Animal Genes in Our Character Traits – Go Work Those Personality Muscles

“Reb Yehuda ben Taima Omer:  Hevah Az Kanamer, VKal Knesher, Ratz Katzvi V’Gibor K’Ari, Laasos Ratzon Avicha Shebashamayim”  

  – Rabbi Yehuda said ‘be bold/strong like a leopard, light like an eagle, run like the deer, and be strong like the lion to do the will of Your Father in Heaven.”

 Some people want to have well-defined muscles and, therefore, body build and indulge in exercise.  When they are doing this, they must be careful to exercise all their muscles or they end up with very weird bodies.  For example, if a person would sit there and lift weights with only one hand and not work out any of his other muscles in his body, he would look like someone with a tumor in his upper arm.  Not a very pleasant sight.

The Malbim, in his introduction to the account of the creation of man, explains that each person is created with the entire world within him.  Within each one of us are “animal” characteristics.  We have a bit of the horse, the rooster, a nerve that is like the monkey’s, a personality trait like the beaver. When we do the right thing at the right time and work out our emotions, this is how we go about exercising these characteristics.  For example, when we’re not lazy and act responsibly in saving our money, we are working out our ant characteristic.  Just like a bodybuilder is told to tone his whole body, so too, we are taught that we need to work out all our character traits.  There are times to act like the ant, yet there are times that call for us to act like the cricket. 

Someone who only focuses on one character trait, for example, someone who runs for everything like a deer and never stops and sits, ends up not a balanced human being, but just that – a deer in human form.  In order to be a healthy person, each one of us has to learn the balance, when to act like what animal.  For that is what makes us unique from those animals, that interblending of characteristics that we control and use for things we have thought through seriously.

The question then remains, how do we know what emotional trait to work on and work out, which one should come into play and when should it kick in.  Reb Yehdua explains how.  He tells us that different times call for different reactions.  There are times we must be “gibor K’ari – strong like a lion.”  How do we know clearly when each aspect of us is called for?  That is dependent on the last part of Rabbi Yehuda’s quote, the one that says:   “La’asos Retzon Avicha”, we have to ask ourselves am I doing this for the G-d.  Let me give you an example to make it a bit clearer.  Fish swim under the radar of sight, they don’t get noticed too much, under the depths of the sea.  It is a good example of avoiding Ayin Harah [arousing jealousy].  So, there are times in our lives, when we need to exercise that fish quality.  Do we need to flash expensive jewelry while on the subway?  Yet, there is a flip side.  There are times when, yes, we need to flaunt.  Mordechai, when it came to having nerve to stand up and defy Haman, brazenly flaunted his G-d fearing nature, because then was his time to act the peacock.  We know we are exercising the right muscle when we are focused on Ratzon Aveenu, on the will of Our Father.  As long as you question yourself, is this for G-d, you will probably know which trait to put into play.

  Rabbi Shimon Green, shlitah, explains it thus:  A man has to go to a funeral, unfortunately (may we be spared those).  He must feel the grief and cry and mourn with the family.  Two hours later, he has a wedding to attend.  At that point he has to work on feeling the joy of a new Jewish home being built and be able to dance in honor of the bride and groom.  A few hours apart, yet,calling for two different parts of the emotional response system. 

How do you do it?  How do you balance it?  By not operating on basic instinct, but on “ois Getrachte” [thought out] actions.  In fact, this was the whole point of the Mussar movement that Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught.  It was about doing what is right, not what feels good at the moment.  One great leader of the Mussar movement actually did a bit of an exercise for himself when standing waiting for trains.  Most times when we wait for trains, we lean over to see if it is coming.  That is an instinctual response, not a logical one.  If I’m looking, the train won’t come any faster.  To train himself not to give in to instinct, this great man made a habit of standing with his back to the arriving train.  He forced himself to act on logic, on figuring out, “am I supposed to be doing this” and not operate on the emotional  “I feel like doing it”.

Oft times, secular psychology and therapists talk about “feeling natural”, of “just do whatever makes you happy” and other such nonsense.  The Torah says, use each part of you in the role for which it was intended.  Use your tears for mourning real tragedy and not petty issues such as a ruined outfit.  Use your laughter for cheering up folks.  Use your energy and alacrity to run to Mitzvos, and use your lethargy and laziness to not get involved in arguments and fights.  Each characteristic was created for you to use.  Go “bodybuild” those characteristics by working them out, in the right way.


some info on the above info:

Rabbi Shimon Green, Shlitah has audio that you can listen to on Mussar refinement here

Malbim bio:

Rabbi Yehuda Ben Taima was a Mishnatic Rabbi and you can read another take on his saying here:

whoever thought the day would come when the Mussar movement would be on iphone?!



About jewishspectacles

Jewish Spectacles-the kind you look through, not the kind you create!
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