A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.
(Along these lines, I used to be one of those people who would wish others “Have a meaningful fast” instead of the usual “Have an easy fast”. After all, isn’t the point of a fast to experince a small measure of distress to motivate seeking meaning? But when learning this line, I thought perhaps there’s a good reason for the tradition.)
When the Brisker Rav taught this idea, a student challenged him with some middos that seem the antithesis of Jewish worship.
Apiqursus (heresy). How can it be used positively? As we’ve been saying — for me and mine, I can have bitochon (trust [in the A-lmighty]) that everything that happens is as it should be. On another’s account, one needs to be an “apiqoreis” and not rely on Hashem’s help.
Krumkeit (warped reasoning). The person who thinks farkumkt has the ability to fulfill “dan likaf zekhus”, judging others favorably, no matter how open-and-shut the story seems to the rest of us. Somehow, we only employ it for self-justification, and hold others to a higher standard.
And in fact, every middah has its positive use. This is why the Torah says (Devarim 6:5, in “Shema”) that you should love Hashem “with all your heart” and chazal explain “with both of your inclinations”. The major “trick” in middos improvement is not the elimination or creation of a middah, but learning how and when it should be applied.
This explains why they’re called “middos“. “Tiqun hamiddos“, improving one’s character, is more literally translated “fixing the measures”. The work is on their dimensions.
The Rambam (Hilkhos Dei’os 1:4) describes the ideal balance of middos as being the shevil hazahav, the golden mean. He writes (tr. Immanuel O’Levy), “The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes.” Too much anger is cruel to others, too little, and one lacks the motivation to correct wrongs.
There are two ways to view being in the middle. The first is a more naive and natural reading of the Rambam, in that neither middah exceeds the middle mark, on some hypothetical scale, the person is in the middle. However, contradictory middos are not mutually exclusive. Someone could feel ambivalence, and be simultaneously happy and sad. There therefore isn’t really a single scale with a person at some point between the extremes. You need to specify the amount of each extreme, e.g. of taking enjoyment and asceticism, individually.
The shevil hazahav is therefore having equal quantities of each, and knowing which to use when. Finding tif’eres, harmony. A skilled carpenter is one who has mastered the use of both hammer and screwdriver, and knows which joins are best made with nails, and which with screws.
“Bekhol levavekha — with all your heart”. Every middah can be used to express our love for Hashem. Each in its proper place.