The Root of Sin
"Reuven, you are my first-born, my strength and my initial vigor, foremost in rank and foremost in power. Water-like impetuosity - you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father's bed; then you desecrated Him who ascended my couch." (1)
The Book of Genesis ends with Yaakov Avinu's blessings to his sons, however some of these 'blessings' consist of harsh rebuke. This is the case with Yaakov's first-born, Reuven - Yaakov reproves him for his trait of impetuosity that led to his disturbing Yaakov's bed.(2) The commentaries explain that as the eldest son, Reuven should have received the special privileges of the Kingship, Priesthood and the double portion of the first-born. However, because of his impulsive behavior Yaakov stripped him of all three privileges. Reuven's severe punishment seems difficult to understand; Chazal greatly praise Reuven for doing teshuva for his aveiro.(3) Indeed, Rashi in Parshas Vayeishev notes that Reuven was not present during the actual selling of Yosef because he was in isolation wearing sackcloth and fasting for disturbing his father's bed(4) - this was several years after the incident took place and Reuven was continually repenting for what he had done. Given Reuven's sincere teshuva, why did Yaakov not accept that he regretted what he had done and that the effects of the sin were wiped away?! (5)
It seems that the key to answering this question is a Rambam in the Laws of Repentance. After discussing in great depth how one must repent for his aveiros, the Rambam adds that there is another essential aspect of teshuva. He writes: "And do not say that there is only teshuva for sins that have an action such as immorality, stealing, and theft. Just as one must repent from these, so too he must search for his bad character traits and repent from them; from anger, from hatred, from jealousy... And these sins are harder than those that have an action to them, because when a person is engulfed in them it is hard for him to refrain [from them]." (6)
We learn from this Rambam that in addition to repenting for one's destructive actions, one has to do teshuva for his negative middos (character traits). Moreover, he points out that it is more difficult to repent from bad middos than bad actions. The Vilna Gaon points out that every sin comes about as a result of a bad trait,(7) thus when a person sins, he simultaneously displays a bad character trait. Accordingly, every sin requires two levels of teshuva - one for the action, and one for the midda that was at the root of the sin. It seems that Reuven had effectively repented for the maaseh aveiro (the action of the sin) however he was unable to completely erase the negative character trait that caused him to sin. This answer is supported by Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz' explanation of Yaakov's rebuke of Reuven. Based on Rashi's commentary he points out that Yaakov was specifically criticizing on the trait of rashness that caused Reuven to disturb Yaakov's bed rather than the sin itself. It was this rashness that rendered Reuven unfit for the Kingship and Priesthood.(8)
Rav Shmuelevitz gives a further example of a great person repenting for his actual sin but not the midda embodied by the action: Shaul HaMelech lost the Kingship because he failed to observe Hashem's command to wipe out all of Amalek. Shmuel HaNavi criticized him for being influenced by the people's entreaties to have mercy on Amalek - it showed that he possessed a misplaced humility which meant that he was not strong enough to follow his own convictions. However, after Shmuel's lengthy rebuke of Shaul, the King did admit his mistake and repent. Why, then was he stripped of his Kingship? Rav Shmuelevitz explains that he only did teshuva for his actual sin, but he did not eradicate the midda of misplaced humility from his character. This trait prevented him from being an effective King.
The examples of Reuven and Shaul are highly relevant to our lives. It is highly praiseworthy for a person to genuinely strive to repent from his aveiros, nonetheless if he does not locate the midda that lies at the source of these aveiros then he will be unable to prevent himself from stumbling in the future. The rebuke of Reuven teaches us further that failure to improve one's traits has another very serious consequence for his spiritual success. Reuven was destined for greatness - he was supposed to represent the Kingship and Priesthood in Klal Yisroel, however his trait of impetuosity prevented him from fulfilling his true potential in these areas. We learn from here that negative middos do not only cause us to sin, but they prevent us from attaining greatness.
Undertaking the difficult task of fixing one's character traits requires much thought and discussion but the first phase for each person is to gain a recognition of which trait is holding him back. There may be more than one negative trait that harms him, but very often there is one primary trait which is at the root of much of his negative behavior and is the key factor that holds him back from fulfilling his true potential. Possible ways to help locate and understand this destructive trait include speaking with one's Rabbi or friends and learning Mussar Sefarim that discuss the various traits. Once a person develops a deeper understanding of himself he can now begin the daunting task of genuinely improving himself.
The only way of avoiding sin and removing the obstacles that hold one back is to constantly work on improving himself in a genuine, deep way. May we all merit to be truly better people.
1. Vayechi, 49:3-4.
2. See Parshas Vayishlach, 35:22 for the account of this incident.
3. See Sotah, 7b.
4. Rashi, Parshas Vayeishev, 37:29.
5. See Ayeles HaShachar of Rav Aryeh Leib Shteinman Shlita, Vayechi, 49:4, who asks this question.
6. Hilchos Teshuva, 7:3.
7. Even Sheleima.
8. Sichos Mussar, Maamer 53, p.228.