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rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld 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 Sun, 25 Feb 2018 21:24:34 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb honesty and trustworthiness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/715-honesty-and-trustworthiness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/715-honesty-and-trustworthiness

art-thesquareThe connection between trustworthiness and honesty would appear to be fairly simple. An individual who has regularly demonstrated honesty is usually trustworthy. However, this is not universally the case as I have seen brutally honest people say nasty things to people they love.

I have seen people assume they can be excused for not following through on a promise by “fessing up” to their regular unreliability. In other words, the connection between honesty and trustworthiness is similar to the geometric laws concerning a square and rectangle. Just as every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square, every demonstration of trustworthiness is an honest act, but not every honest act demonstrates trustworthiness.

I myself have struggled with the fact that I sometimes keep about 80% of my promises in a given week. From my perspective, this is too high. If I were to avoid promising so much I wouldn’t have this problem! There is no reason whatsoever and all it does is build a confusing image of myself internally and externally. This is where I think a healthy relationship between honesty and trustworthiness is most evidently necessary in my life.

If I were to never commit to anything, I couldn’t possibly live a trustworthy life. Who wants a friend who will always “try to make it?” Who wants an employee who will always “try to squeeze it in?” Who wants a husband who will “maybe be faithful?” These are extreme examples but they are indicative of an honesty that is never allowing a person to reach towards a greater actualization of his or her God given potential. An honest person that is informed by the desire to build trustworthiness, that has trustworthiness in mind, will be both cautious in making promises but also extra diligent to keep the promises that are necessary to have healthy relationships. This involves both honesty with others as well as an inner honesty, honesty with oneself.

Whether we like it or not, our actions and words have a powerful impact on others. Honesty as an ideal is something that can fuel a trustworthy lifestyle. Yeshua taught us to have our “yes be yes, and no, no.” This meant two things: follow through on your decisions and avoid making vows that you’ll regret later because you were not able to come through. He was demonstrating the proper balance of honesty and trustworthiness that enables the two to enhance one another. So, in this season may we all find ourselves to be people both more honest and trustworthy in a world in desperate need for both.

besorah Sun, 21 Oct 2012 19:52:50 +0000
chesed and forgiveness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/713-chesed-and-forgiveness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/713-chesed-and-forgiveness

art-forgiveIn his commentaries in both the Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur Koren Machzorim Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks of the God who “creates us in love and forgiveness, who loves and forgives, and asks us to love and forgive others.” Love is so often found side-by-side with forgiveness in discussions of God’s relationship with us.

The simple reason is clear: We are frail beings who make mistakes habitually. There is no loving humanity without forgiving people. The same reality applies to human-to-human relationships.


Forgiveness is the way a person can connect with the full humanity of another and defeat negativity and divisiveness with the power of surrender to the truth of the inherit dignity of all people. This may very well be the supreme act of loving-kindness. When I am forced to forgive another, or to ask for forgiveness, all of the idols of perfection, power, control, and self-aggrandizement are stripped away. What remains are two people, in the same condition, standing before the same God and each other. True love happens in moments of forgiveness.

In this week, take some time to think of all of the areas in your life where you need to forgive or be forgiven and take the necessary steps to make forgiveness happen. It may be the most loving thing you can do!

daily living Sun, 14 Oct 2012 20:26:05 +0000
honing in http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/712-honing-in http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/712-honing-in

art-smellrosesRabbi Yaakov said, one who is walking along the road and is studying [Torah], and then interrupts his studies and says, 'How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field!', the Scripture considers it as if he is liable for his life. -- M. Avot 3:9

This is a somewhat unusual mishna. After all, aren’t we supposed to say berachot over various features of nature? Were not both the Torah and nature given to us? The classical interpretation of this mishna is that we are being told that the most awesome work of God is the Torah itself. Unlike a regular tree of the field, the Torah is an eytz chayyim—a tree of life. It can be argued that this mishna is yet another expression of the sages’ view that Torah learning is the supreme act of Jewish devotion to God. However, I would further argue that there is another lesson being taught to us here as well.


There are proper times and places for things. Our world where one can have e-mail, facebook, a phone conversation, and texting all happening simultaneously would like us to think otherwise. Nevertheless, I think most people still know of moments in which everything else needs to be pushed aside for the sake of the task at hand. There were three things this hypothetical person was trying to do in our mishna: walk, learn Torah, and appreciate nature…one simply cannot really do all of these things well. I can’t even tap my head and rub my belly at the same time!

Awareness of the time and place in which one finds oneself is a vital component of a well balanced life. For some, concentration is hard because of distractions. For others, concentration is hard because we don’t feel we have the permission to engage in it. We think that if we are not multi-tasking the world will come crashing down. But it’s really the opposite. If we overload our minds and bodies with endless layered tasks, we may find ourselves at the end of the day not having done anything really well or too exhausted to even do anything again.

As we hone in on concentration this week, pick one thing that you often do as an afterthought (or as one of your many tasks in a normally multi-tasked conglomerate) and give that thing your full attention this time around. After all, if it’s worth doing it may be worth your full attention!

mesorah Sun, 07 Oct 2012 20:04:34 +0000
an awareness meditation http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/710-an-awareness-meditation http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/710-an-awareness-meditation

art-pocketTo complete nearly any task necessitates a fair amount of awareness. To play a game one needs to be aware of its rules. To walk across the street unharmed one must be aware of the traffic conditions. These things also require focus. Yet it seems that the more one focuses on one particular thing, the less aware that same person can become concerning everything else.

This is sometimes good. Hyper-awareness of one’s surroundings can stifle the ability to complete certain tasks. Nevertheless, a more fully integrated life does not require one to shut out the world in order to live within it. One step towards greater awareness of the world is to become more aware of one’s place in it. So…here is a practice loosely based on one recommended by the sages that can help to build awareness of “self” in the world.


Take two small pieces of paper.

On one paper write the following:

“For my sake, the world was created”

On the other, write:

“I am but dust and ashes”

Periodically throughout the day (maybe even at times you establish) pull out each piece of paper, hold one paper in each hand and read them out loud. Start to move your hands closer and closer together saying both phrases until the two papers are on top of one another folded in your hands. Hold them together for a moment and sit in the reality that both statements are true. You may find in time that you are better able to take in more of the world in which you live because you have become more aware of who you really are within it.

meditation Mon, 01 Oct 2012 16:05:22 +0000
merging keva and kavana http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/709-merging-keva-and-kavana http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/709-merging-keva-and-kavana

art-connectedThe act of giving is a relatively simple thing. When you give you are simply transferring something that was once yours to someone else. It is entirely possible to give angrily, happily, begrudgingly, indifferently, or thoughtfully. Generosity, on the other hand is a different matter. Generosity has a component of mindfulness and “heartfulness” that goes beyond the physical act of giving.

Jewish tradition discusses the role of keva (structure or vessel) and kavana (intentionality) quite frequently when dealing with the fulfillment of mitzvot. Depending on the particular mitzvah, or circumstances surrounding the performance of the mitzvah, the importance of one will often outweigh the other. There are few exceptions to this rule. One of those exceptions is the mitzvah of tzedakah. One has not fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah unless both the intentionality to give and the act of giving have taken place. The fact that tzedakah has no fixed measure (unlike tithing) and no mitzvah b’racha is telling. Without those fixed prescriptions, it is impossible for the mitzvah to have been properly performed, bedieved (after the fact). One has to both do it, and with full intentionality. Here is where generosity comes in.

Generosity is an act that necessitates fullness of being (like tzedakah). In fact, tzedakah is a form of generosity. No bifurcation of keva and kavana can be present if one is to be fully generous. When we flex out generosity muscles, we are working on being full human beings. I think this is one of the reasons generosity can be very hard for some people. It takes a great deal of energy to do something with full keva and kavana and a culture that prefers efficient multi-tasking over extended focus exacerbates the difficulty. It is not enough to throw generous feelings in the general direction of someone in need. It is not enough to “get it done and over with.” So, as we work on our generosity this week, may we allow ourselves to throw the fullness of our being into it…this may be the only way.

mesorah Sun, 23 Sep 2012 06:11:44 +0000
good morning enthusiasm http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/707-good-morning-enthusiasm http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/707-good-morning-enthusiasm

art-bedjumpRabbi Joseph Karo begins his code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) with a statement concerning the way one should get up in the morning:


השחר מעורר הוא שיהא, בוראו לעבודת בבוקר לעמוד כארי יתגבר

One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator, so that it is he who awakens the dawn. (Orach Chaim 1:1)

There are at least three important statements in his introduction:

  1. One ought to be as strong as a “lion” when getting up in the morning
  2. One needs to “strengthen himself” to actually be able to be as strong as a “lion” upon awaking
  3. The purpose of the lion-like strength is for the service of God

Undoubtedly morning grogginess is not a phenomenon exclusive to the late 20th and early 21st centuries (although sleep habits are a big issue in our culture). The fact that Rabbi Karo explicitly states that one needs to “strengthen himself” to get up every morning in the fashion he describes is indicative of the fact that there is something challenging to it. If we follow the logic then we see that we must work hard every morning to be enthusiastic to serve our Creator; we need to act with enthusiasm before we feel enthusiastic!

In reality, Rabbi Karo is teaching something about the way to maintain enthusiasm consistently. Too often the emotional component of the middah of enthusiasm is overemphasized in the human experience. There are some things in life that may require my enthusiasm that I do not feel enthusiastic about. My clients need me to be focused and engaged when we interact. I may have a million other things going on in my life but my own emotional feeling of enthusiasm cannot be the deciding factor in determining whether or not I interact with them with enthusiasm. In other words, enthusiasm is beyond fleeting feelings. Enthusiasm, at its core, is a propelling force towards another person/object/task. That does not require my emotional excitement. What it does require is diligent effort. We need to work at enthusiasm and the effort may at times precede the excited feeling.

Enthusiasm enables us to serve God and others in a way that honors the dignity of both. The key to maintaining that enthusiasm is to not get so caught up needing the emotional rush of the excited feeling to come first in the journey to greater enthusiasm. The journey may begin with getting out of bed, whether it feels good or not, and pushing ourselves (and the world) closer to God.

daily living Sun, 09 Sep 2012 17:43:20 +0000
a "key" to success http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/705-a-key-to-success http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/705-a-key-to-success

art-shiftkeyThe first time I ever needed to type out an outline for a school project included what could be considered one of the biggest, “duh,” moments of my life.

I sat down to begin the project before becoming deeply troubled about something missing on our keyboard. I was staring at my home computer for quite a few minutes before exclaiming to my mother that we needed to purchase a new keyboard for our computer. She asked me why I felt this way. I explained it was because our keyboard was missing the Roman numerals. Now I was a relatively intelligent kid, but I was genuinely stuck. My mother walked over to the computer, gently smiled, indicated to me that it was fine, and then pressed “shift + I.” I was so shocked. I had spent all that time unaware that all I needed to use was the shift key! In my mind I was making the process way more complicated than it needed to be.

There are things in life that are genuinely complicated. Not everything is easy. Nevertheless I would hazard a guess that there could be issues in my ethical/moral/spiritual life that I mentally agonize over that are probably as simple as pressing “shift +I” for the first Roman numeral. In the case of the keyboard incident I had an expectation that there would be separate keys for roman numerals or perhaps that pressing “shift + 1” would result in an “I” showing up. The reality of the situation had thrown me for a loop so much that I could not see what was right in front of my eyes…literally. Unfortunately, this isn’t limited to keyboards. Many times in life we find that solutions to major problems involve us running around looking in the wrong places for our answers when the right answer is staring at us in the face. The joke about the man who prays to be saved from drowning to death and turns down three human interventions because he believes God will save him is appropriate to this discussion. The man dies in spite of the fact that God sent him three answers to his prayer. The problem was that the man wasn’t getting the kind of solution he was expecting.

I’ve learned over the past couple of years that mussar is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. When I meet with my partner weekly, journal daily, meditate on the middot regularly, and read the materials I improve. When I slack on those things, I do not do as well. It’s that simple. In this season of teshuva we probably know a healthy portion of the things we need to do to make amends. If we don’t know, maybe God is the ultimate “shift key” for turning those things we thought only had one meaning into what we need. Let’s take this week of simplicity as an opportunity to face the reality right in front of us.

daily living Sun, 02 Sep 2012 19:44:27 +0000
compassion through forgiveness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/701-compassion-through-forgiveness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/701-compassion-through-forgiveness

art-openhandsFor the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all its ruins, and He will make its desert like a paradise and its wasteland like the garden of the Lord; joy and happiness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and a voice of song. -- Isaiah 51:3

Every year we arise out of the ashes of Tisha b’Av and are met with words of comfort from the prophets each Shabbat. The above is the final verse of the second Haftarah of consolation during the seven weeks between Tisha b’Av and Rosh HaShana. The common thread of these special haftarot of comfort is God’s compassion toward his people through restoration, empowerment, and recognition of the greatness of the Lord. God’s compassion in these verses is expressed in his forgiveness after years of punishment.

One of the deepest forms of human pain is the feeling of estrangement as a result of being unforgiven by those whom we’ve hurt. That God would forgive us after so many years of disobedience is one of the most compassionate things he does. It is also one of the most compassionate things we can do. It is easier to be kind to those people we know have been afflicted due to no fault of their own. It is quite another thing to show compassion to those who we feel “deserve” punishment. There are people in this world who are self-serving and wicked and are not motivated to betterment. This, however, is not true of the majority of people. Most of us generally have good intentions though we regularly screw up and become self-centered at times. In this season of teshuvah we are uniquely called to not accept our “status quo” failures lying down. We have to confront our shortcomings and do the work necessary to make things right in the future (and repair past damage when possible). Nevertheless, the season of teshuvah is also characterized by compassion for others through forgiving them for their wrongs against us. We listen every Shabbat to words of God’s forgiveness and we are called to follow suit. This does not mean we become trampling mats. All people deserve to be treated with dignity. Our own dignity is not less important than anyone elses. That said, healing cannot take place with everyone holding grudges against one another. God began the healing process by giving us the opportunity to do teshuva and by forgiving us for our wrongs. When we do the same, we draw closer to full redemption because if we all worked to eagerly improve while forgiving one another when we fall short the world would start to look much more like God’s kingdom. May we all use this season of compassion to forgive one another and work towards a better future.

daily living Mon, 13 Aug 2012 03:31:11 +0000
God’s trust in us http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/693-god’s-trust-in-us http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/693-god’s-trust-in-us

art-feedingbirdOne of God’s greatest gifts to humanity is free will. That gift produces the opportunity to be creative, thoughtful, decisive, curious, and more. With free will we are given the privilege to partner with God. Any partnership requires mutual trust for it to be positive. Our human partnership with God is no exception.

Trust in God is something that many religious people express the desire to pursue regularly. Less regular is the expressed desire to explore what it means that God trusts us! God knows everything about us, and he still entrusted free will, Torah, the world, and much more to us. He knows of our imperfection and regular failures. He still deemed it appropriate to give the Torah, send Yeshua, and send the Ruach HaKodesh to empower us and equip us to step into the vision He has for us.


One of the most humbling and simultaneously empowering realties we can embrace is God’s trust in us. I would not characterize humanity as generally trustworthy. We are trusted, but not trustworthy. I do not think I will ever understand why God would trust us, but I do find there is a direct relationship between my trustworthiness and my sense of being trusted. When people expect that I can be trusted I find myself behaving as if they’re right!

You are trusted just by virtue of the fact that you are a human being. Let this reality be something you allow yourself to enter into. If you realize you are trusted you may find yourself doing things that demonstrate trustworthiness. May we all find ourselves acting out of an awareness of being trusted.

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”  -- Romans 8:32, NASB

daily living Sun, 22 Jul 2012 05:32:16 +0000
loving-kindness in action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/692-loving-kindness-in-action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/692-loving-kindness-in-action

art-gasstationMy maternal grandfather is often one of the least effusive people I know. He has a big white beard and it is rare that one can get a sense of what’s going on under there at any given moment. Affectionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when I think of him. At the same time I can safely say he is the kindest man it has ever been my privilege to know.


He and my grandmother live in a small town in western New York and they are known, and loved, by nearly everyone. I was driving to their home for winter break one year of college and had gotten turned around. I went into a gas station to get directions and met a gentleman who was from their town. I knew to tell him whose grandson I was. Sure enough the guy let me follow him all the way to the main road because my grandfather had shown him deep kindness at one point.

Lovingkindness transcends outward appearances for him. It is actually a way of being for my grandfather. He is not kind so that others will feel like he’s being kind. He is kind because he actually wants to help others with whatever they may need. This is not to suggest that affection is inherently superficial. Nevertheless, one’s way of being can overcome what may initially seem to be a rough exterior.

Shammai said, “Say little, do much, and greet everyone with a cheerful face.” Even is no one can see your cheerful face, the attitude and way of being are what really matters. Whenever someone is in need, the first thing my grandfather does is find out what exactly they need and then either provides himself or finds someone who can provide. He does not let a need he is aware of pass by without having done something to be a part of the solution. Be it through prayer, sitting and listening, making a phone call, giving a ride, etc.  we each have the opportunity to live very similar lives. May we all grow in active loving-kindness!

daily living Sun, 15 Jul 2012 21:19:44 +0000
obstacles to concentration http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/685-obstacles-to-concentration http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/685-obstacles-to-concentration

art-troubleharryOne of my favorite movies is an Alfred Hitchcock film titled, “The Trouble With Harry.” This film was his only comedy (though humor played a role in some of his other films and his television show). As one might expect, it was a dark comedy. Two of the characters in the film are a small town doctor and a dead man named Harry who is in some ways the main character of the film. This small town doctor encounters Harry in a field a few times throughout the film by tripping over him. It is only during his final encounter that the doctor is actually polite enough to excuse himself. You see, the doctor never realizes he’s tripping over a dead body each and every time because he’s reading a book while walking each and every time! The doctor is concentrating so much on his book that he can’t even notice such a startling feature of his environment, namely, this dead man.

Concentration is an important middah to cultivate because it is necessary for so many endeavors in life. Nevertheless, concentration must also have awareness of one’s environment mixed into the equation. If I were to concentrate on my side view mirrors exclusively while driving I would likely get into an accident very quickly. Concentration in driving requires a more global awareness of what’s going on. I would argue this is the case for many areas of life. While each week of mussar involves concentrating on a particular middah, the journaling and daily accounting require us to look at the other middot as well, and maybe even some that aren’t in the given cycle. Concentration usefully practiced involves a balance of focus and awareness.

The people who I have known to be excellent in concentration also tend to be the same people who are good at multi-tasking. This is because good concentration, contrary to popular belief, does not mean one shuts out any features of the external environment not associated with the task at hand. Rather, concentration is a middah that enables one to not experience the wider environment as an obstacle to the task at hand. In fact, sometimes the wider environment can be brought into the task at hand. Sometimes, things need exclusive focused attention. More often, however, the world we live in requires us to take it all in while still getting certain things done.

During this week, take one task in which you find concentration difficult. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it for lack of really wanting to do a task that makes concentration difficult?
  • Is it the time of day or place where I am doing a task linked with the difficulty?
  • If I cannot change the time or place, how can I balance my experience so as to not allow unavoidable distractions to become obstacles?

These questions may produce even more questions, but they will at least push along the process of overcoming obstacles to concentration. May we all find ourselves able to concentrate a little better in the days ahead!

daily living Fri, 06 Jul 2012 06:23:32 +0000
routine awareness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/677-routine-awareness http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/677-routine-awareness

art-tefillinThe phrase, “creatures of habit,” is not infrequently used to describe us human beings. This is not surprising given our social/cultural norms and natural makeup. Religious ritual is often seen as a reflection of our habitual nature.

Say this, bow here, stand there, turn over there, don’t eat on this date, eat a lot on this date, etc. Since we are likely to develop habits whether we like or not, I consider it a good thing to choose good habits and routines. It is better to be in the habit of working regularly, exercising regularly, and showering regularly than to be stealing habitually, abusing alcohol, and/or getting angry regularly.


A difficulty arises when we face the fact that religious ritual is meant to both habituate our lives to a holy routine as well as make us more sensitive to, and aware of God. I’m certain many of us have found ourselves driving to work and all of the sudden find ourselves having arrived without any real sense of having thought much about what we did to get from home to the work site! There are certain things we just do on auto-pilot. Our religious rituals sometimes, unfortunately, fall into the “auto-pilot” category. So how do we work that out?

The middah of awareness is both produced by, and useful to produce authentic religious ritual. The more I bless God before and after every meal, the more likely I am to be aware that all things come from God’s goodness. On the other hand, if I’m just going through the motions I can make a conscious decision to exercise my awareness muscles to focus on the words I am saying, and then I am once again back to being more aware of God’s goodness. A healthy ritual life is one that is characterized by using the religious routine to build awareness, and then using that same awareness to recharge the routine after it becomes rote. This is an ongoing cycle, but one that produces greater awareness on the whole. May we use this week to get in the habit of doing those things that make us more aware of God, and also consciously push ourselves to become more aware in the things that have become overly rote; it’s a rewarding cycle…let’s take this for a spin!

daily living Fri, 29 Jun 2012 18:01:25 +0000
generosity as stewardship http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/676-generosity-as-stewardship http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/676-generosity-as-stewardship

art-mudprintOne of my favorite jokes is a story of a group of scientists who, convinced that they don’t need God anymore, proceed to attempt to prove it by making a human being out of the dirt (like he made the first). They do quite well and God decides to let them know how nice of a job they did but, to be fair, if they really wanted to prove they didn’t need him anymore they should get their own dirt!

Do we really own anything? Yes we work hard for our pay, buy things, sell things, etc. Capitalism is far from functional if we don’t have a respect for ownership and commerce. Still if we look objectively at the world and our very lives everything belongs to God. Generosity takes on a whole dimension of meaning when we realize that we are stewards of gifts given to us. In a world where millions die of starvation I haven’t earned the right to have a full belly more than anyone else. In a country where unemployment is still so ubiquitous I don’t necessarily deserve a job more than anyone else. I have worked hard, but mostly I am blessed through no particular superiority over anyone else. For me the choice to be generous is intimately connected to the belief in, and love of God. God has been so generous to me. God demonstrated his generosity in teaching, works, life, death, and resurrection of Yeshua. If it is God’s desire that we be conformed into the image of Messiah Yeshua then generosity ought to be basic.

In times when resources seem limited, it can be scary to be generous. No one wants to be a fool who gives away what is needed for one’s survival. Nevertheless, Scripture puts an emphasis on those who give generously as being right with God and in line with his will. How can we lose what was never meant only for us anyway? When it seems scary to give, we would all do well to think of God who is the true owner of all, and who is the model of generosity.

daily living Sun, 24 Jun 2012 18:56:32 +0000
enthusiasm and endurance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/675-enthusiasm-and-endurance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/675-enthusiasm-and-endurance

art-runnersI love to run. Three years of cross country in high school planted that love firmly in my bones. For any sport, enthusiasm plays a big role.

That said, any kind of stamina dependent sport has a unique relationship with enthusiasm. On the one hand, one must really use enthusiasm to push the body to keep going. On the other hand, if one takes off like a shot in the beginning without pacing it is easy to peter out.

Life is an endurance sport! It is so easy to get excited about something and then find it difficult to keep going. Entertainment and technology markets do their fare share to make enthusiasm transient in American culture. Unfortunately, this also seeps into more crucial areas of life. The problem is we have learned to have the enthusiasm of sprinters when we need the enthusiasm of marathon runners. A marathon runner is enthusiastic because of the goal at hand, and less because of the initial rush of excited adrenaline. The marathon runner knows the race is long and that there will be pain, times to slow down, times to speed up, and potential danger if these factors aren’t accounted for. The problem is when new Yeshua believers, baalei teshuva, young couples, etc. start the marathon like their running one hundred meters. When they find they have to keep going, it gets tough.

In life, a properly balanced enthusiasm is less rooted in the initial rush of excitement and more in the desire and joy to “run the race,” as Shaul put it (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). Life takes effort to enjoy it properly, and to reach the goal. May we all find ourselves enthusiastically running the race together with endurance.

besorah Sun, 10 Jun 2012 16:15:26 +0000
back to basics http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/666-back-to-basics http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/666-back-to-basics

art-bassplayerDuring my senior year of high school, in preparation for my freshman year at the Berklee College of Music, I decided it was going to be very important for me to appreciate more complicated music.

I appreciated fast music already (I was a big thrash metal fan at the time), but I decided progressive metal, fusion Jazz, polyrhythmic everything, etc. were going to be key to my success at Berklee. By the end of my senior year of college I was listening to Iron and Wine, working on basic Motown bass lines, and singing “In the Jungle” with children on the oncology floor of Children’s Hospital. Much of the shift to “simpler” music had to do with my choice to get my degree in Music Therapy, as well as a shift in personal taste (though I still like some good fast prog occasionally). Nevertheless, there was a deeper meaning to it all.

One of my best bass guitar instructors (the instructor of the aforementioned Motown Bass Lines Lab…Yes, my school is awesome) once told us if people are attentive to what you’re playing as a bass player, you’re over playing (or poorly playing). If people are dancing, moving, and/or generally digging the feeling of the music and they can’t quite express why, you’ve done your job. This instructor had us spend the first two classes entirely on tone and perfecting steady single-note patterns. The last time I had done that was my first year of trumpet in the third grade and I was now in my last year of music college! As a bass player, and more generally as a music therapist, it took me four years to learn that the goal is not for people to hear me playing well; the goal is for people to find meaning in the music. This may sound “basic” but there is a certain amount of narcissism that can easily develop for professionals of any kind if they are not consistently brought back to the importance of the craft itself, and the importance of the other people who are supposed to benefit from their work.

The language of the Besorot, and Yeshua specifically, is not terribly complicated. There are deep and difficult realities dealt with but the presentation is often simple. Some of the truest things in this world are terribly simple. The difficulty is that simple things are not always easy and that is why simplicity takes practice too. I learned this in music; more and more I am finding it to be true in life. It can be a challenge to face the simple things we sometimes overlook or avoid. No one ever said the life of loving the Lord our God and our neighbor was going to be easy, but it’s rarely as complicated as we make it out to be. This is not to suggest things don’t ever get complicated, but we often make some things out to be complicated just so we can justify our avoidance. May we all appreciate complexity and simplicity on their own terms and never forget the basics!

daily living Fri, 01 Jun 2012 22:11:33 +0000
compassion in action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/655-compassion-in-action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/655-compassion-in-action

art-tzedakahI may be naïve, but I really do believe compassion comes naturally to most people at a core level.

If one notices a crying child in the street there is usually a longing to do something to remedy the situation (remove the child from the street, find the parents, etc.).   I actually feel that our visceral default is to show compassion to suffering creatures. Nevertheless, as we are all aware, there is a dearth of compassion in this world and this has been the case for a long time. If that tug on the heart when we see a drowning man is really so prominent within us, why do we turn away from suffering. How is it I can walk over homeless people in the streets barely helping at all? How is it I can see pictures of dying children in other countries and do so very little?


There are many factors involved, but two of the major ones are familiarity and distance (paradoxically).  Action is born of a sense of urgency of need that is decisive in character. The more familiar a thing, the less it is able to provoke a sense of newness and urgency. The homeless man hanging out in the same corner every day almost begins to become more of a landmark than a human being. On the other hand, distance from suffering also presents a challenge. It is difficult for us to maintain a deeply felt sense of the suffering that occurs in areas where we are not present.

The truth is there is too much suffering in the world for any of us to tackle it all on our own. My Great Grandma Esther (may her memory be a blessing) had a unique way of dealing with this situation: She would donate one dollar to any charity organization or person who would ask! She never turned anyone down but only gave a dollar because she needed to make sure there would be enough for her and her family. Others may choose a different approach through honing in on a specific cause or need in the world and devoting most of their energy towards that. This too is very good.

As is the case with all of the other middot, Yeshua provides the perfect example of compassion. It may be because the authors of the Besorot only wanted to share the exciting bits, but it is worth noting that we have no record of Yeshua ever turning away a single person who came to him for healing. There were some close calls, but ultimately he responded to the needs of every person he encountered. On more than one occasion the texts speak of the compassion he felt for the people he encountered. He had compassion for the folks who were fixtures of infirmity in their communities as well as the strangers who everyone thought of as outsiders (i.e. the landmark homeless man AND the dying child from a foreign country).  While Yeshua is unique in his identity and station, he has called us to have the same compassion for those in need as well as realize we all have need for God.

Many of Yeshua’s acts of compassion happened while he was “on the way,” from one place to another. Compassionate behavior was not reserved for those situations in which he was already planning to need to respond to suffering people. The same can be true for us. When strong and healthy, the middah of compassion can move us into random acts of compassion as well as pre-meditated ones. We won’t solve all the world’s problems, give money to everyone, heal everyone, etc. But we can allow our hearts to become more sensitive to needs by not allowing distance or familiarity to stop up our natural inclination to want to respond. We may not always be able to give what is needed or as much as we want, but we can embrace our instinct to act for the benefit of others to catapult us into more consistent compassionate action.

daily living Sun, 13 May 2012 05:54:01 +0000
patience in healing http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/647-patience-in-healing http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/647-patience-in-healing

art-dentistLast week I had the privilege of experiencing the removal of all four wisdom teeth and one extra tooth that had grown behind one of my top front teeth. The entire experience has been a test of patience.

The surgeon had told my fiancée that I was going to want to talk when I came out of anesthesia and that it was her job to stop me from doing so. The reason I wasn’t to speak was that I needed to keep my mouth shut down on the gauze to help accelerate the clotting process. Sure enough, I came to and started trying to talk. Apparently, I was pleasantly belligerent about the matter (although rather amusingly according to my fiancee’s report). As a result, it took a little longer than usual for the bleeding to stop.

Upon arriving home, the first day was filled with moments in which I attempted to act as if I were one step ahead of the recovery process at all times…I was impatient. It is completely understandable to be impatient when you’re recovering from a surgical procedure. Our bodies are not used to having things taken out of them and/or having new things put into them. Nevertheless, acting out of impatience when your body is trying to recover can actually increase the time necessary for recovery. In other words, it is counterproductive.

Once I began to behave patiently with my body, my recovery process began to accelerate dramatically. It’s still a little uncomfortable. I’m looking forward to apples, crunchy raw vegetables, and chips + salsa again. I won’t know until a few more days if the wounds are healing as they should. I am learning to let it all go, however. If I keep on track doing what I need to do, then there’s no shame if things take an unpleasant turn and no energy wasted when everything turns out fine.

It is my prayer that learning to be patient with my body was a mini-training to improve my ability to be patient with others. There is very little that can be accomplished trying to force any living thing to move before it’s ready. Often, you’ll spend longer in the argument about the forcing than you would have if you were just a little more patient. May this be a season in which we can all get a little better at being patient about those things over which we have no control.

daily living Sun, 06 May 2012 22:00:13 +0000
accepting compliments http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/640-accepting-compliments http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/640-accepting-compliments

art-complimentAccepting compliments can be very hard for some people. For some, the non-acceptance is considered related to the humility they hope to demonstrate.

The truth is my rejecting a compliment rarely gives the compliment giver a sense of my “great” humility. In some ways, rejecting a compliment can give a low-grade feeling of rejecting the giver. It is different if you are complimented for something you didn’t actually do; in such a case it is clearly best to name the person who should be complimented instead. Most of the time, however, you probably deserve the compliment you’ve been given.

One of the humblest people I know is a woman who is incredibly gifted and talented who, every time I compliment her, she accepts it and gives a compliment to me. It is actually very special when we have these exchanges. It is beautiful when each compliment we receive is an opportunity to bless others. You don’t want to make something up, and to take this on would require being in touch with the gifting of others. Being in touch with the gifting of others is a great way to build one’s own humility as well as strengthen the middah of honor. Humility and honor go hand in hand, and accepting honor in appropriate ways (as well as giving it appropriately) is representative of one’s humility. May we all have the opportunity to compliment one another and proceed with humility!

daily living Sun, 29 Apr 2012 23:30:25 +0000
social responsibility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/637-social-responsibility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/637-social-responsibility

art-selmamarch“In a free society, some men are guilty and all men are responsible.”

These were words spoken by Abraham Joshua Heschel concerning his specifically religious protest of the American war in Vietnam during his 1972 interview with Carl Stern. Heschel is often known for his active involvement in political and social issues, most notably his support of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Civil Rights movement more generally. In the same interview Heschel noted that his book, The Prophets, changed his life because his intensive encounter with the prophetic books pushed him out of his study and into the “affairs of men.”

It would be more than safe to say that American society is in a significant amount of social turmoil. It would be particularly short-sighted of me to claim our turmoil is “more extreme” than at other times in American history. Nevertheless, the degree of comparative severity does nothing to diminish the fact that the voices of religious concern for the wellbeing of the created world and its people need to be louder than they currently are if they are to overcome the cacophony of violence and hate. I am not convinced this is only because of sensationalist media looking to highlight religious violence (though this is a factor). Rather, I think the polarization in American politics has made many American religious individuals afraid to speak up on social issues lest they discover conservatives, liberals, libertarians, moderates, and socialists have all been breaking bread together in the same community for years.

There is not a single sphere of human life where God has neglected to demonstrate both his care as well as his expectation that we should care also. Whether as rulers (Gen 1:28) or custodians (Gen 2:15) we are responsible for this earth and we all are each other’s “keepers.” It is very hard to engage such issues in community without getting political, and getting political in community is fraught with complications. That said, I see no way for us to live up to our calling as followers of the God of Israel through Messiah Yeshua without bringing our internal work and learning of Torah, mitzvot, mussar, etc. to a world in desperate need of healing. Work on the middah of responsibility can inspire us to get involved in our local communities and towards justice in all spheres of life. With such work we may even begin to transcend our political ideologies and find common ground in the call of our Written, Oral, and Living Torah. So, as we all work toward taking the logs out of our own eyes, may we begin to see clearly enough to help our world out of its blinding darkness.

daily living Sun, 22 Apr 2012 19:26:58 +0000
do a chesed http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/634-do-a-chesed http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/634-do-a-chesed

art-dokindnessThere was an older gentleman I used to to interact with fairly regularly at a Rabbi Nachman shiur I used to attend.

Anytime he would ask for a favor, big or small, he would begin by saying this: "May I ask you to do a chesed for me?" At first, the yeshivish way of asking for a favor didn't particularly strike me. As I got to know him more and think about what he was actually asking I became deeply moved. He was one of the few people I know who really only wanted people to do things for him if they saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate kindness. He used to always speak of kindness as an amazing opportunity. To be sure he did want the things he asked of people, but he also really saw it as a blessing to be given the opportunity to be kind. His face would beam any time he shared a story of a time he had been given the opportunity to "do a chesed" for someone else. What a beautiful way to live! He was in tune not only with the actions we do for one another, but the heart behind those actions.

I have rarely found someone appreciate the things I do for them begrudgingly. For a favor to truly be a "chesed" it needs to carry the attitude of loving-kindness as much as the behavior. May this be a lesson for us all to grow closer to the attitude of loving-kindness, as well as the behavior.


daily living Sun, 15 Apr 2012 23:10:26 +0000