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righteousness Riverton Mussar - a wellspring for ethical change. Our vision is to build a physical and virtual community devoted to good character in relationships through the integration of Torah, Besorah(Gospels), and Jewish Tradition. http://rivertonmussar.org Fri, 23 Mar 2018 05:03:25 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb righteousness, faithfulness, and life http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/504-righteousness-faithfulness-and-life http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/504-righteousness-faithfulness-and-life

art-rimonimThe rabbis of the Talmud discuss the 613 precepts of Torah and how the prophets sought to distill them into just a few principles. David, in Psalm 15, lists eleven; Isaiah reduces them to six (Is. 33:15-16); and Micah refines them even further to three: “It has been told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God (Mic. 6:8). Then the discussion in the Talmud continues:

Isaiah came again and reduced them to two principles, as it is said, Thus says the Lord, Keep justice and do righteousness . . . (Is. 56:1). Amos came and reduced them to one principle, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live (Amos  5:4). To this R. Nahman b. Isaac demurred, saying: [Might it not be taken as,] Seek Me by observing the whole Torah and live? — But it is Habakkuk who came and based them all on one principle, as it is said, But the righteous shall live by his faith (Hab. 2:4).

It’s remarkable to hear the Talmud citing Habakkuk 2:4 in a way similar to that of the Apostolic Writings (see Rom1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38-39). In all these cases “faith” can be translated as “faithfulness,” which sheds light on the meaning of the verse. We might think of “faith” as mere belief, or agreement with certain key doctrines, but faithfulness implies more, namely loyalty to the Lord and his ways, staying true through life’s trials and changes. Faithfulness entails belief, but will also show up in our behavior and attitudes. We might call it faith-in-action. Such faithfulness is not portrayed here in contrast with Torah obedience, but as foundational to it. It does not negate the many other elements of a life pleasing to God, but underlies them all.

“Righteous” is another key word in this verse. So as we seek to practice the middah of righteousness, the Talmud and Habakkuk provide some major direction. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh agrees with Yeshua himself in defining righteousness as treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves. Habakkuk reveals that such righteousness doesn’t arise out of keeping a detailed list of does and don’ts, or out of trying harder when we fail. We do need to put effort into righteousness, but it’s a relational effort before everything else, a matter of getting deeply in touch with Hashem and maintaining that connection through the way we treat others, in short of being faithful to the one who is faithful to us.

To paraphrase Habakkuk, The righteous person is the one who lives a life that is faithful to Hashem. Or to paraphrase from another angle, The one who faithfully stays right with God is really living.That’s righteousness, that’s faithfulness, and that’s life!

mesorah Sun, 14 Aug 2011 04:35:29 +0000
righteousness in listening http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/503-righteousness-in-listening http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/503-righteousness-in-listening

art-listenThis week’s parasha is a source for many liturgical texts within the Jewish tradition such as Ve’ahavta (Deuteronomy 6:5–9), Ki HaShem Hu HaEloqim (Deuteronomy 4:39) from the Alenu, and Vezot HaTorah (Deuteronomy 4:44) from the Torah service, with the most obvious being the great, prayerful/theological/liturgical declaration, Shema Yisra’el, HaShem Eloqenu, HaShem Echad “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as the Shema is central to the liturgical tradition of the Jewish people, the root form of this word, shin-mem-ayin, is particularly relevant and recurrent in the text of this week’s parasha.

Shin-mem-ayin (the verb from which we get the word Shema) can be translated as: “to hear” and “to listen” and in some contexts “to heed” and “to obey.” This verb appears in seven verses in Parashat Va’etchannan:

But the LORD was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen (shama) to me. (Deuteronomy 3:6; NJPS)

And now, O Israel, give heed (shema) to the laws and rules . . . (Deuteronomy 4:1; NJPS)

Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing (yishme‘un) of all these laws will say, “Surely that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” (Deuteronomy 4:6; NJPS)

Hear (shema), O Israel, the laws and rules I proclaim to you this day! (Deuteronomy 5:1; NJPS)

The Lord heard (vayyishma) the plea you made to me. (Deuteronomy 5:25; NJPS)
Obey (veshamata), O Israel, willingly and faithfully that it may go well with you . . . (Deuteronomy 6:3; NJPS)

Hear (shema), O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. (Deuteronomy 6:4; NJPS)

Each use of shin-mem-ayin is an illustration of an act of relating; whether between Moses and God, Israel and the nations, Israel and Torah, or Israel and God. The act of engaging in relationship known as shin-mem-ayin (a verb, something you do, an action) is one with a variety of consequences. The opportunity for Moses to enter the land of Israel was thwarted by God’s refusal to listen to his request. Israel’s listening, obeying, giving heed, to the words of God and Moses have direct bearing on their survival in the land and relationship with other nations. God heard them so they must now hear him. Listening becomes an act of righteousness.

It is the faith that we have heard, our willingness to hear others and each other, and our hearing of God that make us who we are when we are at our very best. Only in our shin-mem-ayin are we faithful to keep that for which we were commanded to do. As Moses’ sobering example in the beginning of the parasha shows us (Deuteronomy 3:23-28), only through God’s shin-mem-ayin are we able to receive God’s favor.

In this second parasha in the book of Devarim (“words”), we learn that words hold very little without their being heard, listened to, heeded, and obeyed. Our destiny(ies),  our relationships, and our words are all deeply bound in the act of shin-mem-ayin. May we merit to hear and to be heard.

torah Fri, 12 Aug 2011 18:18:56 +0000
elevator to righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/474-elevator-to-righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/474-elevator-to-righteousness

art-elevatorThe other day in the elevator, I learned something about righteousness.

The Master taught us, “Be careful not to parade your acts of tzedakah in front of people in order to be seen by them! If you do, you have no reward from your father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1, CJB). Acts of tzedakah are often done in public, and appropriately so. In my city, you sometimes see folks standing along freeway off ramps or at busy intersections asking for some monetary help. If you pull over and hand them a dollar or two, everyone sees it. If you go visit someone in the hospital, the staff and other visitors see it, and may even see you praying with the person. Yeshua isn’t telling us not to do such public acts of tzedakah, but not to do them “in order to be seen.” Apparently there’s an inherent risk in practicing righteousness that we can do it outwardly, but with an inner disconnect. We’re not moved by compassion or the desire to imitate Messiah, but by a craving for recognition.

Righteousness, then, means doing the right thing whether anyone is watching or not (and knowing that there actually is One who is watching all the time), and lining up inwardly with the outward act. Public righteousness should reflect private rightness with Hashem.

So, what did I learn on the elevator?

I was on my way to pray for a congregant before he went in for an operation, and he told me to meet him on the sixth floor. Now, as part of my general mussar practice I’m working on being friendlier and more outgoing than is my natural tendency, especially in claustrophobic settings like elevators and airplane seats. When I got on the elevator, as the doors were closing, a guy ran up, stuck out his arm and got the doors to open again, and jumped in. He made a joke about it, and I responded with something about sliding into home base. We both smiled and I got off at the sixth floor and wandered around looking for the right place until someone told me that everyone had to check in at the registration desk on the ground floor. I went back to the elevator to head down, and there was already a man in it wearing a bright pink polo shirt, who said something about being lost. Continuing in my friendly mode, I told him I was lost too and made a joke that since we’re lost we have to go faster. It doesn’t sound that funny, but he got it, and we both smiled as we got off at the ground floor.

A minute later when I found my friend, pink polo shirt had just walked up ahead of me, to pray with him also. My friend introduced us and told him that I was his rabbi. After we prayed I thought how embarrassed I’d have been if I’d been my usual curmudgeonly self on the elevator and just ignored the guy in the pink shirt . . . and then showed up as the righteous rabbi there to pray for the sick.

I’m writing this during the days of counting the Omer (see Lev. 23:10-17), and I think there’s a connection. We count the days that begin with the offering of firstfruits during Passover to prepare for Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. There the Lord tells us, “You will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be a kingdom of cohanim for me, a nation set apart” (Ex. 19:5-6). If you’re going to receive such a commission, righteousness demands that you match up inwardly.

Righteousness requires integrity, consistency between the public self and the private self, between the specialized role we play and how we live throughout the day. Without that integrity, our acts of tzedakah become mere show, unlikely to generate much spiritual return.

besorah Sun, 15 May 2011 06:55:43 +0000
two sides of righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/473-two-sides-of-righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/473-two-sides-of-righteousness

art-scale2Often when we speak of the righteousness of God we conjure up images of perfection. After all, God directed Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your God” (Vayikra 19:2). Unfortunately our efforts often fall short of God’s highest standards and can leave us feeling inadequate.

In contrast to this directive the great rabbi from Tarsus states, “If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Romans 11:16). So if Israel’s holiness is inherent, how do we reconcile this idea with the need to act out our holiness as commanded in Vayikra?


The answer can be found in the very nature of the Holy One, who is the quintessential personification of Midat HaDin (the trait of Judgment) and Midat HaRachamim (the trait of Mercy). According to Rashi these character traits are portrayed in the varied names for the Righteous One. In B’reishit chapter one, He is referred to by the name Elohim. Rashi states that this more generic name for the Creator denotes judgment. Rashi goes on to say that the covenant name yod-heh-vav-heh, which we do not pronounce but verbalize as Hashem (the Name) or Adonai (LORD), denotes the Righteous One’s mercy. This is the more revered name, and therefore mercy should be aspired to over judgment.  Furthermore, he states that in the second chapter of B’reishit the Creator is called Adonai Elohim using both names because He exemplifies the perfect blending of judgment and mercy.

the world needs judgment and mercy

Can parents possibly raise their children by being strict judges of their behavior at all times? On the other hand, how would kids turn out if their parents never enforced discipline and always let them have their way? The rabbis of old used a midrash to make this point. They spoke of a king who had a glass made of fine delicate crystal. He deduced that if he poured boiling water into the glass it would shatter. But he also concluded that ice water would likewise compromise the integrity of the fine crystal and would break it. So the king mixed together both the boiling water and the ice water and poured it into the glass, and the crystal did not crack.

In the same way the rabbis said, the Holy One concluded,

“If I create the world on the basis of mercy only, then people will not refrain from sinning. They will lie, cheat, steal and kill each other, and the world will surely be destroyed. But if I am always going to judge the world on the basis of strict judgment, there will be no people left to populate the world since every misdeed would have to be severely punished. For that reason I will create the world combining Midat HaDin and Midat HaRachamim. I will give humanity rules to live by and the freedom to seek forgiveness when they do wrong.”

tilt in favor of mercy

It is more important to show mercy than judgment. Why? Because judgment comes so much more easily for us. We not only judge others harshly, but also often do so without even being aware that we unconsciously judge ourselves. The rest of the world quite simply is a mirror for our own deep sense of inadequacy. To this end Yeshua advised that we should not judge others unless we want those same standards of judgment turned back on us (Matt 7:1-5).

One midrash even portrays Hashem praying to Himself that His Midat HaRachamim might overcome His Midat HaDin so that He would not judge His children by so strict a standard. According to Talmud, when the Egyptians were drowned in the Reed Sea the angels in heaven rejoiced and sang hymns to Hashem. But God silenced the angels and said, “are not the Egyptians also my creatures? How can you sing hymns to Me?” If the Holy One deems mercy to be such a high priority, how can we not do the same? Midat HaRachamim is to Midat HaDin as the bright face of the moon is to its dark side. Seek the light!

torah Sun, 15 May 2011 06:45:42 +0000
binding to righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/472-binding-to-righteousness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/472-binding-to-righteousness

art-tefillinIn the volume, Sefer haMiddot, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that one should give charity (tzedakah) before praying as well as bind oneself to the righteous (tzaddikim) of the generation. In other words, there is a connection between giving charity and cleaving to the righteous, and an interconnection between the performance and reception of righteousness.

On the one hand, we have deeds of righteousness to perform. On the other hand, we need the support of those who have demonstrated the ways of righteousness through their lives and receive from them. One way to do this is to sit and speak with them, if they are alive and physically present. In the case of the righteous in Scripture, we can read about them and intentionally seek to mold our ways with theirs. In the case of Yeshua, there is the act of cleaving to him in prayer through praise, meditation, and speaking words of devotion. The ways in which we “receive” from Yeshua can often seem like esoteric concepts. In reality, the practical application of the righteousness we learn from him makes the whole system concrete and mysterious all at once.


Righteousness is both an extremely practical middah as well as a lofty concept. More often than not, these two layers of righteousness are treated independent of one another. This can give the impression that righteousness is either practical or conceptual, but rarely both. I would like to suggest that if righteousness is not both practical and conceptual it is deficient. This assertion is supported by Rebbe Nachman’s exhortation regarding tzedakah and the tzaddikim. When we perform the mitzvah of tzedakah we are tangibly caring for another, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Yeshua teaches that when we welcome a stranger, we are essentially inviting him in (Matthew 25:40-46). In this way, giving charity is an act that binds us to the ultimate Tzaddik, Yeshua. Similarly, Yeshua tells us that he will not recognize us if what we do in his name is not coupled with tangible manifestations of mitzvot (Matthew 7:21-23). As the Besorah of Yochanan teaches us, Yeshua is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through him (Yochanan 14:6). It is through binding ourselves to his righteousness that we find the way to our righteousness. It is in performing deeds of righteousness that we demonstrate the intimate connection with him. This happens when we keep him as the center of our lives whether through giving food to the hungry, bringing a smile to the sad, cleaving to him in prayer, etc.

So as we press on in the middah of tzedakah, we ought to find ourselves more compassionate to others, more connected to Yeshua, and more like him in all that we do. I pray that this come to pass for us all.

mesorah Sun, 15 May 2011 06:41:36 +0000
morning blessings http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/416-morning-blessings http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/416-morning-blessings

art-siddur3One of the components of the birkhot hashachar (morning blessings) section of shacharit service is the section of saying a blessing over learning Torah. The standard is that one is not supposed to learn any Torah until having recited this blessing. As is the case with almost every other blessing, the act that follows the blessing must correspond to the subject at hand (in this case the subject is Torah learning). The particular passage chosen from the written Torah is Numbers 6:24-26 (The Aaronic Blessing). One of the sections of oral Torah selected is from B. Shabbat 127a:

“These are things that yield interest during your life, while the principal remains for you in the world-to-come: honoring your father and mother, doing kindness, arriving early to study morning and evening, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, providing for the bride, burying the dead, paying attention to prayer, bringing peace between one person and another; and the study of Torah is like them all”

(Translation from My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 5: Birkhot HaShachar, Lawrence Hoffman, ed.)

It could be asked why Torah study serves as a part of daily davening. Are not learning (Torah) and davening (Avodah) different? Furthermore, aren’t the deeds mentioned in Shabbat 127a more related to acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut Chasidim)? It is well known that Judaism sees the world as standing on these three pillars: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasidim. The fact that the three are mentioned as three would seem to suggest they are three different things. It is not so simple, however. Our Sages clarify the interconnectedness of these three pillars by placing Torah learning within morning prayers, and by inserting texts  that deal with our righteousness (Shabbat 127a), as well as God’s (Numbers 6:24-26). One of things that links Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasidim is righteousness.

It is telling that we do not begin with the Shema. We build up to it, but our first daily experience of Torah is a recognition of God’s blessing upon us (in Numbers 6:24-26) followed shortly with our responsibility to be righteous with others. Righteousness is a middah that is central to living a life connected with Torah. May we all open our hearts and minds to understand and teach to every fiber of our being that the way of God is one filled full with rigteousness.

mesorah Fri, 11 Feb 2011 18:39:21 +0000
leniency as a bridge http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/393-leniency-as-a-bridge http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/393-leniency-as-a-bridge

art-bridgeHis attitude, always to bear in mind the good of the next person, made him adopt a more lenient attitude in all matters of permitted and forbidden things, based on the principle "the power to rule leniently is to be preferred." As has been stated, Rabbi Israel [Salanter] would punctiliously observe all stringencies and comply with all opinions. This applied where he himself alone was involved. Wherever others were concerned, he would always seek the ways and means to rule leniently. This accounts for his many well-known rulings in matters pertaining to health and danger to life,"danger to life being graver than ritual prohibitions."

From here stemmed his audacious granting of permission to perform acts otherwise forbidden on Shabbat and to eat on Yom Kippur during the outbreak of the cholera epidemic in Vilna. And from here stemmed his lenient ruling on his own conduct where others might thereby suffer hardship. Reliable sources indicate that one of the reasons for Rabbi Israel [Salanter] refusing to accept a rabbinical appointment was that he sided with the more lenient opinions in many halachot in opposition to the prevailing stricter rulings of the other authorities, and he was unwilling to stir up objections and arguments. --The Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2 pages 253-54.

As we observe time and time again Rabbi Salanter's leniency and compassion toward those around him regarding halachic observance, it would seem that he followed and ruled in the spirit of Hillel.  For us as believers, we can relate this kind of righteous behavior as that which our Mashiach Yeshua stressed to his disciples and lived out.

like little children

If we are working for a world to espouse a greater love and service to Hashem, it can only come about through those who are alive:  alive in spirit and alive in the flesh.  If we crush those around us in an uncaring manner that is strict and so halachically stringent, then we have surely missed the point of observance.  It is through the preservation of life through mind, soul and body that we will captivate those around us and draw them to divine service.  We need to gently help those around us grow tenderly in observance and service.  This can only be done with patience, kindness and gentility. Anything less lacks compassion and is not a worthy representation of our Messiah. 

At that hour, the talmidim approached Yeshua and said, “Who, then, is the great one in the kingdom of Heaven?”

Yeshua called a little boy to him, and he stood him up in their midst.

He said, "Amen, I say to you, if you do not return to become like the children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever makes himself lowly like this child is the great one in the kingdom of Heaven. The one who receives one child like this in my name receives me.

The one who causes one of these little ones who have emunah in me to stumble would be better off to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." --Matthew 18:1-6, DHE

Growing in our spirituality, we are much like children.  We are eager to please, and sometimes when we are hurt, we feel especially vulnerable. We are innocent and we wish to learn and grow quickly. When we are not surrounded by compassionate mentors, who guide us and help us grow in our soul work, we can find ourselves crushed and may abandon everything all together.  Just as a child is not able to operate cognitively, mentally and physically like an adult at a young age, how much more do we need to grow spiritually in stages and in love. Those who mentor and teach must do so with a proper temperament lest they hurt those they disciple and cause a disgrace upon the name of the Eternal.

Children are also humble and seek to do good because it is the right thing to do.  When it becomes something of a status symbol or a way to oppress others, then the innocence is lost as well as the merit of the deed.   Yeshua is telling us to guard against this kind of unrighteous living. He is provoking us to return to purity of intention, innocence and love of service.

Seek to operate in love and seek to prevail in compassion.  When those around you see how beautiful and kind your service to Hashem and His creation is, it will not only inspire many but reach farther than you can even imagine...l'dor v'dor.


Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.

1 At that hour, the talmidim approached Yeshua and said, “Who, then, is the great one in the kingdom of Heaven?” 2 Yeshua called a little boy to him, and he stood him up in their midst. 3 He said,

Amen, I say to you, if you do not return to become like the children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever makes himself lowly like this child is the great one in the kingdom of Heaven. 5 The one who receives one child like this in my name receives me.

Obstacles to the Kingdom

Mark 9:42–48 • Luke 17:1–2

6 The one who causes one of these little ones who have emunah in me to stumble would be better off to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7
besorah Fri, 11 Feb 2011 06:07:00 +0000
the finer points http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/387-the-finer-points http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/387-the-finer-points

art-matzahEven while living in Salant, it happened once that Rabbi Israel [Salanter] was unable to be present when his shemurah matzah was being baked. Knowing that he took the greatest pains to observe all the finer points involved in the baking of the matzah, his disciples had undertaken to supervise for him in his absence. They asked for his instructions. What should they be most careful to watch?

Rabbi Israel ordered them to be especially careful not to distress the woman kneading the dough in their zeal, since she was an unfortunate widow, and they would thereby transgress the prohibition, "You shall not oppress a widow..." "The kashrut of the matzah is not complete with the observance of all the embellishments of the laws of Pesach alone," he would say, "But with the observance of all the finer points of the Choshen Mishpat as well." --from The Mussar Movement Volume 1, Part 2, pages 220 - 221

There is no doubt that Rabbi Salanter was scrupulous in his performance of mitzvot.  We read countless stories where he was concerned about the status of the food that he ate, knowing that it would break down, nourish his body, and give him the ability to perform the commandments.  He wanted to be fueled with only the best for the sake of Heaven.

But time and time again, we see Rabbi Salanter's recurring insistence that those who might be involved in his performance of mitzvot would not be worked hard or inconvenienced for him.  Rabbi Salanter had a keen understanding that mitzvot and treatment of other are linked together.  Fulfilling a commandment at the expense of others actually brings the level of holiness a deed lower, as it is done on the back of another without concern.

consideration is love

How terrible for you, hypocritical soferim and Perushim! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, but neglect the weighty things in the Torah: justice, kindness, and emunah; you ought to do one without neglecting the other. Blind guides, who strain out the mosquito but swallow the camel!   --Matthew 23:23-24, DHE

Mashiach Yeshua exhorts us to consider our actions in light of how they affect all involved.  While it is a mitzvah to tithe mint, dill and cummin, neglecting the other mitzvot to appear diligent in the eyes of the law is a sham.  No one is fooled by it and it eventually degrades your service to Hashem.  Tithing spices while oppressing others and showing little concern for their needs is nothing short of hypocrisy.

No matter what it is we do, we must have foresight to see the ramifications of any good deed we might seek to perform.  We are easily clouded by our own desire to appear right, holy and diligent.  This quality, while a positive driving force, can also be a blindness. We need to keep this desire in check so we do not make ourselves and others victims of a shabby form of righteousness.

We must not only take into consideration the many ways in which we can exemplify true righteousness through scrupulous attention, but also see how that level of detail will affect those around us and if it will yield a win-win in all arenas.  As we are supposed to serve the Eternal in heaven, we have to comprehend that we do so with our feet on the earth.  Being grounded in this simple principle will help us to realize that the divine service is not only through our prayers, study and hidden deeds — it also shines through the love and consideration we show for one another.   Let us learn to live by the law without causing others harm:  only then that will we be considered truly righteous.


Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.

stories Fri, 11 Feb 2011 06:07:00 +0000
pursuit of justice http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/337-pursuit-of-justice http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/337-pursuit-of-justice

art-crown-of-patienceJustice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.  — Deut. 16:20

Commentators over the centuries have explored the implications of the repeated word tzedek, or justice, in this verse, but as translator Robert Alter notes, "its function as a verbal gesture of sheer emphasis is self-evident: justice, and justice alone, shall you pursue." Let's consider two aspects of this verse that will aid our mussar practice.

First, justice is a standard, a knowable measure by which we may, no, by which we must order our affairs. When we take account of our souls, it is not on the basis of spiritual feelings or sentiment, no matter how lofty. Rather, it is on the basis of the moral standards that permeate Deuteronomy and the whole of Scripture. Deuteronomy makes it clear that the justice rooted in the worship of the one true and living God will be expressed in our treatment of our fellow human beings.

Yeshua tells us, "Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). He goes on to show how righteousness, or justice—for tzedek can be translated as either—is defined in Scripture, and revealed in how we treat and think about and respond to those around us. Messiah calls and empowers us through his Spirit to fulfill the words of Scripture in heart and action. For our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, what is written must become what is lived. Here is an aid to heshbon ha-nefesh. Take a daily inventory of your actions and thoughts toward those around you. Ask yourself, "How did I behave today toward my fellow human beings? How did I think and speak of my fellow human beings, created in the image of God just as I am?" Record your answers in a notebook or journal to help take inventory and mend your ways.

The second word we should consider is "pursue." Apparently, we never completely achieve justice. We live in a world that constantly overthrows justice, a world in which might often seems to prevail over right. This same world defeats us personally from time to time. We compromise our values or fail to act upon them. God in his mercy provides teshuvah—a way of return to him and his ways. Teshuvah is essential because in the world we live in, we must pursue justice continually.

Tzedek is never passive, as if we could pursue it by simply avoiding wrongdoing. In the Midrash on Deuteronomy 16:18, Rav Judah and Rabbi Nahman discuss the verse, "And David executed judgment [mishpat] and righteousness [tzedakah] unto all his people" (2 Sam. 8:15). One of them says, "David executed judgment, [in that] he acquitted the innocent and condemned the guilty; if, however, the guilty party had not the means to pay [the sum adjudged] he would pay it himself. This is the force of 'judgment and righteousness.'" We must actively pursue righteousness, not simply avoid unrighteousness.

Hence, Yeshua also instructs us,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. (Matt. 5:6)

As we grow in our practice of mussar, may the Spirit of God give us a longing for righteousness and the power to pursue it, as Messiah teaches us to do.


This commentary was adapted from a Torah commentary originally found at umjc.org on the weekly Torah list.

torah Sat, 13 Nov 2010 00:11:51 +0000
righteousness as focus http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/335-righteousness-as-focus http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/335-righteousness-as-focus

art-shvitiThe Hebrew word for righteousness is tzedekTzedek is almost impossible to translate, because of its many shadings of meaning: justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness and innocence.

Because of this, if we are to have any hope of how to exemplify righteousness in the world in the way that Hashem would desire, then we must have the proper lenses by which to view how we are to act in many situations so as to allow righteousness, or tzedek, to shine.This meditation below is a common practice in many communities around the world.

(Note:  For more information on meditative techniques, see the source Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan.)

Find a comfortable seat in a quiet place.  First, take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing brings oxygen to your brain and helps clear the mind. Close your eyes. Continue breathing until you feel relaxed.

The focus of this meditation will be upon Hashem solely.  Using a well-known phrase for meditation in Judaism, choose whether you will say the Hebrew or the English. Both are provided below:

:שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד

(Shiviti Adonai L'negdi Tamid)

I have set Hashem before me always.  --Psalms 16:8


The image included in this article is an example of Shiviti, which are meditative plaques used in some communities for contemplation over Hashem's name.  The Name, or Tetragrammaton, is never said - however, this part of the psalm above as transliterated is used.  Quietly speaking this phrase, or meditating upon it without words in your mind, picture the image from this article and completely let the concept of Hashem, His Name, and His being before you consume your thoughts.  As you repeat this phrase over and over, you will find that the idea will change, be absorbed and affect you in a completely new way. Don't try to control it - let Hashem work in you.  Don't try and meditate on the concept of righteousness - the repetition of this verse is the focus.

True righteousness will only come from having Hashem before you at all times - like lenses, to help you to see the world, your actions and your duties in the proper way. 

Meditate on this phrase for at least 10 minutes without interruption.  As you slowly and gently end your meditation by opening your eyes,  try to maintain a sense of quietness for a time after  - allow the experience to flow through you and feel its effect. By meditating on the Divine, you will feel less inclined to pursue your idea of righteousness, but rather that of the Eternal.  

meditation Fri, 12 Nov 2010 19:30:54 +0000
righteousness in love http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/332-righteousness-in-love http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/332-righteousness-in-love

art-thankFor the authors of the ketuvim sh’lichim (Apostolic Writings), righteousness is tied up with the mitzvah of love. Love, for all its repetition in Scripture, is a concept connected to righteousness, which we must keep kindled in our hearts and minds. The prayer of Rav Shaul for the Philippians is paradigmatic:

Here is my prayer. I pray that your love grows greater and greater in its deeper knowledge and full perception so that you can tell what is superior and you may be pure and blameless till the day of the Mashiah, when you are satiated with the fruit of goodness coming through Yeshua Mashiah to sing the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11, Restored New Testament, Barnstone, emphasis mine)

What Barnstone translates as “goodness,” others have translated as “righteousness.” For Rav Shaul, it is the deeper wisdom that comes from growth in love that demonstrates righteousness, the fruit of which we will taste most fully upon Mashiach’s return. Love has its own wisdom, reasoning, and protocol. Love emphasizes unseen beauty and provokes joy and faith in others as imperfect as ourselves. Love requires us to look into another’s eyes and say the face of the living G-d in all its beauty, and in the surprises that come from deepening relationship. Love requires acts of favor and kindness that come from a soul moved by encounter.

Love can be psychologically defined as an emotion, intrinsic to the internal world of a person’s mind but without intrinsic application. Righteousness is a characteristic which frames the concept of love into a way of being and a way of action. Righteousness comes to us most fully in the person of Yeshua, and it is in him that we can hope to come close to the purity and blamelessness that Rav Shaul so earnestly prays for his audience. May his prayer be fulfilled in all of us as we take the steps to look long and hard into our own thoughts and actions in this season of righteousness.

besorah Wed, 10 Nov 2010 19:57:07 +0000
righteousness of caring http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/311-righteousness-of-caring http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/311-righteousness-of-caring

art-loveOur Messiah warned us, "For I say to you, if your tzedakah is not greater than the soferim and the Perushim, you will not come into the kingdom of Heaven." (Matthew 5:20, DHE). We often interpret that sentence as if the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees were defective, but Yeshua might be saying the opposite: “Unless your righteousness is even better than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you’ll never make it into the kingdom of heaven.” Such words must have filled the original hearers with despair. How can I be more righteous than a Pharisee—especially if I’m a simple Galilean farmer or fisherman or wife and mother?

Before our imagined Galileans (or we ourselves) despair, however, we should ask what “righteousness” means. In Cheshbon ha-Nefesh, Rabbi Mendel provides a simple definition, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This definition, in turn, is an expansion of the words of Torah, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Righteousness means simply acting according to this standard, treating others as we would want to be treated.

Righteousness in Hebrew is tzedakah, a word many of us learned at an early age when we were taught to put some money in a pushke to share with those in need. I remember my Shabbat school teacher when I was eight or ten telling us that tzedakah didn’t mean charity, but righteousness or justice. We didn’t share just because we had noble feelings of compassion for the poor, but rather because it was the right thing to do, because we should treat our needy neighbor the same way we’d want to be treated ourselves.

Abraham exemplifies this tzedakah. The Lord appears to him on his way to Sodom, to see if it is worthy of destruction for its wickedness, and decides to let Abraham in on his plans.

“For I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing tzedakah and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19).

Abraham is the bearer of righteousness, who will act righteously and pass on this legacy to his heirs. True to this righteousness, when Abraham learns that God intends to destroy the wicked Sodomites, he tries to talk him out of it. “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” or, as Yeshua put it," So then, whatever you want sons of men to do to you, do the same to them, for this is the Torah and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12, DHE). If you would not want your neighbor to piously shake his head and say “the L-rd’s will be done,” if he learned, G-d forbid, that you were liable for divine punishment, then don’t act that way toward your neighbor. If you hear of something bad coming his way—even if he appears to deserve it—do everything in your power to help ward it off.

Since Abraham is righteous, the L-rd knows that he will be concerned with the fate of his neighbors in Sodom, despite their wickedness. As Abraham begins his negotiations on behalf of Sodom, he tries not to be so pushy that he aggravates the L-rd, but it’s not hard to imagine that the L-rd told Abraham his plans in the hope that he would try to talk him out of them . . . for that’s what a righteous person should do in such a case.

So, when Messiah tells us that our righteousness must be even better than that of the scribes and Pharisees, he is pointing us back to the righteousness of our father Abraham. Abraham’s righteousness is better than that of the Pharisees because it’s not expressed in theoretical or pious terms, but in the simple act of caring about his neighbors’ fate more than his own. We don’t need to despair that Yeshua tells us we need such superior righteousness, because the best thing about it is its accessibility. Indeed, it is in simple and practical action on behalf of others that such righteousness reveals its true quality.


Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.

besorah Fri, 22 Oct 2010 20:01:51 +0000
questions to ask yourself http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/292-questions-to-ask-yourself http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/292-questions-to-ask-yourself

art-questionsUse these questions to evaluate your day:

  1. What were the "seeds" that hindered your ability to manifest righteousness today?
  2. Did a good deed you tried to perform today lift up someone while lowering someone else, or was this good deed mutually beneficial for all involved?
  3. Were your deeds done merely for the sake of Heaven, or for some personal gain? 
  4. Did you consider the honor of your fellow in all your actions?
  5. Were you able to use prayer or meditation to help you in making the more noble choices you were confronted with today?
accounting Mon, 11 Oct 2010 20:47:38 +0000
from the mussar masters http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/272-from-the-mussar-masters http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/272-from-the-mussar-masters


Rabbi Judah the Prince said: "Which is the right course that a man should choose for himself? That which is an honor to him and elicits honor from his fellow men." --Avot 2:1

Rabbi Jose said: “Let the property of your fellow man be as dear to you as your own.” --Avot 2:17

“But if three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of the Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of G-d, for it is written (Ezekiel 41.22) 'He said to me, 'This is the table which is before Hashem.'” --Avot 3:4

“A person may tend to deliberate whether he should or should not give tzedakah (charity). That is why the Torah exhorts, 'Do not close your hand to the poor.'” --Rashi, Deuteronomy 15:7

“I constantly place the presence of G-d before my eyes” (Psalms 16:8). This is a fundamental rule in Torah and behavior of the righteous who walk in the path of G-d. --Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:1

“Judge every person favorably.” – Avot 1:6

 “A person should be humble and as flexible as Hillel, rather than as stern and strict as Shammai.” --Talmud, Shabbos 30b



quotes Thu, 07 Oct 2010 00:16:22 +0000
pious on the shoulders of others http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/246-pious-on-the-shoulders-of-others http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/246-pious-on-the-shoulders-of-others

art-bucketRabbi Salanter was washing his hands before a meal when the rabbis he was with noticed he was not immersing his whole hands in water in the ritual manner preferred by Jewish law. When questioned about this practice, Rabbi Salanter responded:

“I am not the one who obtains the water from the well; it is the poor peasant girl who must do so. Several times a week in the middle of this bitter winter, she must trudge out to the well, break the ice, and bring back pails of water for us to use in our home. The more water I use to wash my hands, the more often she has to face the bitter cold. And I do not want to be extra pious on the shoulders of her suffering.”

This story teaches us something very powerful about the performance of mitzvot at the expense of others.  Many times we conjure up in our minds that righteousness means the observance of mitzvot at all costs.  However, this is actually a flawed way of thinking and not a valid mindset in the world of Judaism.

Jewish thinking certainly does encourage doing mitzvot, connecting to Hashem and being thorough in our observance.  The Sages have gone to great lengths to detail how and when to perform mitzvot.  However, if someone's life is at stake, these laws are suspended.  Even the laws of Shabbat are subject to going on hold for the sake of saving a life. 

However, in the absence of compassionate consideration, how many times do we subject those around us to our standards of supposed righteousness?  And how many victims have to be subject to our halachic observance and who take away from it nothing more than our rigidity and our lack of humanity?  If we do not inspire others through our living, we are doing something seriously wrong.

There are also times when our supposed mitzvah wagon is not operating under kosher standards.  Perhaps we wish to print out some blessings for ourself, but we do it on company paper without permission.  This is at the direct expense of the company we work for and is unethical.  Or maybe we wish to daven at work, but use company time outside of our breaks and lunch.  This too is something which we do on the backs of others. Perhaps we schedule an appointment with a friend, and then realize before we leave for that appointment that we had forgotten to daven (pray).  Do we take the time to daven and show up an hour late and disrupt that person's schedule?

While it is crucial to try and maintain a kosher and halachically fit lifestyle, brimming with mitzvot, it is important to remember the human element.  For if we forsake the people we encounter for a higher level of righteousness that we wish to attain for ourselves, then we forget one of the highest principles of righteousness which we have been called to:  love your neighbor as yourself.

The next time you have the ability to do a deed of righteousness, consider all of the ramifications surrounding that mitzvah and ask yourself a few questions:

  • does fulfilling the mitzvah negatively impact those around me (inconvenience, offend, embarrass)
  • is there anything unethical being done in the process of performing the mitzvah


When we truly participate in righteous living, we find that we are not hurting those around us; rather, we are being a light and the deeds that we do not only lift and connect our souls, but those of the world as well.

stories Mon, 20 Sep 2010 03:33:33 +0000
what do you exalt http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/245-what-do-you-exalt http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/245-what-do-you-exalt

art-honorinsandRabbi Yisrael was once stranded in Kovno for Shabbat. Everyone wanted to host him, but he chose to spend the Shabbat at the home of a baker who had no children to feed, so he would not take away anyone's portion of food.

The baker was an observant Jew but hardly a man of intelligence. As he ushered his esteemed guest into his house, he shouted at his wife, "Why are the challahs not covered? How many times must I remind you to cover the challahs?" The poor woman, recognizing her distinguished guest, hurried to cover the challahs with tears in her eyes. When the baker asked Rabbi Yisroel to do the honors by reciting the Kiddush, the Rabbi first asked him, "Can you tell me why we cover the challahs?"

"Of course," replied the baker. "Every child knows the answer. When there are many different foods on the table, the first blessing is always made over the bread, after which no other blessing need be made. On Friday night, however, the first blessing has to be made over the wine. In order not to shame the challah, who expects the blessing to be made over her, we must cover her over until after the sanctification of the wine."

Rabbi Yisrael looked at the baker incredulously. "Why do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?" he asked. "Do you think that our Jewish tradition does not understand that a piece of dough has no feelings and would never become embarrassed? Understand that our laws are trying to sensitize us to the feelings of human beings, our friends, our neighbors, and especially our wives!

This story highlights what should have been obvious to the baker: our tradition serves to inform us and uplift us, not uplift itself.  The care and honor that the baker showed to the challot should have been bestowed upon his wife. 

loving and uplifting, not condemning

We see a similar story when we turn ahead to the story of Yeshua and the adultress. 

But Yeshua went to Har HaZeitim.  In the morning, entered the Temple again.  All of the people came to him, and he sat and taught them.  The scholars and the Prushim brought a woman before him who was caught committing adultery, and they stood her in the middle.  They said to him, "Rabbi this woman was captured because of an act of adultery.  Moshes commanded us in the Torah to stone women like these.  But what do you say?"  They said this to test him, to find an accusation against him.  Yeshua bent down and made marks on the floor with his finger.  When they asked him once more, he lifted his eyes and said to them, "Who among you is innocent of transgression?  Let him cast the first stone at her."  He bent down once more and made marks on the floor. They heard, and their heart struck them.  They went out one by one, beginning with the older ones, down to the last.  Yeshua alone remained, and the woman was standing in the middle.  Yeshua lifted his eyes and saw that there was no one but the woman alone.  He said to her, "Woman, where are your accusers? Does anyone condemn you?" She said, "No one, my master."  He said,"Then I will not condemn you either.  Go on your way, and do not sin anymore." --Yochanan 8:1-11, DHE

As we see how Yeshua responds to the accusers, it is evident that while the adultress' behavior is improper, he finds the accusers' behavior equally distasteful.  Their callous speech and their heckling not only bring her embarassment, but show their inability to have compassion and consider the feelings of a fellow human being.  Truly, adultery is wrong, but lowering another human being in shame is also wrong.  Yeshua tries to show them this by calling them on the carpet with their possible litany of sins.

As we strive to serve the Creator, let us do so in such a way that we do not disregard the ability of another to repent and be restored.  Let us regard each other with kindness and encourage each other in the better way to be without condemnation.

stories Sun, 27 Nov 2011 03:25:00 +0000