A few years ago, I took up rappelling, the art of descending sheer cliffs by rope and harness, so that we could explore the red-rock canyons of Southern Utah. After I had begun to learn the basics, Steve, our guide, said to me, “You’re one of those people who wants to speed up when your adrenaline starts to flow.”
Since I’m working on the middah of gratitude this week, I want to focus on the morning blessings, Birkot ha-shachar, in my daily prayers. These blessings all start with the foundational six words, Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha-olam, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe,” and then go on to thank God for a specific gift—for opening our eyes, providing clothing, giving us a firm step, giving strength to the weary. By reciting these blessings—fourteen in the Koren Siddur that I use—I can build my day on a platform of gratitude.
Some things in life have to be earned, and some things cannot be. We can earn respect and reputation by our behavior, but sometimes we need help, or forgiveness, or just a break, that we haven’t earned and don’t deserve. And we can also give to others gifts they don’t deserve and don’t have to earn. That sort of undeserved kindness is captured by the word Hesed, often translated as lovingkindness.
He not busy being born is busy dying – Bob Dylan
The other day I had coffee with Hal, the father of one of our chavurah members. He had just written his second novel, this one based on his amazing experiences as a Jewish-American soldier fighting the Nazis in World War II. We got together to talk about his book, but Hal wanted to know a little about my religious background, since his son had gotten caught up in our crazy brand of Judaism. I told him my story of encountering Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah, and the differences that encounter had made in my entire life.
One of the current terms of religious discussion that I’ve grown to suspect is “spirituality.” I’m tired of hearing people say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” which often means I don’t have any outward signs of religious or transcendent life, but, trust me, I possess many lofty sentiments. In this sense, spirituality refers to something that can’t be measured and might have little bearing on how we actually live. Mussar, of course, is a great remedy to this sort of spirituality. The middah of silence might easily be drawn into collusion with this kind of spirituality, but Mussar restores the balance, usually by drawing upon the wisdom of Scripture.
Then they called Rebekah and said to her, "Will you go with this man?" And she said, "I will go." Genesis 24:58
One thing I’ve observed about the male psyche in my years of counseling married couples is a certain resistance to interruptions, however reasonable and appropriate, including (or should I say especially?) interruptions from one’s wife. Even a male like me, working on his middot and looking for opportunities to serve, to express honor, to show gratitude, can get grumpy when interrupted by an unexpected request. But I’ve also learned a technique that I’ve shared with quite a few frustrated wives; make your request, smile through the initial curmudgeonly push back, and leave it in your husband’s lap. He’ll brew on it a while and, if you leave him alone, will often show up twenty or thirty minutes later ready to do what you asked.
And on the seventh day the waters of the Flood came upon the earth. (Gen. 7:10)
I have to admit that when I come to the end of the week on a particular middah, I often feel like I barely got started on it. Some middot just seem to need long-term focus, and gratitude (from last week) is one of those. The Hebrew for gratitude is hakarat ha-tov, “recognizing the good,” and I’m thinking right now of a couple of incidents over the past week that were opportunities—missed opportunities, actually—for me to recognize the good. I need more time to start learning that response, but this new week wants me to focus on the middah of order, so perhaps I can combine the two. Maybe I can work on ordering my world by recognizing the good within it, finding within the chaotic flow of events and emotions that which is good, and highlighting that instead of bemoaning the rest.
Chesed or loving-kindness is an essential human attribute, but it’s first of all a divine attribute. If we want to cultivate chesed, we should pay attention to how Hashem exercises it. And God’s chesed is on display at the conclusion of the Haftarot of Comfort, the passages from Isaiah that we read during this period between Tisha B’av and Rosh Hashanah.
I have to admit that I approach the Days of Awe with some ambivalence. Unlike any of you, I’m a bit melancholic by temperament and I don’t look forward to the somber, gloomy, endless-confession aspect of these days.
I love it that adaptability is included among the middot. If it weren't, we might be tempted to think of mussar as simply a set of rules, and rigid adherence as the way to virtue. We might think of mussar as saying to us, "Just stay within the lines I set and you'll be safe." But, of course, real life provides too many exceptions, dilemmas, and puzzlements to allow for such an approach.