Dear Readers,

I was hopping around in pain. Every step felt tortuous.

No, I hadn’t broken or sprained my foot. And no, my shoes weren’t pinching. There was a far simpler reason for my pain.

I had an ingrown toe nail.

Did you ever have one? A miniscule piece of nail growing in the wrong direction causes such discomfort. If left unchecked, it can even cause a huge, pussy infection.

It’s amazing how something as innocent as a nail in such a minor place on our bodies (not on any of your body’s major organs, but on the foot’s toe!) can create unbearable suffering.

And yet, those very nails on our hands or toes can be so helpful. Nails can caution us about our health; malnutrition can change their color and provide an early warning. Nails help us scratch our back or scrape a piece of dirt off of the counter. We can gingerly use them to help pull a splinter out of a child’s skin. They can serve as a substitute for a guitar pick. When manicured, they add a pretty sparkle to our appearance.

But hopping around in agony, all I could think of was the suffering that this tiny nail was causing. Because sometimes something positive or even neutral in the wrong place or at the wrong time can wreak pain and devastation.

The Hebrew word middot, “characteristic,” also means “measurements.” When we work on our character, we need to work on measuring each of our traits for the proper responses in any given situation. When misplaced, a character trait that is usually positive can become negative, and vice versa.

Take kindness, for example. We should be utilizing this characteristic often, giving and sharing abundantly. But there are times when giving can be unproductive and possibly even destructive. Giving unconditionally to a child or an individual who is abusing our gifts or destroying them is not doing anyone a kindness. At the same time, withholding when we should be giving can be equally devastating.

Or consider anger—one of the worst character traits, which should be avoided at all costs. There are times when anger, or at least appearing to be angry, might be necessary. When a child does something terribly wrong, a parent or educator may need to appear “angry” to impress upon him or her how unacceptable that behavior was. (That doesn’t mean we need to yell or act out in anger; just the appearance of a disappointed face can sometimes be effective.)

During the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, as we prepare spiritually to receive the Torah, we work on our middot, by consistently and carefully measuring and monitoring our internal feelings and responses. Each of our character traits can be used positively or negatively, depending on the situation.

Because if even something like a tiny toe nail in the wrong place can wreak absolute misery, then imagine the power of something positive in the right place and at the right time.

Chana Weisberg

Editor, TJW