middot adaptability daily living just do it?

just do it?

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-justdoThe prophet Jeremiah denounced the men of his generation for their heedlessness. “No one repents of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns away in his course as the horse rushes headlong in the battle” (Jer. 8:6). They were driven on by the force of habit, never stopping to realize what they were doing, until they came to grief. (Luzzatto, The Path of the Upright, chapter II)

We live in an age that praises spontaneity and action, that considers “just doing it”, to paraphrase the Nike ad, a great virtue. But the character change that lies at the heart of Mussar requires awareness of our own behavior and reactions, or what Luzzatto terms “watchfulness.” Instead of going with habit or impulse, we are to be aware and watchful of our behavior.


Luzzatto recommends scrutinizing and passing “in review all [our] actions and habits to determine whether they are right or not.” That’s vital, of course, but there’s another level of awareness that I believe is equally essential to the pursuit of mussar. This is being watchful of our own reactions, learning to create a gap between whatever impulse hits us and just doing whatever in response. Awareness of this sort is more demanding than we might think, but it’s essential to change. The person without this awareness is called a “fool” in the book of Mishlei, or Proverbs. There are actually three different Hebrew words in Mishlei translated as fool in English, but the pattern is clear enough:


A fool’s wrath is known at once,

But a prudent man covers shame. Pr 12:16


A prudent man conceals knowledge,

But the heart of fools proclaims foolishness. Pr 12:23


Wisdom rests in the heart of him who has understanding,

But what is in the heart of fools is made known. Pr 14:33


The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly,

But the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness. Pr 15:2


A fool has no delight in understanding,

But in expressing his own heart. Pr 18:2


A fool’s mouth is his destruction,

And his lips are the snare of his soul. Pr 18:7


A fool vents all his feelings,

But a wise man holds them back. Pr 29:11


The fool lacks a space between impulse and action, or between stimulus and action. He, or more rarely, she, just vents, acts out, blabs, and thinks about it later, if at all. Something hits him and he just reacts. But to develop character requires a gap between impulse and response, especially at the crucial moments when we’re most likely to just react. Awareness, then, is not just scrutinizing our deeds, but also being alert to the situation in which we’re likely to produce the wrong deeds. It’s learning to see trouble coming, take a deep breath, and not just jump into it.

Creating and expanding the gap between stimulus—the thing that happens to us—and response is a key to the development of all the middot. As we learn to respond rather than react, we begin to transform our character, with the help of the Ruach of course, and that’s the heart of mussar.

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