with my family. (Megillah 28a)
With all the possible stressful situations at home, it is amazing that Rabbi Zera always kept a pleasant demeanor! Rabbi Zera's remarkable calmness with his precious family made life at home consistently sweet. As a result of his kindly ways, HaShem granted him the blessing of many fruitful years of life.
When a person always acts pleasantly to his family members, he brings healing and joy into their life experience. Measure for measure, HaShem blesses him with many happy years of life.
Accept upon yourself the ideal to always be gracious to every family member and meet every situation with calmness and pleasantness. Just as you enhance the quality of life of your family members, so too, HaShem will bless you with happiness and longevity. (The Salant Foundation, August 7, 2017)
Rabbi Ackerman is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time
Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575