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rabbi russ resnik 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, 20 Oct 2017 04:59:51 +0000 Joomla! 1.5 - Open Source Content Management en-gb equanimity and adrenaline http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/759-equanimity-and-adrenaline http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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. 

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

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

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

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

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torah Sun, 27 Oct 2013 20:32:24 +0000
immortality and zerizut http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/752-immortality-and-zerizut http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/752-immortality-and-zerizut

I just read an amazing insight into this week's parasha by the renowned Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna. He's commenting on Bereisheet 25:8, "Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people."

Sarna says the phrase "gathered to his people" is unique to the Torah and also used of Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron, and Moses (which might get us to re-think our usual portrayal of Ishmael, but that's for another blog).

It's not a synonym for death, because it comes after death, and it's not a synonym for burial in an ancestral grave (i.e. for being literally gathered to one's ancestors), because the report of burial comes after being gathered to his people. In Jacob's case, his burial followed being gathered to his people by a long period. So, Sarna says, "It would seem, therefore, that the existence of this idiom . . . testifies to a belief that, despite his mortality and perishability, man possesses an immortal element that survives the loss of life. Death is looked upon as a transition to an afterlife where one is united with one's ancestors. This interpretation contradicts the widespread, but apparently erroneous, view that such a notion is unknown in Israel until later times." (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 174)

This prooftext for intimations of immortality in the Torah comes before the one that Messiah Yeshua cites, Exodus 3:6, 15, "But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." (Mat. 22:31-32)

So our belief in resurrection, life after death, is firmly rooted in Torah itself. I'm wondering how this connects with enthusiasm, or zerizut. It strikes me that we can live this life with more adventure and less fear, more readiness to risk, and far less regret, when we know that there's life beyond this life. 

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author blog Fri, 25 Oct 2013 15:27:12 +0000
how do you get zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/751-how-do-you-get-zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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. 

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torah Mon, 21 Oct 2013 06:03:44 +0000
How do you get zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/750-how-do-you-get-zerizut? http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/750-how-do-you-get-zerizut?

Then they called Rebekah and said to her, "Will you go with this man?" And she said, "I will go." Genesis 24:58

One thing I’ve observed about the male psyche in my years of counseling married couples is a certain resistance to interruptions, however reasonable and appropriate, including (or should I say especially?) interruptions from one’s wife. Even a male like me, working on his middot and looking for opportunities to serve, to express honor, to show gratitude, can get grumpy when interrupted by an unexpected request. But I’ve also learned a technique that I’ve shared with quite a few frustrated wives; make your request, smile through the initial curmudgeonly push back, and leave it in your husband’s lap. He’ll brew on it a while and, if you leave him alone, will often show up twenty or thirty minutes later ready to do what you asked.

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. 

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author blog Sun, 20 Oct 2013 20:33:18 +0000
order, gratitude, and Noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/749-order-gratitude-and-noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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.

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torah Mon, 30 Sep 2013 19:04:57 +0000
order, gratitude, and Noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/748-order-gratitude-and-noah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/748-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.

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author blog Mon, 30 Sep 2013 15:55:04 +0000
The wrong sukkah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/747-the-wrong-sukkah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/747-the-wrong-sukkah

It's already a week past Yom Kippur and I'm still thinking about the Book of Jonah, which we read on the afternoon of the holy day. 

God tells Jonah to go up to Nineveh and declare its impending doom; instead Jonah goes down to Jaffa and finds a ship headed in the opposite direction. God deals with him, but also shows him great mercy, and Jonah finally does what he’s told; he warns the Ninevites, and they repent en masse. The Yom Kippur themes are all in play—repentance, God’s sovereignty over the nations as well as Israel, and his boundless mercy over all. Toward the end of the story there’s also a subtle connection with Sukkot: “Jonah left the city of Nineveh and found a place east of the city, where he made himself a sukkah and sat down under it, in its shade, to see what would happen to the city” (4:5).

There’s a sukkah in this story, but it’s the wrong kind of sukkah, which I’ll call the Sukkah of Wrath. Jonah’s a prophet, someone who’s supposed to represent God, and his response to Nineveh, even after it repents, is to camp out and wait for God’s wrath, which he fears won’t come. Now we know why Jonah didn’t want to warn the Ninevites in the first place. He knows how merciful God can be, because he needed a major dose of mercy himself, so he’s convinced that God is going to let the wicked city off the hook . . . and he just can’t stand it.

The problem is that we might imagine our sukkah to be like Jonah’s—like an escape hatch from a world that’s hopelessly lost and awaiting judgment. 

But the real sukkah isn’t an escape hatch. In its first appearance in Torah, Sukkot is called Hag ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering or Harvest (Ex. 34:22). Surrounded by the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, we’re to remember what God has done to bring us here: “I made the people of Israel live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God” (Lev. 23:43 CJB).

And so the sukkah is a simple hut—outwardly humble, even shabby—but our custom is to decorate it within, to make it glorious, so we can really dwell, and not just hang out, in it. It reminds me of Messiah, who comes among us in humility, unimpressive on the outside, but bearing within the glory of God. Likewise the sukkah of the harvest festival is glorified within to reflect the kingdom of God that is coming. It looks forward to what God will do, as well as back at what he had done. 

The prophet Zechariah says that at the end of the age the nations will surround Jerusalem to destroy her, and Hashem will descend upon the Mount of Olives to defeat the attackers and save the Holy City. And then, “Everyone remaining from all the nations that came to attack Jerusalem will go up every year to worship the king, Adonai-Tzva’ot, and to keep the festival of Sukkot” (Zech. 14:16). The festival of harvest in this age becomes the festival of harvest of all the nations in the age to come.

So, the right sukkah isn’t the Sukkah of Wrath, an escape hatch from a doomed world, but the Sukkah of Hope, an advance base of the Kingdom to come. The right sukkah shows that God isn’t going to abandon this world, but redeem it. It pictures God’s mission in the world, which isn’t to get us out of here, and safely tucked away in heaven, but to reunite heaven and earth, and us along with them, in the renewed creation.  

Now, I started with the title “The Wrong Sukkah,” but that’s totally negative. We should focus instead on the right sukkah, the Sukkah of Hope. So, here’s a new title: “Are you sitting in the right sukkah?”

The Lord poses the same question from a different angle to Jonah, who is still sitting in his sukkah. Hashem provides a quick-growing vine to cover the sukkah and shade Jonah from the blazing sun, and then he provides a worm to kill the vine, and a scorching east wind to blast down on Jonah’s head. The prophet, who was probably just beginning to calm down after seeing the evil Ninevites repent, gets upset all over again and says for the second time, “I’d be better off dead!” (4:3, 8). The Lord responds with a question that ends the whole book: “You’re concerned over this vine, which cost you no effort; you didn’t make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left — not to mention all the animals?”

It’s a great ending, because it really leaves the ending up to Jonah, and up to us as well. Are we going to sit in the escape hatch, the Sukkah of Wrath, or in the Sukkah of Hope?

Consider the logic here. Jonah cares about the vine because it has provided comfort to him. And the Lord says, “shouldn’t I care about Nineveh?” Apparently, just as Jonah got some comfort from the vine, Hashem derives comfort from humankind, even from wicked humans who are so lost they don’t even know their right hand from their left.

Jonah reminds me of the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the brother who is uptight because his sinning, unruly little brother has come home and gotten totally forgiven and restored. Like Jonah, the older brother is holed up in the Sukkah of Wrath. Yeshua tells this story because some of his religious opponents criticize him for hanging out with sinners. So he tells them that he’s like a shepherd who has 100 sheep and discovers that one has gone astray. He goes after the one lost sheep and rejoices when it’s found. He’s like a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one. She drops everything else and searches for that coin until she finds it. And then the punch line: “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

The religious folk who argue with Yeshua probably figure that if you’re righteous, you’re going to get away from sinners as fast as Jonah got out of Nineveh. That idea is still popular today, but Yeshua teaches that salvation isn’t just about escaping the judgment that is hanging over this world—and don’t get me wrong, there is a reality of God’s wrath and Messiah Yeshua is the way of escape—but salvation is far bigger than that. The Sukkah of Hope isn’t an escape hatch, it’s an advance camp of the age to come, which has already broken into this age. In it we abandon any judgmental, get-me-outa-here approach to the world, and get ready to serve and prepare the way for the kingdom to come.

These stories make another point. God values people and counts each one as precious, even people who think he doesn’t exist, like the atheist who lives down the street, or people who might think God exists, but live like they wish he didn’t, like the latest high-profile adulterer to show up on the evening news, or the thief who broke in and stole your TV to pawn it for drug money. We’re to share not only God’s compassion for such folks, but also his desire to gather them in as something precious, to harvest the bounty that belongs to him.

So, as we continue our celebration of Sukkot, let’s be sure we’re sitting in the Sukkah of Hope, looking forward to the age to come, and ready to go out and serve it in this age.  

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author blog Fri, 20 Sep 2013 15:08:35 +0000
Holy days and humility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/746-holy-days-and-humility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/746-holy-days-and-humility

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live . . .” (Amos 5:4).

The connection between humility and the High Holy Days might seem pretty obvious. For the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and especially through the ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we’re supposed to devote ourselves to self-examination, to making amends for wrongdoing, and to confessing our sins before God. The lengthy confession of sin on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is followed by Avinu Malkenu, when we all stand before the open ark and recite, “Our Father, our King!  Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own; deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.”

What could be more humble than this statement of our utter unworthiness? Humility by definition requires a sober, unflinching assessment of self, and an awareness of who we really are in the sight of a holy God.

But the practice of humility is meant to take us beyond this self-assessment, which shows us how unworthy we are to stand in God’s presence. That’s a stage in humility, but the goal is to get beyond self-focus altogether. We’re not to remain in the confession-of-sin stage, but to move on through it to the presence of God. Humility admits that sin is the barrier between us and God, but it doesn’t quit at the barrier.

Rabbi Baruch (an 18th century Hasidic master) had a grandson, Yechiel, who was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his friend to find him. After waiting a long time, he came out from his hiding place, but the other kid was nowhere in sight. Now Yechiel realized that the boy had not really looked for him at all. Weeping, he came to his grandfather to complain about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, brimmed with tears, and he said: God says the same thing; I hide, but no one wants to seek me!

This tale is touching on many levels, but one point in particular helps define humility. We, like Yechiel, might think the drama is about us, but really it isn’t. We might think the Days of Awe are only about self-examination, confession, and repentance. These take humility, but if we dwell there, we miss the true meaning of humility. We don’t practice it by dwelling on our multiple shortcomings, but on the One who can remove them, the One who says, “Seek me and live!” 

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author blog Mon, 09 Sep 2013 01:40:23 +0000
Jonah—a midrash on responsibility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/745-jonah—a-midrash-on-responsibility http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/745-jonah—a-midrash-on-responsibility

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Yonah and, in many congregations, spend some time discussing it through the long hours of the fast. It seems like there’s something new to discover every year, so this year let’s do a quick review of Yonah in light of the middah of responsibility.

As the book opens, Yonah doesn’t seem to want the responsibility that Hashem gives him, to “get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out to it that their wickedness has ascended before me” (1:2). Instead of going up to Nineveh, Yonah goes down . . . down to Yafo, down into a ship bound for Tarshish (the exact opposite direction from Nineveh), down into the ship’s hold, and down for a nap, while the ship’s crew are fighting for their lives against a mighty storm (1:3–6). The pagan ship captain finally has to yell at Yonah to “get up” and pray, using the same imperative, qum, that Hashem used in verse 1.

But prayers are to no avail, and Yonah’s downward journey away from his God-given responsibility continues. The verbal root yarad was repeated four times in quick succession, ending with Yonah’s nap in the hold of the boat. Now the sailors toss him out of the boat to appease Hashem and Yonah sinks to the bottom of the sea: “to the base of the mountains yaradti, I have descended” (2:7). Yonah “hits bottom”—initiating a concept that will make sense to countless recovering addicts—turns around, and finally accepts his responsibility to “Get up and go to Nineveh (3:1-3),” as God commands, with the same phrase that opened the whole book, and the third and final qum.

So Yonah will go to Nineveh and proclaim whatever God commands, and we’ll discover what kept him from accepting this responsibility in the first place.

Yonah proclaims, Nineveh repents, and God changes his mind about destroying it. Then Yonah takes on responsibility that’s not his—worrying about why God decides to forgive the wicked city, and whether this is a good idea. Apparently such worries had kept him from accepting his responsibility to proclaim God’s word earlier: “O Lord! Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? That is why I fled beforehand to Tarshish. For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (4:2).

We often avoid fulfilling our real responsibilities by taking on responsibilities that aren’t ours. I mentioned the concept of hitting bottom, often heard in discussing addiction. In my occasional work with recovering (and not-yet-recovering) addicts, I’m struck by how many are rather controlling people. Some guy can’t get his own drinking, with all its consequences, under control, but doesn’t hesitate to tell his wife how she ought to do the dishes or discipline the kids, neither of which he’s willing to do himself. He gets so frustrated with trying to control her that he goes out to have a few beers and disappear for the night, obviously dropping all his own responsibilities on the way.

So, Yonah questions God’s greater purposes, which are far beyond him, and avoids his own responsibility, which is close at hand.

The lesson for us in this season of repentance is that we might need to turn away from the things beyond our control, and hence beyond our responsibility, and focus on the things for which God will really hold us responsible, even if we’re tempted to run from them. 

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author blog Sun, 08 Sep 2013 00:47:41 +0000
responsible for all Israel http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/744-responsible-for-all-israel http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/744-responsible-for-all-israel

Last night our chavurah joined the wider Jewish community here in Albuquerque for a multi-congregation Selichot service. For those unfamiliar with this tradition, “Selichot” refers to prayers for forgiveness and restoration. The custom since early medieval times is to recite these prayers early in the morning, before sunrise, for at least four days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Some commentators relate these four days to the four days during which an offering was examined before being presented in the temple. Since we present ourselves as an offering on Rosh Hashanah (very much in line with Romans 12:1), we examine ourselves in God’s presence for four days leading up to the holy day.

Normally Selichot prayers are said in the early morning as part of the Shacharit service, but the first Selichot service is traditionally a larger, communal gathering right at the close of Shabbat.

Our sages, of blessed memory, said that the Divine Presence dwells neither in the midst of sadness, nor in the midst of idleness, but in the midst of joy at having fulfilled a commandment (Shabbat 30b). Therefore, it is good to pray when one is in the midst of joy at having fulfilled a commandment [through honoring Shabbat]. (SY Agnon, Days of Awe.)

I encouraged our chavurah to attend the service for its own sake, of course (and it was a beautiful event), and also because unity with the wider Jewish community is in itself an act of restoration in preparation for the High Holy Days. Jewish solidarity also reflects the middah of responsibility. I’m responsible for being part of the local Jewish community, even though, as a follower of Yeshua, my participation is sometimes marginal.

The morning before the Selichot service I was reviewing some of the scholarly discussion on Romans 11 and its bearing on replacement theology. One anti-replacement scholar writes:

The chosen remnant is not to be understood as the "saved" minority portion of Israel over against the "lost" majority. The remnant is rather the representative part of the whole, the very means by which the whole of Israel (including the hardened portion) is already made holy. "If the . . . first fruits [are] holy, the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy" (11:16). (Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals, p. 174)

This calling is way beyond me, but if I’m part of a remnant in Messiah that somehow preserves the holiness of all Israel, I have real responsibility to remain connected with all Israel. Rather than finding ways to keep my distance from the Jewish community, as Yeshua-believing Jews often do, I should be looking for times and places of deep connection. Our local Selichot service is just one example, but it’s a particularly good example because unnecessary estrangement from the Jewish community is something that many of us need to confess as sin during this season of self-examination. Being for Yeshua makes me more, not less, responsible for all Israel. 

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author blog Sun, 01 Sep 2013 17:25:14 +0000
chesed in action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/743-chesed-in-action2 http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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.

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daily living Mon, 26 Aug 2013 16:36:02 +0000
chesed in action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/742-chesed-in-action http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/742-chesed-in-action

Chesed or loving-kindness is an essential human attribute, but it’s first of all a divine attribute. If we want to cultivate chesed, we should pay attention to how Hashem exercises it. And God’s chesed is on display at the conclusion of the Haftarot of Comfort, the passages from Isaiah that we read during this period between Tisha B’av and Rosh Hashanah.

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.

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author blog Sun, 25 Aug 2013 19:08:44 +0000
moderate repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/741-moderate-repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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.

 

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mesorah Mon, 19 Aug 2013 18:48:58 +0000
moderate repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/740-moderate-repentance http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/740-moderate-repentance

I have to admit that I approach the Days of Awe with some ambivalence. Unlike any of you, I’m a bit melancholic by temperament and I don’t look forward to the somber, gloomy, endless-confession aspect of these days.

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.

 

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author blog Mon, 19 Aug 2013 16:29:07 +0000
immovable mercy http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/739-immovable-mercy http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/739-immovable-mercy

Adaptability is rooted in security.

Those who are insecure become rigid, dogmatic, inflexible. But if I know I won't break, I can bend. I can return to Hashem, do teshuvah, the deepest adaptability, because I know he is merciful and won't smash me when I come back after all my wanderings.

Throughout Scripture, he reassures us of that truth, as in our haftarah for this week, fifth in the series of haftarot of consolation after Tisha B'Av, leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Days of Awe. We, the people of Israel, have wandered off from Hashem, and felt his anger, climaxing on the original Tisha B'Av, when the Babylonians destroyed the first temple. But Hashem has called us back, "like a wife forlorn and forsaken" (Is. 54:6):

"For the mountains shall depart
And the hills be removed,
But my hesed shall not depart from you,
Nor shall my covenant of shalom be removed,”
Says the Lord, who has mercy on you. Is. 54:10

Teshuvah requires the deepest adaptability, but it won't destroy us. The unchangeable hesed of God empowers us to do whatever we must to return to him. Let God's immovable mercy draw us into this season of teshuvah as we prepare for the Days of Awe.

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author blog Tue, 13 Aug 2013 12:22:19 +0000
adaptibility and teshuvah http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/item/738-adaptibility-and-teshuvah2 http://rivertonmussar.org/middot-character-traits/humility/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. 

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daily living Mon, 12 Aug 2013 20:16:44 +0000