by Sam Glaser
One of the benefits of producing recordings for clients is that work is never boring. Everyday is as different as the singers, songwriters and bands that avail themselves of my services. This particular week I’m producing a single for an Australian non-profit, music for sports teams, an album for a budding female heavy metal rocker and a folk/rock project for a cantor from the Washington DC area. I have a new client about whom I’m very excited: I’ll be producing the musical soundtrack for an educational project in the UK called Loving Classroom. The founder of this program, Rabbi David Geffen, realizes that Judaism’s great teachings in terms of improving character traits and interpersonal relationships, must be shared with the world. He is doing just that, one school at a time.
The Jewish Nation has contributed profoundly to the sciences, politics and arts, but our most crucial gift is disseminating methods of building character. Judaism is the original self-help seminar. We’ve been offering personal growth secrets long before Andrew Carnegie, EST and Tony Robbins. Rabbi Geffen is in the first stages of encouraging teachers and administrators to refine students’ character traits as a prerequisite to improving math or English test scores. His client schools have already documented marked results in the reduction of bullying, cliques and vandalism. The Loving Classroom curriculum emphasizes our human interconnectedness, our belongingness to a greater whole, which he calls the “humanity being.” The eight core lessons discuss the basic middot (character traits) of respect, compassion, listening, kindness, gratitude, love, care and friendship. When students endeavor to reach mastery in these areas, the result is a “loving classroom” and eventually as they matriculate, a loving world.
Middot comes from the word “measure.” We are measured by our middot. Alternatively, each of our character traits must be “measured” or balanced, within limits. For example, if we are too charitable we may neglect our own needs, too compassionate in justice means we are letting murderers go free, too strict and we don’t cut others slack. Any given middah isn’t good or bad until it gets extreme. Finding this balance is our real work, and when we see that one side is off kilter, we just have to emphasize the other side of the continuum to restore equilibrium. Easier said than done! Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement (concerned with enhancing moral and ethical conduct) states that repairing one bad trait is harder than learning the entire Talmud. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying! Our Joy of Judaism is at stake! Rambam maintains that imbalanced character traits create a veil that screens out the potential for holiness in our lives. Maximizing holiness is our foundational mission statement and our channel to true joy. Yes, we have a lot of work to do.
The illustrious commentator Rashi maintains that the Torah should have begun with the first laws given to the nation in the book of Exodus, at the cusp of our liberation from Egypt. So then why does God opt to include the adventures of the Avot (patriarchs and matriarchs) in Genesis? Rashi responds: so that we can learn about their middot (character traits). In other words, our newfound freedom and the gift of the Torah had to be preceded with learning how to be a mensch (a real human). The Talmud echoes this priority, stating that “derech eretz kadma Torah” (common decency comes before Torah wisdom). All the brilliant laws of Torah are irrelevant if they don’t result in creating a kind, just, compassionate society. Conversely, intellect without proper character development is a recipe for disaster. The great mystic, Rabbi Chaim Vital, writes that there is no specific mitzvah for character refinement in the Torah because improving middot is a prerequisite for the acquisition of Torah. The Vilna Gaon seconds the motion: he states that the very purpose of our lives, our “field to work,” is to break our bad traits and inculcate good ones.
This emphasis of character over all other virtues fills the narrative of Genesis.
Avraham rebels against the status quo but becomes an icon of kindness and radical hospitality. He intuits the importance of good middot since he sees that coming closer to the One True God is accomplished by emulating Godly acts. Avraham’s servant Eliezer, when searching for a potential mate for Yitzchak, sets up a convoluted scenario to ascertain which prospective girl will be the one. The test consists of finding someone who will not only show kindness to him, but also to his animals. Rivkah miraculously wins the contest and her superlative middot make her a perfect candidate to fill the late Sarah’s shoes, or rather, her tent. The legacy of greatness is set in stone with the addition of matriarchs Rachel and Leah, providing a genetic predisposition towards grace and resolve for all who follow. As each subsequent generation in the Torah is challenged with the mantle of leadership, it is always the quality of middot that determines who carries the torch.
Ask any shadchan (matchmaker) what are the three most important characteristics of a potential spouse and the answer will be middot, middot, middot. In our community, the first question asked by parents regarding a child’s choice of friends is, “How are his/her middot?” The ultimate nachas (Jewish pride) results from hearing that one’s offspring instigated an act of compassion. With our own children, my wife and I have marveled at these occasional accomplishments. Max, our very social eldest child, had large groups of friends “kicking back” at our home every Shabbat afternoon. We loved that the gang chose to chill under our roof, but that was only because Max was so careful to monitor their activities so that they didn’t damage the house, raid the refrigerator or disturb my beloved Shabbas nap. Jesse was fiercely loyal to his friends and had no patience for the antics of class bullies. When he saw someone getting picked on, he would rally for the victim at the expense of his own health and popularity. Sarah noticed that when birthdays were announced in the morning davening, some girls got enthusiastic cheers and gifts and others were barely applauded. She took it upon herself to bake her gourmet cupcakes for EVERY member of the class so that no one would ever feel left out. Yes, we were thrilled to hear that our kids were on the dean’s list. But it’s these middot victory moments that are truly carved in our consciousness and earned our greatest praise.
Proper middot are emphasized in chinuch (education) not only for interpersonal harmony. Our sages teach that God operates middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. God deals with us in the precise manner that we deal with others. When we are compassionate, we are rewarded with compassion. When we are judgmental of others, strict judgment results. So too with cruelty, impatience, aggression and bitterness. We must judge to the side of merit! Avoid anger at all costs! The importance of nurturing good middot is a primary reason to moderate the intrusion of popular culture in our lives. The media thrives on sensationalism, gossip, violence, criticism and extremism. One may choose to stay current on the films winning Oscars and the songs winning Grammys. But ideally, for every input that glorifies negative middot, we need one that emphasizes good middot. Hence the existence of the Mussar Vaad.
A Mussar Vaad is a group meeting or class that systematically analyzes specific middot. Some spend a few weeks on any given middah, some a year on each. Many vaadim are “locked in,” in that once the group is established, it cannot be joined by others. That allows the group to grow together over the years without distraction. They often are separated by gender to allow the unique needs of each sex to be addressed. Text study is carefully selected to reinforce the importance and application of the specific middah and the passages are exhaustively reviewed to inculcate the message. The goal is to settle for nothing less than heroic character, to emulate the patriarchs and matriarchs in the quest for ultimate human nobility.
The director of the International Organization of Mussar Vaadim, Rabbi Leib Kelemen, travels from Jerusalem to many cities in the U.S. each month to lead these transformative workshops. I have learned with this gifted teacher and author on many an occasion and wish that my erratic schedule would have permitted commitment to one of his groups. I have watched my friends in the program reach great heights in their personal growth. I realize that those commitments that I make in my own tikkun middot are fragile. I do grow, but very slowly, largely because I do not have the infrastructure that a vaad might provide. For those of us who cannot fulfill all those New Year’s Resolutions and are frustrated with the same old, same old each Rosh Hashana, perhaps a Mussar Vaad is in your future! One of my friends responded to my interest in the vaad by saying, “Sam, if you apply the same amount of effort to acts of loving-kindness, the world will be in an even better place.” In mention this to clarify that not everyone is a fan of mussar.
Assuming you don’t have the time to dedicate to a vaad, what’s the next best option? Simply work on one middah at a time. The best way to figure out where to start is to contemplate which middah you have the hardest time keeping in balance. Once you deduce whether it’s anger, impatience, laziness, narcissism, selfishness, callousness or whatever, learn to focus on the appropriate counterpart. Right after you say Modeh Ani in the morning, contemplate how joy, patience, selflessness and compassion will fill your day. There are multiple sources of lists of middot on which we can concentrate. Perhaps the most famous is the “Forty-Eight Ways to Wisdom” enumerated in chapter six of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is the fount from which my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noah Weinberg drew so much inspiration. Another source is an ethical program that influenced Benjamin Franklin, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov’s Cheshbon Hanefesh (moral accounting), which outlines thirteen key middot towards which we should strive. Incorporating all of these is praiseworthy, but our main task is in mastering those that offset our darker inclinations.
Whether you realize it or not, Jews believe in reincarnation. We are on a multiple lifetime odyssey of tikkun middot. The areas of character that you already have wired are those that you’ve “fixed” in other lifetimes. Those where you are challenged are the ones you have to work on now. Might as well start today – this is your life’s work! As I’ve heard my friend David Sacks ask, “Are we living life or is life living us?” Take the bull by the horns! We’re going through this lifetime anyway, we might as well get the most out of it. Think of the power you can have if you master the weak links in your personality. Think of how incredible that gift might be for yourself and to all those in your sphere of influence.
Techniques for transformation: keep written track of the times you blow it, where you are humiliated, embarrassed or disappointed with yourself. Then you will have a running list of the areas in which you need to focus. Ideally you will find a capable rabbi or wise friend to advise you throughout the process. As the Rambam suggests, when you feel the old response brewing, focus on the opposite of that approach. For example, rather than getting angry, turning red, talking fast and loud…become super chill. Take deep breaths, count to ten, speak slowly or not at all. As I tell my children, it takes two to tango. Be the one who brings peace, who can tone down a volatile situation. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin recommends “reframing.” Imagine that someone you respect has just entered the room; certainly you would not be acting with such rash behavior in their presence. If you are prone to lose your temper when you get hungry, eat an apple or granola bar before you get home and face the family. If you cuss out everyone on the highway, leave yourself an extra fifteen minutes for the trip or take Uber! We are not helpless. We are not robots. We can grow, we can transform our behavior. Perhaps the most important technique is earnest prayer. We must ask for God’s help in the task since as Rabbi Kelemen suggests, it’s impossible to change without a miracle taking place. When we have a sustained middah victory, it propels us into a realm of heroism where anything is possible.
In the Possible You seminar that I lead with my brother Yom Tov, we acknowledge that there are middot that we have learned to emphasize habitually, simply to survive childhood. We may be overly generous because we felt unloved as kids and now, without realizing it, we are on a constant quest to be loved. We may be the brave, overachieving warrior because we felt scared or helpless when we were younger. The detailed work of this seminar is to shed light on these middot in which we excel, exposing the origin of the behavior. Once we understand why we do what we do, we can then continue to excel in that area with “license” to do so, not because we are following some intangible, automatic life script but instead we operate with full awareness. We are still using our strengths, but we are doing so with deliberation, not as an insecure child but as a noble, mature adult.
Speaking of Yom Tov, I’m amazed at the remarkable job he and his wife Leah have done instilling excellent middot in their eight children. They appreciate the uniqueness of each child and calibrate their parenting efforts accordingly. They have a challenging task of bringing their secular past into their Chassidic future, taking the cream of Western thought and mixing in the unapologetic Charedi worldview that they have undertaken. They see where the Chassidic system falls short and are unafraid to modulate their children’s chinuch appropriately. Most importantly, they encourage each child to follow his or her own heart, allowing for the blossoming of their interests and strengths while keeping them on the derech (path) of righteousness. One might think that having lots of kids results in neglect and relentless competition for parent’s attention, in other words, poor middot. However, if the parents properly model good middot then the younger children learn from their elder siblings. In turn, the elder children grow up as middot supermodels and are of level of maturity that allows them to marry at eighteen, as did my eldest niece, Ruti.
I will conclude with a saga of a recent trip with Yom Tov’s family to illustrate their excellent middot and share a surprising “large world, well managed” moment.
One Spring night Yom Tov called me in desperation from Jerusalem. The time was
nearing for his once every five years family trip to the States to visit grandparents. When the airfare alone is $15,000, he must maximize the impact of these rare excursions. On this trip, Yom Tov wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of exposing his offspring to the wonder of Southern Utah’s magnificent national parks. I had the privilege of turning him onto these treasures when I was a student at University of Colorado. Five years my junior, Yom Tov joined me on many of my cross country drives from L.A. and we’d explore, hike, and four wheel drive our way across this magnificent red rock wilderness. Yom Tov was worried that he couldn’t adequately plan the itinerary, transportation and lodging for his large brood, all within a tight budget. I relished in the opportunity to help out since I have had so much experience navigating these environs.
I put together a ten-day whirlwind tour of Zion, Bryce, Antelope and Grand Canyons for the family plus the new son-in-law and baby. At the request of the kids, I arranged for the last day to include a day of skiing at the nearby red rock resort of Brian Head. I secured a massive, centrally located home on the outskirts of Zion and rented a twelve-passenger van. I planned out age appropriate hikes for each day as well as all terrain vehicle, zip lining and horseback riding activities. By the time I was finished, I realized that this was a trip I could not miss. I love these kids like my own and couldn’t imagine not going! That said, a trip like this would have been living hell with a group with less than exemplary middot. I knew that teamwork, enthusiasm and generosity would rule the day, so I cleared my studio schedule and volunteered my services as tour guide and photographer.
I learned early on how difficult it was to get twelve people motivated. Just packing up the car was a painful ordeal, not to mention the frequent stops for urination and three hours of misery at the St. George, Utah Wal-Mart. You’d think these people had never seen a big box store! Somehow we found room for four carts of groceries in a van that already was packed to the brim, thanks to the willingness of the menschy kids to be tightly packed in and have little ones on laps. We finally arrived in our mountaintop palace and everyone scrambled to find beds, without incident.
The next morning was utterly hectic. We were going to explore the insanely photogenic Checkerboard Mesa area of Zion National Park but I couldn’t get the family in the car. Breakfast was a whole production and the sandwich assembly line took over an hour. Each time we were about to roll away and sing our traditional “We’re Off on the Morning Train” song, someone else needed to pee or forgot a sweater. When we did hit the trail, everyone was in great spirits and the four and six year olds were just as gung ho as their older siblings. Once again, the excellent middot of these kids ensured that the older helped the younger and everyone shared the provisions sweetly. They even posed for photos on cue. I led the big kids and Yom Tov on a fantastic near vertical exploration of the easily climbed rock faces and we then angled down through a daunting canyon to catch the rest of the group back at the car. Later that afternoon we explored the main canyon of the spectacular park and Uncle Sam gave every child a budget to buy shiny rocks and geodes in a rustic rock shop. I noted that several of the kids opted to use their allotment to buy gifts for friends rather than for their own bookshelves.
Thankfully the weather cooperated grandly and our week was filled with once-in-a-lifetime adventures. One highlight for me was our hike along the Queen’s Garden loop of Bryce Canyon. After lunch our group split up, leaving me to pick up the rear with Sruli, the adorable four-year-old. What goes down must come up…at the base of the canyon we then had to walk a few miles back up to the ridge and this poor kid was exhausted. I had the pleasure to walk slowly with him and share his sense of wonder, perceiving the pinecones, squirrels, clouds and rocks through his innocent eyes. From time to time I tried to carry him but he was just too heavy; we made it to the end of the trail hours after everyone had finished but no one complained. When his big brother saw him struggling to walk, he galloped down the trail and put lucky Sruli up on his shoulders. Another hike took us from a dirt road at the apex of Zion Park along three miles of single track to Inspiration Point. The view was dizzying as we peered down the two thousand foot red, orange and yellow cliffs into the spectacularly verdant Virgin River gorge. Renting ATVs is always an adventure but with eight kids it’s a whole new ball game. Each one had their own vehicle and all had their share of near calamities. I took the youngest three kids on a four passenger Polaris and got a kick out of making them scream by driving especially crazily.
Here is the “large world, well managed” moment: after packing up the van on the final morning, we headed out an hour north to the Brian Head ski area. I had never visited this resort, preferring to travel to “real” areas like Park City and Snowbird a few hours further. Amidst the red rock is this small but adequate facility that still had plenty of snow on this end of April weekday. On the way, I mentioned to my brother that after skiing we were going to need to find a Jacuzzi before endeavoring to drive the eight-hours back home. I then called my parents back in L.A. to say hello. My mom said, “Did you know that your brother Joey took his family to a ski area called Brian Head for a few days? They arrived last night.” Our brother is at the same ski area? On the same day? A place that none of us had ever been before? Without knowing that we were going there? Really? Sure enough, we spent the day with Joey and his wife Jennifer and their three adorable kids. The cousins had a blast together. I got to play super uncle, initiating my Israeli family to winter sports and dashing about to keep everyone’s skis on. When I couldn’t stand having Sruli skiing between my legs another minute, Joey and I bailed the kids with Leah so that we could explore the advanced runs. Best of all, at the end of the day, all fifteen of us crammed into Joey’s balcony Jacuzzi for a good soak and a beer.
The story isn’t over. As we were about to leave, Jennifer got a call that her dear stepfather was on his last legs. He had been suffering for the past year and it was clear that his time was up. She panicked, sobbed and told Joey he would have to take her several hours back to Las Vegas immediately. Well, that was exactly the direction we were going. We were able to do the mitzvah of helping her spend time with her father during his last hours and to comfort her on the way. We also got to salvage Joey and the kid’s vacation. Jenn was tormented having to leave her family in Utah; we attempted to soothe her by reminding her that even if this was a false alarm, she wouldn’t want to look back on this event and regret that she didn’t motivate to be with her dad. We got to the Vegas airport just in time for her flight and she was able to be there with him in his last hours and serve as a source of comfort for her mother and siblings.
Tikkun middot is hard work. But it is the very task that we were place on this planet to accomplish. We all want to become experts at life. No expert gets credentials overnight! Judaism has all the techniques to realize our dreams of self-control, personal power, nobility. We just have to put in the time. Rabbi Hillel asserts that the primary mitzvah of the Torah is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” One way to understand this precept is that love of self is the prerequisite to loving others. When we master those shortcomings that we all have, we gain self-respect. When we gain self-respect we gain the respect of others and the ability to be outward focused, able to truly radiate love. Rabbi Salanter used to say, “I wanted to change the world but it was too hard, so I tried to change my city. I couldn’t do that so I tried to change my family. I finally realized I could only change myself.” Michael Jackson sang a similar refrain in our generation: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways. No message could have been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”