Question & Answer With A Talmid - Lev Tov
A Simple Jew asks:
In Pirkei Avos 2:13, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach stated that having a lev tov (good heart) is the best character trait a person can have. The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that Hashem resides inside a lev tov. Later, however, he defines a good heart as a heart that is broken.
Obviously, the Degel is not telling us that we must be perpetually downcast and depressed. Could you provide any further clarification for exactly what a lev tov is?
A Talmid answers:
The following are my thoughts on this, though I can’t say that this is what Chassidus has to say about the subject. If what I say is “emes” then let it stand, otherwise these words should be deemed null and void.
I believe that a “lev tov” and “broken heart” are one and the same. A “broken heart” can mean a heart that is not complete, meaning someone that knows that he has more work to do for his neshama, as opposed to one who thinks that his neshama is perfect. This person may be very learned and follows halacha meticulously, but thinks that he has “arrived” and doesn’t have to work on becoming a better Yid. This is someone who does NOT have a “broken heart” in the sense that he thinks his heart is “complete”. Someone like this has a “sick heart” (R”L) as opposed to a “broken heart”. "Lev tov" can mean the same thing as a “broken heart”, because as long as one is striving to improve that is definitely a "good" thing. Not trying to reach higher in ruchnius is actually a descent. It is analogous to driving a car up a hill; if you stop accelerating and shift into neutral, you will coast for a short distance, and then roll down the mountain backwards. A “broken heart” should not be a depressing think, but rather a joyful thing. After all, isn’t Hashem happy when we are trying to get closer to Him. We can’t just jump to the top, so we need to crawl up from whatever level we are on.
Another explanation: We may see people who are “frum” in every aspect but when it comes to basic decency there is none; they have a very mean heart. They can be rude, obnoxious and haughty. A reason why Rabbi Elazar ben Arach stated that having a “lev tov” is the best character trait a person can have, can be based on the Gemara (Yoma 86a) which says: “One who learns and serves Torah scholar, but… whose manner of speaking with people is not pleasant, what do people say about him? ‘Woe to that person who learned Torah. Woe to his father who taught him Torah. Woe to his Rebbi who taught him Torah. This person who learned Torah, see how perverse are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways’.” Rashi explains that this refers to “Chilul Hashem”. If this learned individual is the result of this, then it’s no wonder that Rabbi Elazar ben Arach says the best thing is a “lev tov”. It also says “Derech Eretz kadmah l’Torah”. If one doesn’t have the “lev tov” and the Derech Eretz than there is no proper vessel to accept all the Torah learning. (In case some want to, chas v’Shalom, make the argument that Derech Eretz is all that’s needed, saying as long "as long I’m a good Jew in the heart, I don't need to keep the Torah", this is a grave mistake. It says “kadmah l’Torah" - Torah is the main ingredient here and one needs the Derech Eretz with the intention of trying to fulfill the Torah. This is besides the fact that one can only learn real Derech Eretz from the Torah. We all know about the great “manners” and “civility” of the Nazis.)
For some people, their nature can be to be mean and unyielding people. But, if they realize that they need to work on these bad traits and improve their character (it's not easy and they may fail many times), this can also be a “lev tov”. “Lev tov” means someone that knows that he is not on the level he should be and acknowledges that he needs to constantly improve himself. Also, it could mean trying to love (at least start by not hating) those that are different or those that you don't want to associate with for whatever reason.
The bottom line is that we all have to realize that our work is never complete, no matter how far we have advanced. There is always a higher level to strive for. One should be happy with every small improvement, as opposed to being depressed about how far we have to go. If one is headed in the right direction and puts in effort to improve, this should bring a lot of “Nachas Ruach” to the Ribono Shel Olam. Growing up, some may not have felt that they were doing mitzvos or davening for the Ribono Shel Olam, but thought they were just fulfilling the will of a teacher or parent. Whenever you learn something new, be it halacha, mussar, etc., don’t just think that you are listening to what a sefer says, but realize that you are doing the will of our Loving Father, the King of kings, Hakadosh Baruch Hu. One step at a time - many steps closer to Hashem. That, I believe, is a “lev tov” and a “broken heart”.