Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/rafael88/rivertonmussar.org/plugins/system/nonumberelements/helpers/parameters.php on line 130
middot 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 Feb 2018 00:36:40 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb equanimity and adrenaline http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/759-equanimity-and-adrenaline http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/759-equanimity-and-adrenaline

rapellingA 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.”

Adrenaline flow is inevitable when you’re standing on a rock ledge looking down a hundred-foot drop that you’re about to take on your skinny rope. So Steve advised me, “You need to deliberately slow down, make sure everything is right before you go over the edge, and then enjoy the scenery on the way down.” It was good advice, and a good picture of equanimity—menuchat hanefesh, calmness of soul—which we are to maintain even when our adrenaline arises at the edge of one of life’s many and unavoidable cliffs.

Of course, the question is, how to remain calm? My guide’s simple advice applies to a lot of life situations. Just slow down. Recognize that your adrenaline is going to rise, and don’t let it take over the controls. Breathe deep and remain calmly in charge, even when your pulse starts escalating and your chest tightens up.

The late Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and family therapist, spoke about the need for “self-differentiation” amid the demands and tensions of family or congregational life. This looks to me a lot like equanimity. Self-differentiation isn’t selfish or narcissistic, but is “the capacity and willingness of the leader [or anyone else] to take nonreactive, clearly conceived, and clearly defined positions.” Like my coach’s advice, this sounds simple enough, but requires real discipline when we’re being pressured to react, when we hear the spoken or implicit, “don’t just stand there; do something!” before we’ve taken the time to survey the terrain and make sure our ropes are all knotted correctly.

On one particularly long and spectacular descent, Steve stuck his head over the edge when I’d only gone about 20 feet and said, “Wait a second, I want to get a picture!” and then fiddled with his camera for a few very long seconds before letting me continue. I knew what he was doing, forcing me to slow down and enjoy the ride. I don’t know how his snapshot came out, but I still have in my mind a picture of equanimity, of resisting the inevitable adrenaline flow to maintain perspective and calmness of soul—menuchat hanefesh—which enabled me to enjoy the journey from cliff’s edge all the way to the canyon floor. 

daily living Sun, 16 Nov 2014 18:19:47 +0000
a platform of gratitude http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/758-a-platform-of-gratitude http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/758-a-platform-of-gratitude

art-morningsunSince 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.

This is a practice not just for this week, but for permanent application. As I’m focusing on it, however, I remember a verse in Hebrews: “It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (Heb. 7:7). The context is the meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham, when Melchizedek blessed Abraham, thereby, Hebrews claims, demonstrating his superiority over our patriarch. But if it’s true that the inferior is blessed by the superior, how can we say that we bless God, our ultimate superior, in the morning prayers?

I’ve heard some translations of the Siddur that get around this dilemma by translating the opening words of the blessings as “Praised be the Lord . . .” or “The Lord our God is to be thanked.” The Annotated Jewish New Testament takes a whole different tack, contradicting Hebrews. Commenting on the inferior is blessed by the superior, it says: “the reverse is frequent; Melchizedek himself blesses ‘God Most High’ (Gen. 14:20).” 

But I think there’s a better way of understanding this dilemma, which supports Hebrews 7:7 and sheds light on the middah of gratitude as well. Genesis says of Melchizedek, Vay’varechehu “And he blessed him [Abraham],” and then he said baruch Avram, “blessed is Avram.” Melchizedek added after that, “and blessed is God.” It’s as if Melchizedek first bestows blessing upon Abraham and as a result says he is blessed. In God’s case, however, the Torah doesn’t say that Melchizedek blessed him, but only that he said that God is blessed. Melchizedek bestows blessing on Abraham, and recognizes that God is blessed in himself, inherently blessed; as the Siddur says, he is ha-M’vorach, the Blessed One.

So there’s the reality of bestowing a blessing, as a superior does to an inferior, and the reality of recognizing a blessing that another already possesses. This distinction ties right into our definition of gratitude as hakarat ha-tov, recognizing the good. In the morning, when we recite the blessings, we’re not imparting a blessing upon God—as if we could!—but we’re recognizing that he is the Blessed One, who bestows upon us manifold gifts. We don’t want to take these gifts for granted, so we begin our day by affirming them as coming from the Blessed One. This affirmation sets us up to practice gratitude throughout the day, recognizing the good around us and expressing thanks to the One who is the source of it all. 

mesorah Mon, 03 Nov 2014 19:55:40 +0000
fairness or freebie? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/755-fairness-or-freebie? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/755-fairness-or-freebie?

art-freesampleSome 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.

The Mishnah lists acts of lovingkindness or gemilut hasadim among the good deeds that are not measured or quantified by Torah, but which carry a great reward.

These are the things that have no measure: The corner [of the field], the first-fruits, the appearance [at the Temple on pilgrimage], acts of hesed, and the study of the Torah.

These are things the fruits of which a man enjoys in this world, while the principle remains for him in the World to Come: Honoring father and mother, acts of hesed, and bringing peace between a man and his neighbor. But the study of Torah is equal to them all. M.Peah 1.1

Many acts of hesed aren’t specified in Torah, but are still considered mitzvot worthy of reward. There’s no minimum daily requirement of these acts, so when we do them, we can’t check them off our list of obligations. On a human level we could term them “freebies”—something good we do for others though we’re not obligated to, whether they deserve them or not, and whether they’re likely to return the favor or not.

Thus, when Joseph interprets the dream of Pharaoh’s cupbearer, he doesn’t ask for the payment he might normally expect for such services, but instead asks for a favor: “But think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the hesed of mentioning me to Pharaoh” (40:14). Joseph is careful to establish that he’s innocent and doesn’t belong in prison, so the cupbearer doesn’t need to be afraid of advocating for his release, but he’s asking the cupbearer for a favor, not for justice.

Hesed, by definition, is a freebie. Realizing this fact helps us not only to define the term, but to practice it.

Often, when confronted by a request, or even an unspoken opportunity, to do a good deed, we ask whether the potential recipient deserves it. When we’re about to give responsibility or recognition, this might be the right question. But in many other circumstances it’s the wrong question and misses the point entirely. We often destroy friendship or family ties with a demand for fairness. I’ve seen this happen with married couples, where one partner, or both, feels like the benefits and responsibilities, the work load and the privileges, of their marriage aren’t distributed equally. In such cases I often counsel that the partners think about giving freebies to each other, which means to stop keeping score and demanding fairness, but instead to look for ways to give to the other, whether they think the other deserves it or not. This simple practice can produce some positive marital climate change.

The final appearance of the term hesed in Joseph’s story underscores this truth.

And when the time came near for Israel to die, he summoned his son Joseph and said to him, “Do me this favor, If I have found grace in your sight, and place your hand under my thigh and deal with me in hesed v’emet [lovingkindness and truth]: please do not bury me in Egypt.” (Gen. 47:29)

Rashi comments on the phrase “hesed v’emet” in this verse: “Lovingkindness that is done with the dead is true lovingkindness, for one does not expect any payment or reward.” True hesed is a freebie, and we don’t have to wait until someone is dying to give it. Rather, it’s a way to transform our treatment of the living—and change ourselves in the process.

torah Sun, 24 Nov 2013 17:14:59 +0000
age and adaptability http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/754-age-and-adaptability http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/754-age-and-adaptability

art-directorHe 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.

The conversation moved on and I got Hal to sign a copy of his book for me, and then gave him a copy of my book, Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses. As we were about to leave, Hal said, “I don’t know if I can really get into your book. I was raised as an atheist. I’ve never read much about Judaism; I don’t even know what the Five Books of Moses are, and I’m getting pretty old to change now.” I didn’t argue too much with Hal; he’d just celebrated his 90th birthday a couple of months earlier. 

But that evening, Jane and I watched “The Quartet,” a great movie about a group of retired musicians in England who put on a gala performance to help finance their retirement home. Sounds pretty tame (although some of the language and humor definitely isn’t tame), but it all comes together through a supply of brilliant acting, under the equally brilliant direction of Dustin Hoffman, who debuts as director at the age of 75.

So, Hal, I know you have 15 years on Dustin Hoffman, but perhaps age isn’t such an impediment to adaptability. In fact, Hal, you wrote your first novel after you turned 85!  

Hal does make an important point, though. To genuinely consider the reality of God, let alone of Yeshua as Messiah, isn’t just an intellectual exercise, but a matter of profound adaptability. If there is a God, and if this God has deigned to reveal himself to human beings, that’s going to demand from us changes across the board. We’d be like the merchant that Yeshua talks about, who is “on the lookout for fine pearls. On finding one very valuable pearl he went away, sold everything he owned and bought it” (Matt 12:45-46, CJB).

Perhaps in resisting this possibility, Hal had a better sense of the implications of the message than many who glibly claim to accept it and then fall short of adapting their lives to the new reality. May Hal—and all of us—find the adaptability it takes to genuinely buy the story of Messiah Yeshua!

besorah Mon, 11 Nov 2013 19:11:53 +0000
authentic listening http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/753-authentic-listening http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/753-authentic-listening

art-looklistenOne 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.

So, when Hashem appears to Isaac and reiterates the promises that he first made to Abraham, to bless him and give him the land in which he is dwelling as a sojourner, Hashem reminds Isaac that Abraham “listened to my voice and kept my charge: my commandments, my laws, and my teachings” (Gen. 26:5). Many translations render “listened to my voice” (the literal Hebrew) simply as “obeyed.” And it’s clear in this text that Hashem isn’t commending Abraham just for having a good sense of hearing, or even just for paying attention. In other words, he’s not commending Abraham’s spirituality, but his obedience. Listening that is authentic and true entails obedience. And conversely, obedience depends on listening.

Creativity is a wonderful thing, but in the realm of Torah, real spirituality starts with hearing the voice of Hashem (most commonly through the words of Scripture) and acting accordingly. And listening, in turn, inevitably requires silence. You can’t hear what I’m saying as long as you’re blabbing away—and vice versa, of course. We can’t hear the voice of Hashem, which is always the spark-plug of obedient action, unless we quiet our own voice and all the voices around us. Practicing silence has great value in itself, but for it to transcend the bounds of contemporary spirituality, it must lead to hearing the voice of Hashem and obeying.

If you find it difficult to practice silence, try redefining it as listening. Quiet things down so you can hear what really matters. Silence is not just a passive act, shutting down my own noise and the noise produced by others; not an end in itself, as it might be in some forms of spirituality. Rather, silence is active listening for the voice of the Lord, listening which inevitably shakes up our status quo and moves us to obedience.

torah Sun, 27 Oct 2013 20:32:24 +0000
how do you get zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/751-how-do-you-get-zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/751-how-do-you-get-zerizut?

art-runningThen 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.

This technique can help with marital harmony, but it doesn’t necessarily produce enthusiasm or zerizut, our middah for the week. As I noted in an earlier Riverton Mussar article on enthusiasm, “It’s one thing to get the job done, but quite another to get it done with enthusiasm.”

This lack of enthusiasm doesn’t impair only married men, of course, but also unmarried men, and teenagers as well, even female teenagers, who’ve developed their own unique form of grumpy resistance to unexpected interruptions. It’s remarkable, then, that one of the best and earliest examples of zerizut in Scripture comes from a teenage girl who’s interrupted by a surprise request.

I’m talking about Rivkah, when she is discovered by Abraham’s servant as he seeks a wife for Isaac. He requests a little water and she “quickly” responds and then offers to water his whole line of camels too. “Then she quickly emptied her pitcher into the trough, ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Gen. 24:20). The Hebrew words for “quickly” and “ran” pop up a few times in this story, and remind an observant reader of Genesis 18, when the patriarch Abraham runs to meet the three strangers and then runs around to quickly prepare them a meal. Rivkah’s enthusiasm—like that of her father-in-law to-be—isn’t just impulsive, but deep, as we learn when she commits herself to follow Abraham’s servant into a whole new life.

So how do you get from curmudgeonly compliance to zerizut? You gotta run!

Zerizut comes from jumping up to do the good that’s at hand, quickly and cheerfully, even when you’re tempted to kvetch, delay, and make the other person squirm a bit before meeting the request. Zerizut is an internal trait, but as so often, we can get at it through outward modifications of behavior. A key word in Rebekah’s story is “quickly,” and another is “run.” So run, don’t walk, to do the right thing, even if you don’t feel enthusiastic, and enthusiasm will begin to bloom.

Yedid nefesh, the great piyyut, or song of devotion, applies the same verb for running to the zerizut that fires our worship, providing a clue to cultivating this middah in everyday life as well.

Yedid nefesh av ha-rachaman meshoch avdecha el retzonecha yarutz avdecha kemo ayal Yishtachaveh el mul hadar'cha.

Beloved of the soul, merciful Father, draw your servant to your will. Then your servant will run like a deer to worship before your splendor. 

torah Mon, 21 Oct 2013 06:03:44 +0000
order, gratitude, and Noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/749-order-gratitude-and-noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/749-order-gratitude-and-noah

art-raindropsAnd 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.

This week’s Torah portion provides an example. Last week, in Parashat B’reisheet, God brings order in six creation-days to the primal scene that is tohu vavohu, unformed and void. Soon God in his infinite wisdom reopens the struggle between order and chaos by giving human beings genuine freedom and responsibility to represent God in this creation—or not. Soon disorder breaks out through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, expands with the violence of Cain, and grows from there until “Hashem saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). Last week’s parasha didn’t end there, however, but on a final note of hope: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of Hashem” (Gen. 6:8).

Now, it sounds odd to say that God was grateful for Noah, but clearly this is a case of hakarat ha-tov, recognizing the good person even amidst the surrounding wickedness.

In this week’s parasha, Torah’s assessment of the pre-flood world is even grimmer than the end of last week’s reading: the earth is filled with lawlessness or violence; all flesh has corrupted its ways; the earth and all flesh upon it are worthy of complete destruction. But God had already recognized the good in Noah and shown him grace, because, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). Rabbi Judah said, however, “Only in his generation was he a righteous man; had he flourished in the generation of Moses or Samuel, he would not have been called righteous: in the street of the totally blind, the one-eyed man is called clear-sighted, and the infant is called a scholar” (Genesis Rabbah 30.9). Rabbi Hanina went even further, saying that Noah possessed less than an ounce of merit, but he found grace in the eyes of Hashem (Genesis Rabbah 29.1). Of course, other sages thought more highly of Noah. Still, the point is not the righteousness of Noah, but God’s grace of recognizing whatever good was in him.

Upon this remnant of good within a completely depraved world, God rebuilds his order. First, he gives Noah detailed instructions on how to construct the ark, on what to bring on board, on when and how to go forth from it after the flood waters recede. Then God makes a covenant with Noah that restates the original purpose and blessing for humankind God gave in Genesis 1.

It’s a big story, which we can apply to our own modest circumstances. When we recognize the good amidst the not-so-good or even bad of the world around us, we create a foothold for God’s order. When we feel overwhelmed by problems—an illness that just won’t get better, an ugly personal conflict that we just can’t get resolved, an unsatisfying job or economic situation, a destructive addiction or disabling sin—life feels out of order and unmanageable. As we learn to recognize the good even within such circumstances, we provide the basis for order.

The Torah says that the Flood came on the seventh day after Noah and his household entered the ark. The Flood was a reversal of the six days of creation, a return to the tohu vavohu of the first day, when the earth was submerged in the waters of the deep. But the Flood also cleared the way for a renewed order, built upon the remnant of good recognized by Hashem. As we learn to recognize the good within our own flood of crazy circumstances, we might be able to get some of God’s order back into our lives.

torah Mon, 30 Sep 2013 19:04:57 +0000
chesed in action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/743-chesed-in-action2 http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/743-chesed-in-action2

art-tuffChesed 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.

The final verses of the final haftarah read:

I will recount the kind acts (chesed, pl.) of the Lord,
The praises of the Lord—
For all that the Lord has wrought for us,
The vast bounty to the House of Israel
That He bestowed upon them
According to His mercy and His great kindness (chesed).
He thought: Surely they are My people,
Children who will not play false.
So He was their Deliverer.
In all their troubles He was troubled,
And the angel of His Presence delivered them.
In His love and pity
He Himself redeemed them,
Raised them, and exalted them
All the days of old. (Is. 63:7-9, NJPS)


This passage includes synonyms, or near-synonyms, of chesed; mercy, love, and pity. But it focuses first on chesed, opening with a plural form linked to God’s own name—chasdei Hashem—and then repeating the word in the same verse. This chesed produces one of the most poignant statements about God in the whole Bible—“in all their troubles He was troubled,” or “in all their afflictions he was afflicted.” Chesed moves God to not only rescue us, to pull us out of our self-made messes, but to first join us within the mess itself. Chesed is that extreme of loyalty that puts self aside to support the other. Cultivating chesed in our Mussar practice means looking for opportunities to so decisively identify with the troubles or needs of another that self has no place.


“In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” It’s not only poignant, but profound, because it raises the question, how can God the Creator and sustainer of all things be afflicted or troubled by anything? Chesed moves him to freely take on our human fallibility, to “not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but to empty himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” and to humble himself by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

How do we cultivate such chesed ourselves? It has to start with compassion, the ability to sense and respond to the pain of another person, not just by feeling sorry for that person, but by taking on their interests and needs.

Recently a bookkeeper at a school in Georgia named Antoinette Tuff—who happens to be an actively engaged Christian—helped avert yet another tragic school shooting by calmly talking down the young man who appeared in her office, grasping a loaded assault rifle that he’d already started firing. Antoinette called 911 to alert them to the threat, while she kept talking with the shooter, Michael Hill, going from calling him “sir,” to “baby” and “sweetie.” She tells Michael about her own defeats and losses, tells him that they share the same last name (her mother’s last name is also Hill), tells him that she’ll shield Michael with her own body if he’ll put down his rifle and ammunition and give up. At the end of the standoff, Antoinette tells him, “I just want you to know that I love you though, OK? And I'm proud of you. It's a good thing that you've just given up. Don't worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

As one commentator notes, Antoinette has the “ability to see herself in her assailant (and him in her)” (Dahlia Lithwick, slate.com, posted Friday, Aug. 23, 2013).

“We all go through something in life,” and we’re talking about a God who goes through something in life too. This God shows us how to see past the ugliness and threat of another person to share their suffering. Evidently, that kind of chesed can dramatically change even the worst circumstances.

daily living Mon, 26 Aug 2013 16:36:02 +0000
moderate repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/741-moderate-repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/741-moderate-repentance

art-appleI 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.

One of the dominant prayers through the Days of Awe is Unateneh tokef: "Let us now relate the power of this day's holiness, for it is awesome and frightening." The prayer includes these awesome and frightening words: 

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

But the same tradition that provides this prayer insists that Rosh Hashanah is a solemn festival, not a somber one, a festival that requires joy.

Before leaving the House of Prayer on the night of Rosh ha-Shanah it is customary to bless one another with the benediction, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” Then it is customary to go home joyfully and to keep away from all grief and sighing, so as not to give the Accuser an opening, for the Accuser’s only place is where there is grief and sighing. One ought to trust in God, as it is written: “For the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [Seder ha-Yom, in Days of Awe, by S. Y. Agnon]

This commentary is citing Nehemiah 8, which takes place on "the first day of the seventh month." Ezra reads the Torah to the people and they weep over all their transgressions and neglect that it reveals. But the leaders say, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. . . . Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Of course, it's appropriate to mourn over our transgressions, but Nehemiah teaches that the holiness of the day, which derives from the holiness of the king whom the day honors, trumps even righteous mourning. It reminds me of the opening of the Book of Nehemiah, where he appears before the King of Persia with a sad and downcast countenance--clearly not acceptable behavior (Neh. 2:1-3). God is with Nehemiah through this episode, but the point remains: If it's wrong to be sad in the presence of an earthly king, how much worse in the presence of the King of all kings! 

Beyond that, with great psychological insight, Nehemiah 8:10 teaches that depression and gloom will hinder us from correcting our behavior and restoring our service to the King, "for the joy of the Lord is your strength!"

There's a lesson here about moderation, too, even in the matter of repentance. Can you repent too much? Yes, if it takes the focus off of God and leaves it on you--even the sinful you. Moderation means that when we recognize our failures and sins, we turn away from them and turn back to God. We don't linger in confession and regret--although we need to practice them, for sure--but we move beyond them to return.  

For His anger is but for a moment, 
His favor is for life;
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning. (Ps. 30:6)

Weeping and remorse are part of the Days of Awe, but a transitional part, an aspect of this age, Olam ha-zeh; joy is abiding, a glimpse of Olam ha-ba, the Age to Come. As our Messiah teaches, Happy are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.


mesorah Mon, 19 Aug 2013 18:48:58 +0000
adaptibility and teshuvah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/738-adaptibility-and-teshuvah2 http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/738-adaptibility-and-teshuvah2

art-wavefieldsI 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.

We need to follow the rules, but that alone doesn't produce virtue, which is the goal of mussar. To arrive at virtue we'll have to adapt, to grow, to change. It occurs to me during this month of Elul (which is traditionally a time of spiritual preparation leading up to the High Holy Days) that teshuvah or repentance is the height of adaptability. It means not just adapting to this or that circumstance, but rending our hearts, not our garments, and returning to the Lord (Joel 2:13).

I'm at a point in life, though, in which radical change looks difficult. The pathways are worn deep and it's hard to break out. But the prophets that we read during this season remind us that adaptability – even in its most radical form, teshuvah – is a gift, like all the middot. Hashem says "Return to me and I'll return to you" (Zech. 1:3, Mal. 3:7) and in response we can say "Turn us back to you and we shall return" (Lam. 5:21). This is why our tradition teaches that Elul, the month of teshuvah, is also a month of favor. 

daily living Mon, 12 Aug 2013 20:16:44 +0000
humility in your pocket http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/736-humility-in-your-pocket http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/736-humility-in-your-pocket

art-twopocketsRecently, a friend told me of a situation with another friend that was truly aggravating him, and a quote from Pirket Avot came to mind. I told my friend to remember the other person came from a putrid drop and will become nothing but dust, maggots and worms, and that my friend should know before whom HE stands.

The complete quote from Pirkei Avot is:

"Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting. 'From where you came' - from a putrid drop; 'and to where you are going' - to a place of dust, maggots and worms; 'and before Whom you are destined to give an accounting' - before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He." -- m. Avot 3:1

Rabbi Simkha Bunem, said:

"Everyone must have two pockets with a note in each one. When we are feeling discouraged and depressed, we can reach into one pocket and read: for my sake was the whole world was created. On the other hand, when we are feeling lofty and mighty, we can reach into the other pocket and read: I am simply dust and ashes."

This last quote is normally attributed to Hillel, but was not. I checked. But it is famous for being an excellent summation of two concepts which are attributable to Hillel.

Moshe, was known for his humility. Not at first, mind you. Like the rest of us, he was human as well. He had to find the balance. At first, he kept looking at the pocket that said he was but dust. Or perhaps he focused on the first and last parts of the quote from the Pirkei Avot. He had forgotten about the "Know before whom you stand."

Moshe, as you recall was rescued from the Nile by one of Pharaoh’s estimated 50-60 daughters. Moshe then grew up in royalty, surrounded by the wealth of Pharaoh. He was one of the royal family and would have been schooled in the sciences, history, etiquette, and amongst other things would have been schooled in oration. In Acts we read of Moshe, “ … When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moshe was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.”

When Moshe fled Egypt to the Midian territory, they took him for an Egyptian. He looked and acted as an Egyptian, and not just any Egyptian, but one of the royal household.

And yet, we read in Shemot that Moshe told God that he was a terrible speaker. Now I know that most Christian commentators today assume that meant that Moshe must have had a speech impediment.

Even that may not have been an issue. The movie, “The King’s Speech” tells the story of King George VI in England, just prior to World War II, who after his older brother abdicated the throne, was to become king in his place. However, due to a stammer and fear of speaking, he was thought by many of prominence to be unfit. But with the help of an unorthodox therapist was able to overcome and work within the limitations of his disability. And the God who created each of us, is far more than any human therapist.

Moshe was raised with privilege in a king’s household. He was a person of prominence. Then he was evicted and disgraced. He became a shepherd amongst the Midianites. To the Egyptian mindset, the shepherd was the lowest possible occupation. They were the outcasts, the lowest of the low. Moshe spent 40 years with mostly sheep as companions. He was an Egyptian, after all. Is it possible that he suffered from a lack of self-esteem?

Moshe tried to refuse God’s mission 5 times. In the end, God told Moshe that his brother would speak for him. God would hear no more objections. But please note: in the future, it will not be Aharon speaking, but Moshe.

So what exactly is Torah’s definition of "humility?" 

First, let's clarify what humility is not. Humility does not mean a meek reluctance to speak up or be assertive. Humility is not slouching your shoulders and having low self-esteem.

The living Word defines humility as "living with the reality that nothing matters except doing the right thing." That means the humble person is not dependent on the opinion of others. The humble person can set his ego aside, if need be, in order to consistently do the right thing. The higher a person becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes. Moshe was called "the most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. Anything else precludes room for God to fit in. That's why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.

Hebrews records, "By faith Moshe, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God… Seeing the oppression of his own people, Moshe gave up his position and honor to associate himself with his Hebrew brothers."

Yeshua, in like manner, also did this for us, His people. The book of Philippians states of Yeshua,

"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death."


torah Thu, 06 Jun 2013 17:32:45 +0000
restlessness of the soul http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/732-restlessness-of-the-soul http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/732-restlessness-of-the-soul

art-anxietyIn my work as a professional counselor (my side job) I sometimes help people suffering with  Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This diagnosis indicates excessive anxiety or worry more days than not for at least six months, which the person finds it difficult to control, accompanied by symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance. In short, if equanimity is menuchat hanefesh, rest or calmness of soul, GAD is the opposite, restlessness of soul.

An essential response is helping the person with GAD learn to detach from the anxiety, to recognize that anxiety has a life of its own, and a voice of its own. The words of worry, fear, and what-ifs are the voice of anxiety, which one doesn’t need to listen to, let alone agree with. If GAD is restlessness of soul, this response means driving a wedge between that restlessness and the soul itself, to rediscover and regain a soul that is at rest even though the inner monologue of anxious words and worried sentences continues on. It’s cultivating a soul that notices the monologue but refuses to engage it.

This approach sounds simple, even simplistic perhaps, but of course it’s difficult to put into practice. This week’s parasha (Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1–15:22) may provide some help, as it describes the role of the priest in dealing with the disease of tzara’at, which we translate as “leprosy,” a fearful and anxiety-producing condition in ancient Israel.

As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-46)

A person is not unclean, however, until the priest declares him to be so after a thorough and painfully detailed examination (13:1–44), and conversely he or she isn’t clean until the priest does another thorough examination and performs an elaborate, eight-day ritual (14:1–32). The priest has to get very close to leprosy and the leper, closer than any of us would want to get, but he remains holy and somehow never seems to become contaminated himself.

The way the priest handles tzara’at provides an illustration of equanimity in action. He functions in the midst of tzara’at like the soul that practices equanimity, a soul that may hear the voice of anxiety but remains untouched by it and at peace. Just as the priest doesn’t take on tzara’at, and so is not contaminated by it, so the soul learns to disengage from the voice of anxiety, and thus eventually helps to quiet it, restoring menuhat hanefesh, the middah of equanimity.

torah Sun, 07 Apr 2013 19:04:07 +0000
order within and without http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/731-order-within-and-without http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/731-order-within-and-without

art-fireOrder begins within, but inevitably shows up on the outside. “External disorder may be a reflection of internal disarray,” as Alan Morinis reminds us.1 Now, as I’m writing this, I’m sitting at a rather cluttered desk in a study that’s not the neatest in the world either. So, what does this say about my internal order?


To explore that question, let’s consider a story within this week’s parasha, Sh’mini (Lev. 9:1–11:47), where we read, after the inauguration of the priesthood,

Then the glory of Hashem appeared to all the people, and fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. And Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before Hashem alien fire, which he had not commanded them. And fire came forth from before Hashem and consumed them; thus they died before Hashem. (Lev. 9:23a–10:2)

The phrase “before Hashem” appears four times in this brief passage, which is even more striking in the original Hebrew, where it reads literally “the face” or, a little less literally, “the presence” of Hashem. Fire comes forth from God’s “face” and all the people in awe fall “on their faces”—exactly the right response. In this awe-filled setting Nadav and Avihu present to the Lord’s face esh zarah, alien fire, and meet their sudden end.

Now, the commentators discuss at great length and with much insight the problem with this offering and why it is termed esh zarah, so I’ll limit myself to one simple point. Nadav and Avihu are out of order, disastrously out of order. This is a moment when God’s presence or face is so evident that the only response is to fall on one’s own face—and Aaron’s sons pick this moment to wing it. At the climax of all that God has commanded and all of Israel’s obedience in response, Nadav and Avihu, who are central players in this whole drama, take center stage with something God has not commanded.

Surely this external act of disorder must reflect an internal disorder, which leads them to miss so badly the significance of the moment. Indeed, it may be that the Torah doesn’t explain what’s wrong with their action in any detail because the real problem is the internal disorder behind the action.

My messy desk won’t yield such disastrous consequences, but I have to admit that it’s a distraction, and a barometer of my inner distraction. I wonder if I’ve missed any holy moments, or responded wrongly at such moments, because of the distraction evident in my surroundings. The encouraging thing is that it works both ways; by attending to the symptom of outer disorder I can help straighten out the underlying cause of inner disorder. And as I correct my internal disorder, I believe I’ll see increasing external order, and increasing alertness to the holiness of the moment.



1 Order. Mussar program #16, © 2007 JewishPathways.com. I first quoted this in my 9/17/2010 commentary on Order.

torah Sun, 31 Mar 2013 16:39:47 +0000
steady-flame patience http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/730-steady-flame-patience http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/730-steady-flame-patience

art-nertamidWe sometimes think of patience as a passive virtue, similar to endurance; the kind of patience that enables us to perform a repetitive task, to get through setbacks and challenges, or to wait for an answer to prayer without getting irritated or discouraged. Such patience is a virtue, as they say, but patience includes a more active response as well, not just enduring various trials, but maintaining focus and intensity through them all.

Parashat Tsav (Lev. 6:1-8:36) provides an image for this sort of patience. It opens with the command to keep the fire upon the altar burning continually. Indeed, the command is so important that the Torah gives it three times, in 6:2, 6:5, and finally 6:6. “A permanent fire shall be kept burning upon the altar; it shall not go out!” The flame can’t just be lit and then observed or protected from the wind that might blow it out; it must be continually tended and fed to serve as a steady flame. “And the priest shall burn wood upon it baboker baboker—morning by morning” (Lev. 6:5).

This priestly task represents the active kind of patience, which empowers us not just to endure, but to persevere regardless of immediate outcome or response.

I recently met the parents of a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who is taking college classes online as she finishes up her high school degree. She has to type her college papers with just one finger of one hand, but she refuses to ask for the extended deadline that she could get because of her disability. The parents said that when their daughter recently met one of her online teachers, the teacher was amazed to see her in an electric wheelchair, because she had no idea she was disabled at all. This kid isn’t practicing the passive sort of patience, but the steady-flame variety.

The Torah provides a clue to developing this steady-flame patience. It calls the fire on the altar aish tamid and the light of the menorah in the tabernacle ner tamid, the eternal light (Exodus 27:20). Rashi comments that the fire of the aish tamid provides the flame to light the ner tamid. We use the same name today for the light over the ark of the Torah in our synagogues – ner tamid, the eternal light, representing the steady flame of Torah. The God of Israel provides the light of Torah, and he assigns to us the task of keeping the light burning. This task, of course, is a prime example of the positive sort of patience. We’re not just to hang on to the Word (although sometimes it feels like that’s about all we can do), but to actively learn and apply it throughout all sorts of conditions. Practicing steady-flame patience with the flame of Scripture equips us to practice it in all the situations we’ll face in life.

torah Sun, 17 Mar 2013 18:55:25 +0000
little letter, big lesson http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/729-little-letter-big-lesson http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/729-little-letter-big-lesson

art-vayikra“Vayikra—and he called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. . .”

One single, extra small letter in the traditional text of Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26) teaches us a big lesson in humility. In fact, it’s a letter in the first word of the parasha, the word “vayikra” itself, which is written in the Torah scroll with a final aleph that is smaller than the rest of the letters.

One explanation of this tradition is tied to the humility of Moses, who was “very humble (anav me’od), more than any person upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). To record that Hashem called to him from the Tent of Meeting, Moses wanted to employ the same word used to describe Hashem’s summons of Balaam in Numbers 23:16: “Vayikar Hashem—the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth. . .” The Lord, however, insisted that Moses use the word vayikra (and he called) rather than vayikar (and he met), which requires an aleph at the end. But Moses in his humility wrote the aleph extra small, not wishing to overstate the contrast with Balaam, or his own significance.

The Sefat Emet provides another interpretation. He writes that letters of reduced size in the Torah “seem connected to matters that depend upon action, the light of Torah flowing in a reduced and concentrated way into the actual doing of the mitsvah, as in ‘the commandment [mitsvah] is a candle’ (Prov. 6:23). This entire book [Leviticus] is about deeds.” (The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green [Philadelphia, JPS, 1998].) In other words, the reduced aleph at the end of the word vayikra serves as a lens to focus the light of Torah on the deeds that are to be performed in the Mishkan. Exodus described the building of the Mishkan; Leviticus takes up the deeds performed within it.

At first these two interpretations of the small aleph might appear unrelated, but they are in fact deeply linked. Humility entails a focus on deeds. Instead of focusing on self, on getting ahead or getting even or getting fulfilled, the humble person focuses on the Master. Humility replaces all of the drama and complications of self-aggrandizement with the simple task of fulfilling the Master’s call. Moses left behind the little aleph 3500 years ago to remind us, in 21st century terms, that it’s not about us, but all about the One who calls.

torah Sun, 10 Mar 2013 20:26:13 +0000
awakening from below http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/727-awakening-from-below http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/727-awakening-from-below

art-upmountainIn Parashat Vayakhel, the Israelites finally begin to build the tabernacle after the disastrous detour of the golden calf. The Lord provides detailed instructions for the tabernacle, telling Moses, “Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Ex. 25:9). The Lord also provides the ability to make this elaborate structure, through giving his Spirit to Betzalel, who oversees all the work (Ex. 35:30ff).

You could even say that the Lord provided the materials for construction, back on the night of Passover, when the Israelites “borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. And the Lord had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians" (Ex. 12:35-36).

What is most striking in this parasha, however, isn’t what the Lord provides, but how much he leaves up to the hands and hearts of the Israelites.

Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him [or whose heart is generous or noble] shall bring them—gifts for the Lord; gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair . . . And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded. (Ex. 35:5-10).

We might compare this offering with the one taken for the golden calf, which is a sort of anti-tabernacle. This offering is far more spontaneous. Aaron says, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Ex. 32:2). Then he casts them into a mold and out comes this calf! (As Aaron explains later to Moses; Ex. 32:24).

Responsibility, in contrast, is steady, long-term, thoughtful, the expression of a noble or generous heart. It is the essential thing that we provide in the service of God.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks develops this theme in his commentary on Ki Tissa, the parasha just before Vayakhel (http://www.chiefrabbi.org/category/covenantandconversation/#.UTNldjDlZlw). He notes that the first set of tablets that God gave Moses on Mount Sinai ended up being broken when Moses saw the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. After Moses intercedes for Israel, God forgives them and moves to replace the tablets. But this time Moses must carve out the tablets himself, and only then will God write his words upon them (Ex. 34:1).

Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by G-d, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of G-d and Moses, did. Surely the opposite should have been true: the greater the holiness, the more eternal. Why was the more holy object broken while the less holy stayed whole? This is not, as it might seem, a question specific to the tablets. It is, in fact, a powerful example of a fundamental principle in Jewish spirituality.

Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain this principle.

Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of Divine-human encounter. . . “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by G-d, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur. It is a gesture that is human, all too human.

. . . An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not, in and of itself, change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below”, by contrast, leaves a permanent mark.

This awakening from below involves human responsibility. So, the tablets that remain are the product of divine-human partnership. Moses must carve them out laboriously by hand before Hashem will write upon them. The Israelites must devote their wealth, their talents, their “noble hearts” to the project of building the tabernacle, and only then will the shekhina inhabit it. Rabbi Sacks comments on the tabernacle,

The Israelites made it; they prepared the structured space the Divine presence would eventually fill. Forty days after the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites made a Golden Calf. But after constructing the sanctuary they made no more idols – at least until they entered the land. That is the difference between the things that are done for us and the things we have a share in doing ourselves. The former change us for a moment, the latter for a lifetime.

The middah of responsibility helps us accomplish good things in the world, but even more, it changes us. Responsibility means maintaining a generous or noble heart … and even more responsibility ennobles our hearts to serve God with excellence.

torah Sun, 03 Mar 2013 20:19:02 +0000
Moshe Rabbenu teaches loving-kindness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/725-moshe-rabbenu-teaches-loving-kindness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/725-moshe-rabbenu-teaches-loving-kindness

art-goldencalfHere's a drash on loving-kindness adapted from my book Creation to Completion, which comments on parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35).

Parashat Ki Tisa includes Hashem’s revelation of his glory to Moses, the thirteen attributes of God. This self-revelation opens with the words, “Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, full of chesed v’emet—loving-kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6). Earlier, in the Ten Words, Hashem had declared that he would show chesed to “thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Chesed is an aspect of God’s character, an aspect that gets sorely tested in this parasha, when Israel builds the Golden Calf. But this same story also reveals the possibilities of chesed on a human level through the example of Moses.

Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God, “They have sinned and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,” as Scripture tells us: “Now if you will forgive their sin . . . then forgive mine as well. But if you do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather ‘wipe me out of your book that you have written’”[32:32]. (S’fat Emet)

Jewish tradition speaks of Moshe rabbenu—Moses our teacher. He not only brought the very words of God down from Mount Sinai, but he also lived those words himself, and became an example to us all. In Parashat Ki Tisa, Moses must answer a question that we all will have to answer as well: Will we live for ourselves or for others? Will we be content to seek a personal relationship with God, or will we look beyond this relationship, precious as it is, to serve those who may lack it?

In building the Golden Calf, the Israelites break the first two commandments, which forbid both the worship of any other god, and the building of an idol. It’s a catastrophic failure, but not irreversible. The idolaters are punished, but the nation as a whole is spared. In the end, the Lord promises to continue to accompany the Israelites in their journeys: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Ex. 33:14).

What is the turning point in this story? How can the people be restored after the disaster of the Golden Calf? This is where Moses makes all the difference, and becomes an example to us. Instead of distancing himself from Israel because of their sin, he continues to identify with his people despite their sin. The Midrash even pictures him sinning through breaking the tablets of the Ten Commandments, to put himself into the same situation as the rest of Israel. Now, he who has communed with God face-to-face can plead on behalf of the whole people, as one of them.

Moses’ decision to remain with his people, even at his own expense, is a picture of the covenant faithfulness, the unqualified loving-kindness, captured in the word chesed. It’s also a picture of true spiritual practice, which is particularly relevant in our narcissistic day of designer spirituality. Will we practice chesed and give ourselves to serve others, or develop a religious movement designed for our own comfort and self-fulfillment? Messiah himself is the model of such chesed, of course. He is the one “who did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but . . . humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).

When Moses persisted in pleading not for himself, but for all Israel, God rewarded both Israel and him: “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:17). We may find the same to be true in our lives, as we focus not on ourselves, but on God and his people.


Adapted from Creation to Completion: A Guide to Life’s Journey from the Five Books of Moses, by Rabbi Russ Resnik. Lederer Books, 2006.

torah Tue, 26 Feb 2013 17:39:52 +0000
over-the-top enthusiasm http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/722-over-the-top-enthusiasm http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/722-over-the-top-enthusiasm

art-songseaThen Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.
And Miriam chanted for them:
Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
(Exodus 15:20–21)

When Miriam leads the women of Israel at the parting of the sea in praising Hashem with song and dance, she is making her second appearance in the Exodus story. In her first scene, Miriam is instrumental in rescuing the baby Moses after his parents are forced to set him adrift on the waters of the Nile. She has the courage to watch over her brother’s journey in his tiny ark, and the chutzpah to approach the daughter of Pharaoh and suggest a plan that saves his life. Miriam’s act of saving Moses is essential to the entire drama that follows, but throughout this scene she’s just called “his sister” or “the girl” (Ex. 2:4, 7–9).

Only when Miriam leads the women in exuberant praise do we learn her name and her position as a prophetess in Israel. Thus the Torah underscores the importance of zerizut—enthusiasm or zeal.

It is one thing to experience God’s mercy and deliverance, quite another to recognize them and respond with the zeal they deserve. This zeal often shows up as something extra, something added to the normal and expected response. So Moses and b’nei Yisrael, the sons of Israel, sing Shirat HaYam, the song at the sea, in praise of God’s deliverance, which of course is fitting and appropriate and the least they should do after witnessing his outstretched hand and mighty arm. And then Miriam leads the women, who might be considered exempt at this moment since their fathers and husbands—the sons of Israel—have already done a good job of praising the Lord, and ramps up the praise. They repeat the first line of the song at the sea and they add timbrels and dancing and their own female voices to magnify the praise that Hashem receives.

Upon this display of enthusiasm, Miriam is recognized as a prophetess in Israel, one of only seven throughout the whole Tanakh (Meg. 14a–b).

My work with the UMJC includes coordinating the efforts of our committee chairs and regional directors. Everyone in these positions serves as a volunteer out of dedication to Messiah and the Messianic Jewish community, and I appreciate them all. But it is especially encouraging when someone tackles his or her assignment with zeal. It’s one thing to get the job done, but quite another to get it done with enthusiasm—practicing this middah elevates the climate for everyone.

Perhaps as a prophetess Miriam foresees that her fellow Israelites are going to be less than enthusiastic throughout most of their time in the wilderness. Indeed, before the chapter of the song at the sea, Exodus 15, closes, our ancestors start kvetching—“they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. . . And the people grumbled against Moses” (Ex. 15:22–24)—and they rarely stop kvetching for long after that. Miriam’s over-the-top enthusiasm provides the antidote to kvetching, however, and is surely an encouragement to the heart of Hashem. It’s a middah we do well to learn ourselves.

torah Sun, 20 Jan 2013 20:37:30 +0000
turn aside to order http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/720-turn-aside-to-order http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/720-turn-aside-to-order

art-neatdeskMoses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight . . .” (Ex. 3:3).

All of the middot are practical, and order might contend to be the most practical of all. It entails things like putting the car keys back on their hook as soon as you walk in the door, setting your alarm so you get up early enough the next morning, and keeping your desk tidy to eliminate distractions. Like all the middot, however, order must be practiced in balance. Order out of balance can become petty and compulsive, but there’s an even bigger issue of balance, which appears in Parashat Shemot (Ex. 1:1–6:1).


Our need to get things into order must be balanced by the recognition that God has a greater order. And God’s order may not always look like the order we’re trying to maintain. So Moses, as he comes of age, goes out of Pharaoh’s house, where he grew up, and sees the suffering of his Hebrew kinsfolk. He immediately takes matters into his own hands and ends up killing an Egyptian slave-driver (Ex. 2:11ff.). Moses might imagine that he is beginning to reverse the disorder of the world around him, in which God’s chosen people are slaves. But he’ll discover that God has a different order, a different timing, and that he can only succeed as he learns to conform to that.

God’s order for Moses includes a period of exile from his kinsfolk and service to his father-in-law, Jethro the priest of Midian. During this long period, God’s plan for redeeming the Hebrews begins to move forward and Hashem chooses Moses to take the lead role within it. By this time, however, Moses has his mind on other things—like sheep—and he’ll have to turn aside from the order of his life to hear what God has to say. The story continues, “When Hashem saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am’” (Ex. 4:4). As the encounter with God at the burning bush unfolds, it’s clear that Moses has to turn aside not just from herding sheep, but from the entire order of his life and outlook to come into God’s order.

So it’s good to upgrade and maintain the physical order of our lives, as we pursue this middah. Rabbi Lefin is right, of course: “All your actions and possessions should be orderly – each and every one in a set place and set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you” (Cheshbon Hanefesh). My chaotic workspace is calling out for some attention this very day, but I have to recognize that God has a far greater order. In pursuit of mussar, we need to live orderly lives, but we also need to recognize that higher order—which sometimes might appear to our eyes to be disorder—and be ready to turn aside to respond to it.

torah Sun, 30 Dec 2012 17:03:37 +0000
hard-won gratitude http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/719-hard-won-gratitude http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/all/item/719-hard-won-gratitude

art-desertjourneyI’d hate to cite one of our patriarchs as a bad example, but at first glance our father Yaakov doesn’t seem to express gratitude when Yosef presents him to Pharaoh. The king asks, “How many are the years of your life?” and Yaakov answers, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Gen. 47:8–9). Gratitude is hikarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, but Yaakov seems to focus on the bad instead.

The context of Yaakov’s statement, however, may help explain his apparent ingratitude. The Egyptians consider 110 years to be the ideal life-span, similar to the Hebrew ideal of 120. Yaakov has already exceeded that by twenty years and needs to be careful not to appear to gloat in the presence of Pharaoh. At the same time, he embraces the stature that his years afford him, as he both enters (47:7) and leaves (47:10) the presence of Pharaoh by blessing him, and “it is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior” (Heb. 7:7). Yaakov wisely downplays this superiority by recounting the difficulties of his earthly sojourn.

We see another aspect of gratitude as hikarat ha-tov as we continue in this story, though. The Egyptian peasants strike a deal with Yosef to sell themselves into bondage in exchange for grain, telling Yosef, “You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh” (Gen. 47:25 NJPS). Nahum Sarna comments, “a moral judgment on the situation is subtly introduced into the narrative by shifting the onus of responsibility for the fate of the peasants from Joseph to the Egyptians themselves. The peasants initiate the idea of their own enslavement (v. 19) and [now] express gratitude when it is implemented!” In other words, the Egyptians are too quick to recognize the good in a situation that involves great compromise.

Gratitude, like every middah, must be expressed in balance. “Gratitude out of whack,” as our Riverton Mussar introduction notes, can lead us to “placate or puff up unnecessarily those who have given to us,” and that seems to be the case here.

When the Egyptians say they are “grateful” to Yosef, they literally say, “we have found favor in [your] eyes.” Yaakov uses the same phrase with Yosef a few verses later: “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and act toward me in kindness and truth and please do not bury me in Egypt” (Gen. 47:29; literal translation). The peasants consider it a great favor just to be allowed to survive in Egypt; Yaakov looks ahead to the greater promise of deliverance from Egypt.

Recognizing the good, then, sometimes also requires recognizing the not-so-good. But we still must cultivate gratitude by expressing it for the good that we recognize. In the end Yaakov comes through on that account, and provides the example for us. He says to Yosef, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.” Yaakov recognizes that the end of his sojourn, hard though it may have been, reflects the promise and faithfulness of the Almighty.

torah Sun, 23 Dec 2012 17:12:15 +0000