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Tikkun Middot: Cultivating Our Character

This year, the Reconstructionist movement is participating in a Tikkun Middot program. The goal of the program is to introduce the Jewish practice of Musar, which offers each of us a method of cultivating character traits that we want to embody. The program has been developed by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS) and is funded by the Templeton Foundation.

The central premise of Musar practice is that the ultimate purpose of each of our lives is to make this world a better place, and that integral to the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam) is the work of elevating the level at which we each individually behave in the world (tikkun middot). Through this practice, we are offered a way of becoming more patient, more trusting, more reliable, more forgiving and so on. Each of these character traits that we cultivate is called a middah (virtue or value).

The Ten Middot for 5775

1. Hitlamdut: Learning About Yourself
Musar practice seeks to help us to develop self awareness about feelings and thoughts that arise in us “out of nowhere.” That is, we feel  excited, for example, or offended, or angry, or insecure. Often enough, we leave these feeling unexamined and behave in ways that are guided by them without even knowing it. Before we can cultivate character virtues, we need to be better able to monitor what feelings are arising. Only then can we respond wisely.

I dismiss my co-worker impatiently, for example. I don’t usually do that. What is going on that led me to be short with him? If I can answer that question, I have a better chance of applying a middah to the situation.

In the practice of Hitlamdut (Learning about Yourself), you choose a short daily and routine event in your life (5-10 minutes) and remain attentive to what is going on inside of you for that short period of time. At least initially, do not choose an activity or interaction that is emotionally loaded. This practice is not about content or meaning. It is about developing your self-awareness skills.

2. The Behirah: Choice Point
We believe that we are free to make choices at every moment. In fact, at most points, we are less than completely free. We are creatures of habit. It is not so easy to abstain from eating something we have resolved not to eat, for example; not so easy to avoid falling into a well-engrained interaction with a family member or friend. Often enough, we don’t even notice what we have eaten or said until afterwards.

The behirah or choice point is the moment of greater freedom. The choice is not to buy the package of cookies; once it is in the house, it is much more difficult not to eat it. The choice is to determine what we need to modify before we are enmeshed in an oft-repeated negative interaction. Once we determine which of our behaviors we would like to modify, we can reflect what the behirah or choice point is in each instance and can work to free ourselves from our habitual behavior. In this way, we can increase the holiness in our lives and the lives of those with whom we interact.

3. Anavah: Humility
In the English language, humility is usually associated with meekness.  Not so in Hebrew.  The Torah describes Moses—the preeminent leader, the one who confronts Pharaoh and even God—as “the most humble (anav) of people.”  In the Musar tradition, humility (anavah) is understood as self-esteem, a midpoint between arrogance and self-deprecation.  One practices this middah by taking up the right amount of space.

As with all middot, the practice of anavah begins with mindful self awareness—hitlamdut.  In this meeting or that relationship, how much space do I occupy?  Am I mostly silent, listening to what others say and devaluing my opinions?  Or do I speak frequently, interrupting others, not allowing them to speak?  When I speak on the phone to a friend or a family member, is it mostly me talking about what’s important?  Or do I defer to the other person without seeming to get a word in edgewise?  Neither of these extremes is optimal.  Humility involves appropriate self-esteem and mindfully “showing up” as is needed in any situation.  It is a practice of saying “Hineni” (Here I am, ready to serve) in every situation.

I practice this by chanting “Hineni” over and over as I drive to work in the morning.


4. Savlanut: Patience
Savlanut is more than patience. We think of patience as suffering silently while someone is moving too slowly or acting in an annoying or infuriating way. We simmer until we “lose our patience” and erupt angrily, saying things we regret later.

Savlanut literally means to bear the burden of another—or one’s own burden. It doesn’t require that we remain silent when someone is upsetting us, so that eventually our anger explodes. It does not mean that we shut down and repress our negative feelings. Rather, savlanut requires that we respond to annoyances and insults in a way that maintains our relationship with the person who initiates them. We remain connected and don’t cut things off.

We all have our own troubles. Instead of judging another for upsetting behavior, try to give the benefit of the doubt. Is he distracted because of chronic pain?  Has she just learned that a family member is seriously ill?

And—if and when the burden becomes too much to bear—we ask others for help.

Is there a burden that you are carrying at the moment? Are you bearing it silently, or are you practicing savlanut?

Pirkei Avot, chapter 6: “Share the burden with one’s fellow.”


5. Chesed: Lovingkindness
We read in the Book of Psalms (89:3): “The world is built through chesed (lovingkindness).”  We are taught that God created the world in order to share God’s goodness with all of creation.  Thus, the ultimate purpose of our lives is to act with chesed, to do what we can to make this world a better place.  Classical acts of chesed (gemilut chasadim or deeds of loving kindness) include providing meals to households with newborns, visiting the sick and the isolated, and assisting the elderly or infirm.  In short, an act of chesed is any deed, however small, in which we use our life energy to help or give to another—even smiling and saying, “Good morning.”

To act with chesed requires that we pay attention to the other.  Before assuming that we know what they need, we ought to ask.  How can I help?  What do you need? Sometimes a person sitting alone would prefer to be alone.  Sometimes a person would rather walk slowly that accept a ride.  The highest level of chesed is acting in solidarity, teaches Musar master Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, bearing another’s burden with her or him, understanding things from her or his point of view.


6. Kavod: Dignity, Respect, Honor
Each human being is created in the divine image. Kavod/Respect is how we treat a being made in the divine image—including ourselves.  And it is often helpful to begin with ourselves. Most of us want to be respected, honored, treated with dignity. We grow angry when we feel that we are treated disrespectfully, when we are slighted. The best way to address that is to build a feeling of our own kedushah/holiness.

We are all holy! Kadosh kadosh kadosh Adonai Tzeva’ot, melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, we recite in the Kedushah prayer. There is a direct connection between the holiness of the divine (and all of us made in the divine image) and the fact that kavod/honor is the fullness of the divine presence.  Imagine a Paradise in which we all treat one another with respect and honor, as if we recognize the divine spark in the other.

In the practice of this middah, some of us find it helpful to chant “Kadosh…melo kol ha’aretz kevodo” for a few minutes in the morning, reminding ourselves that all of us are made in the divine image, noticing the kavod of each person, each being.

Other suggestions:

  • Once each day, choose a 30-minute period and in that period do what you can to honor anyone who comes your way.
  • Do one thing each day that demonstrates kavod for yourself.


7. Shtikah-Shmirat HaLashon: Silence and Mindful Speech
Speech is one of the defining features of humanity. It is a powerful tool that creates connections. “Have a wonderful day!” or “So nice to see you!” It only takes a few words.  At a deeper level, speech enables us to reveal our innermost feelings and our shared objectives.

But speech can also be very destructive. In a moment of frustration or anger, we can wound someone to the quick; we can gossip or slander and ruin someone’s reputation. Sometimes, in a loving effort to be helpful, we say the wrong thing and make matters worse. And there is a strain of North American culture that equates honesty with criticism—“telling it like it is.”

Often enough, silence may prove to be the holiest response. “I hear you” may be what is needed. We don’t need to fix a friend’s problem or have all the answers. We don’t even need to share similar experiences. What is needed is for us to be there, fully present and supportive, sharing the perplexity or pain. Often our first responses are not the ones grounded in wisdom.

When we do speak, we would do well to be aware of our objective. Is this the right moment to voice a criticism or make a suggestion? Perhaps what is called for is what Rabbi Nahman of Braslav called “divrei hizzuk” (words of encouragement). He encouraged his followers to speak only words of encouragement to one another.

And when we have the urge to speak badly of a third person (lashon hara), we should refrain. Are we doing this in order to build a rapport with our conversation partner at the expense of the third? There are more wholesome ways to build a rapport. Are we doing it out of anger? Anger will subside, but the words we’ve spoken cannot be recalled. Maimonides teaches that all three people (the speaker, the listener and the subject) are damaged by lashon hara. Better to be silent until we regain our equilibrium.


8. Bitachon: Trust in God
Trust is a very challenging middah to cultivate.

Most of us prefer to control our destinies and assume that control is possible.  If I work hard, I will receive good grades and be admitted to a college of my choice, or I will be promoted and receive a salary increase. If I raise my children correctly, they will be healthy and happy. If I eat right and stay fit, I will live a long, healthy life. In fact, the most qualified people do not always get admitted by college admissions committee.  They don’t always get promoted or even retained. Debilitating chronic illness, fatal ones, and accidents cause suffering that does always correlate with our self-care. We are not always able to control our good fortune.  Often enough, when our plans are derailed, we don’t know what is going to happen next.

Cultivating Bitachon/Trust involves letting go of the illusion of control.  We keep walking towards unknowable destinations, trusting that we will deal with events as well as we can as things happen. By no means do we sit and wait to be rescued; we still work actively, using our best judgment, to have an impact on our own fate and the fate of the world.  But we do so while trusting that while we don’t know everything and can’t foresee the future, we trust that things will work out.


9. Emunah: Trustworthiness
In distinguishing the uniqueness of Moses, the Torah describes him as ne’eman, as a person who is consistently reliable and dependable. The quality of Emunah/Trustworthiness is worth cultivating not only if you are a prophet, but also in small, mundane daily transactions—punctuality, saying what is true and what you really mean, or completing a task to which you committed , when you said you would complete it (and if you don’t, letting people know when it will be completed.) Acting in these ways allows others to see that they can rely and depend on you, and it encourages them to behave reliably. It forms the basic foundation of a well-functioning community or household.


10. Seder: Order
There are so many things we want to do each day.  The middah of seder/order helps us to set priorities so that we accomplish those goals that are most important. Seder is the tenth of these ten middot, but all the others rest on this middah. Without order, we are pulled in many directions, and we diminish our ability to focus on our highest priorities. How much time should I budget to address each objective? What should I address first?

It is possible to be too orderly as well as not orderly enough. For example, I may want to spend more time speaking to you because I find that most rewarding, but if I delay a less rewarding responsibility, I’ll have to take care of it later or tomorrow.  On the other hand, if I cut off our conversation at a critical moment because our time is up, I may be missing an opportunity that can not be replicated. Seder/Order requires us to balance different middot.

Finally, the rabbis taught that if you grab hold of too many things, you will not be able to keep hold of any of them. For many of us, a major obstacle to achieving seder is that we are overloaded. We just have too much to do.  Part of the work of bringing order to our lives is often giving things up, letting go of commitments and priorities that are dear to us. If there are not enough hours in a day to fulfill all of our commitments, it will not matter how we organize our time and priorities.


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