“Rabbi, I can’t control my anger,” Fred said to me one day, “It seems like every little thing that people say to me just ticks me off. What should I do?”
“Have you tried breathing exercises?” I asked, a little naively.
“Yes,” replied Fred, “But the more I think about why I’m breathing, the angrier I become.”
On Shabbos, separating certain food items, known as borer, is forbidden. For example, one may not pick out the seeds from a watermelon. There are three prerequisites to separating correctly on Shabbos: you must eat the food immediately, you may only do it by hand and not using an instrument and you must pick the good item from the bad and not vice versa.
We should note that bad doesn’t only refer to seeds and the like – ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ And so if I have a mixture of almonds and walnuts and I don’t like walnuts, I may not remove the walnuts. Instead, I must take out the almonds, which for me are the “good” items.
On Yom Tov, since food-prep is permitted, borer is generally allowed and so one may remove either the good from the bad or the bad from the good. Nevertheless, says Rabban Gamliel, if it’s more work to remove the bad, then one should instead remove the good.
You have good and bad character traits. Sometimes you can single out the bad attributes and overcome them. Other times, however, it would be far less labour-intensive if you were to concentrate on your positive attributes and just let the bad disappear on their own.
Let’s say you have anger issues. You could try to control your anger and you may or may not be successful. Instead, how about you find a positive attribute to focus on, such as judging people favourably? If you constantly strive to judge others in a positive light, you will find that you get angry far less frequently. So rather than removing the bad attribute from your myriad good attributes, it is less work to extract the good attribute and focus on that, achieving the separation and the ultimate elimination of the bad.
Or let’s say that you have a gossip problem. Every time you see your friends, you just have to share with them all the hot ‘goss.’ If you were to try and avoid gossiping you might be at a loss for what to talk about. So instead, find a positive attribute you possess, such as the ability to make people happy by telling jokes. Now every time you see you friends, you have a slew of jokes to share with them. And so you have succeeded in extracting the good attribute which was less work than extracting the bad attribute.
Eliminating bad character traits is extremely challenging. At least in the short term, it’s much more efficient to focus on improving your positive attributes. When your positivity shines, you leave no room for negativity in your life!