Special Holiday Edition Everything You Need to Start the New Year Right!

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By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour

A person’s worth and importance is determined not by what he has accomplished, but rather by who he is – his personality, the way he treats others, and his middot.

One of the prominent themes of the Yom Kippur observance is the concept of resembling angels.  We abstain from all physical activities as much as possible, and we spend the day involved in spiritual activities – prayer, study and repentance.  Angels are purely spiritual beings, without any physical needs or drives, and we emulate the angels on Yom Kippur by withdrawing to whatever extent we can from all worldly engagement, and becoming spiritual creatures.

There is, however, one aspect of this endeavor which, unfortunately, is often neglected, and this neglect, I’m afraid, is symptomatic of a much larger and more fundamental problem with our understanding of Judaism.

“I’m in Charge of the Butter”

The story is told of former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, who once attended a dinner at the White House.  The waiter served him his plate of bread and butter, and Senator Bradley asked for an additional piece of butter.

“Sorry, Sir,” the waiter said.  “Only one piece of butter per guest.”

“Do you know who I am?” the former Senator asked, incredulously.

“No, Sir, I don’t.”

Senator Bradley proceeded to list his accomplishments – he attended Princeton, won an Olympic medal, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, played for the NBA for 10 seasons, winning two championships, served as Senator and ran for President.

Much to the Senator’s surprise, the waiter responded with the same question.  “And do you know who I am?”

“No,” Mr. Bradley said.  “Who are you?”

“I’m the guy in charge of the butter.  And there is only one piece per guest.”

This story is not only humorous, but also indicative of the flawed perspective with which our society views people.  Our society focuses very strongly on accomplishments.  We naturally tend to view a person’s résumé, or his portfolio, as the measure of his value and worth.  In our society’s perception, a person is as important as his achievements.  We idolize athletes who can run, hit a ball, throw a ball, or shoot a puck and accumulate impressive statistics.  These people are important in our eyes because of the numerical value of their achievements.  We also idolize the entrepreneurs and investors with a large net worth.  Once again, an unusually large “statistic” is ascribed to them, and so we view them with respect and admiration.

The White House waiter reminds us that in the grand scheme of things, a waiter is not necessarily any less important than somebody who is an Olympic medalist, NBA star, Senator and Presidential candidate.  And from the Jewish perspective, this waiter is undoubtedly and absolutely correct.  A person’s worth and importance is determined not by what he has accomplished, but rather by who he is – his personality, the way he carries himself, and the extent to which he refines his character.

The Foundation of Religious Observance

This flawed, achievement-based perspective has affected our religious perspective, as well.  Too often, we assess people’s religious stature – and our own religious stature – based on quantitative achievements than could be listed on a résumé – like how a person dresses, how much time he spends reciting the Amidah, how many pages of Gemara he has mastered, and which kashrut agencies he trusts.  I do not, Heaven forbid, intend to belittle the importance of any of these areas of Jewish life.  Dress, prayer, learning and kashrut are all vitally important, and we should certainly aspire to achieve high standards in these areas.  However, the importance of these achievements must be put in perspective, without losing sight of the most important area of all – our middot (character traits).

This point is made explicitly by Rav Haim Vital, the closest and most famous disciple of the famed Kabbalist, the Arizal.  He writes, “One must exercise greater care to avoid negative character traits than to obey the affirmative commands and prohibitions, because when he has good character traits, he will easily fulfill all the mitzvot.”  Rav Haim Vital teaches that proper middot are the foundation and root of all religious observance.  Therefore, one who wishes to enhance his religious observance should devote most of his attention to his middot – more than to the rituals and “dos and don’ts” of Jewish life.  This is not because the “dos and don’ts” are not important, Heaven forbid.  They are extremely important, but a person’s middot is the foundation and bedrock upon which they must rest.  Without this foundation, our mitzvot are meaningless.

Let us take a practical example to understand the implications of Rav Haim Vital’s comment.  A man comes to the synagogue each morning, wears several different pairs of tefillin in order to satisfy all halachic opinions, wears his tallit over his head, and prays the Amidah for 15 minutes with his eyes closed and intensely swaying back and forth.  He eats only Bet Yosef meat, and each year before Sukkot he buys the most expensive etrog available.  However, he is impatient and intolerant.  He reacts angrily whenever his wife makes a mistake in the home or says something he does not like.  He slaps his children every time they misbehave, and is very demanding and unpleasant when dealing with his employees in the office.  He is also discourteous to the cashier at the grocery store.

According to Rav Haim Vital, this man is not religious.  It’s as simple as that.  We cannot say, “He is religious, but…”  If a person does not have a good character, then he cannot be religious, because a skyscraper cannot be built until the foundations are laid.  Proper middot are the foundations of piety, and thus one who does not have good character cannot possibly be pious.  It does not matter how much time he spends praying, how much Talmud he studies, or which kashrut certification he trusts or does not trust.  If he is not a nice, pleasant person, if he is impatient, arrogant, rude or short-tempered, then he is not religious.

Indeed, as Rav Haim Vital cites, the Gemara teaches that anger and arrogance are akin to heresy.  This means that without character refinement, our religious observance cannot even begin.  Refining our characters is as fundamental and basic to Judaism as the basic theological tenets of Jewish faith.  And thus people who are angry or arrogant are considered heretics, lacking the basic foundations of religious practice.

“Is it Yashan?”

The Rambam makes a similar point in his discussion of the obligation of repentance (Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 7).  He writes that we must not think that repentance is necessary only for the specific wrongful acts which we have committed, for in truth, teshuvah (repentance) is required even for negative character traits.  Repentance means not only regretting and pledging to avoid wrongful acts which we have committed, but also studying our characters and working to improve them.  As character constitutes the foundation of religious observance, we must work to improve our characters no less than we work to repent for our sinful acts.

The Rambam here lists several examples of negative character traits which require repentance.  When we review this list, we see just how far we are from the proper perspective on repentance.  Besides anger and arrogance, which we have already discussed, the Rambam also mentions envy.  Our neighbor or cousin buys a new luxury car, or renovates his home, and we naturally feel jealous.  How many of us think to repent for these feelings?  The Rambam also mentions pursuing honor.  So many people complain when they do not get the honor they want in the synagogue, or if they are not chosen as an honoree at an event.  They never consider that redifat hakavod – the pursuit of honor – is sinful.  Another negative character trait mentioned by the Rambam is redifat hamammon – the pursuit of wealth.  Of course, the Rambam is not encouraging poverty or even discouraging working to earn a respectable living.  He refers here to the unbridled lust for luxury, the passionate quest for material excess.  How many of us consider that to be a “sin”? 

There is also another item on the Rambam’s list which, I’m afraid, receives little or no attention in today’s Orthodox Jewish world: “redifat hama’achalim – the pursuit of foods.”  The Rambam teaches us that overindulgence in eating is sinful, and requires teshuvah.  It goes without saying that we are not supposed to go hungry, and there is nothing wrong with enjoying a scrumptious meal topped off by a nice dessert.  But the “redifah” – the passionate “pursuit” of food as an important goal and aspiration – is inappropriate and reflects fundamentally misplaced priorities.  Our lives are to be focused on Torah and mitzvot, not on physical enjoyment.  Enjoying food is perfectly acceptable, but overindulgence most certainly isn’t.

I recall once at a wedding seeing a person push his way with his plate to the Viennese tables when dessert was brought out.  He zealously cut for himself an enormous piece of cake, which took up most of his plate.  On the little amount of remaining space, he made a pile of cookies that looked like a tower.  As he made his way back to his seat to gluttonously indulge, he passed by me, and asked, “Rabbi, do you know if the desserts are yashan?”

Yashan?  This is what he is concerned about?  Pushing his way to the table and consuming a full plate of cake and cookies is acceptable, as long as it is yashan?

I can’t say precisely when or why this happened, but at some point we lost of our definition of Judaism.  We all understand that eating at McDonald’s is wrong, but we fail to realize that overindulging in glatt kosher food is also wrong.  If we would see a Jew with a kippah bowing down in front of a Buddha, we would know he is not religiously observant, despite his kippah.  Yet, if we see a Jew with a kippah shouting at his workers or at fellow motorists as he is driving, we still think of him as observant – even though he, too, undermines the very foundation of the Jewish religion.

Watches and Carobs

I know a man who approached his rabbi one year before the High Holidays and asked what measures he should accept upon himself for the new year.  He was expecting the rabbi to advise him to start going to the mikveh every Friday, or some similar practice.  But this is not what the rabbi said.  The rabbi knew that this fellow had a collection of luxury watches, and he asked, “How many watches do you own

“I have 14 of them,” the man replied.

“So pick out three of them and decide that these are all the watches you will wear during the next year.”

The man was stunned, and dismayed, but the rabbi’s advice was spot on.  Going to the mikveh every Friday is a commendable practice, but this is a relatively easy change to make.  Curbing one’s desire for material excess and reshaping priorities is far more difficult – but this is precisely what real, meaningful change is all about.  It is like the difference between removing the rotten fruits that keep growing on a tree, and removing the weeds that are causing the problem.  Plucking the fruits is relatively simple, but it will not have a long-term effect.  We need to dig deep down to eliminate the weeds, our negative tendencies, in order to ensure that our “fruit” – our actions – will be pure.

The Gemara tells of the great tzadik Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa, who was the most righteous person in his generation.  All people throughout the world, the Gemara says, received their sustenance in his merit.  What made him so righteous?  Why was he considered so great that his merits sustained all mankind?  The Gemara says that he ate nothing more than some carobs; this was the extent of his nourishment.  He did not seek any luxuries and did not indulge.  He lived simply and felt content with just a little bit of food.

The Gemara does not say anything about Rabbi Hanina’s tefillin, how many times he went to the mikveh, where he bought his meat, or how much he paid for his etrog.  His greatness was in his self-discipline, in conquering the natural human drive for indulgence.

I am not advocating restricting our diet to carobs, or even cutting out dessert or never enjoying fine dining in restaurants.  But a Torah Jew must exercise a degree of self-control and moderation.  This is part of the dignified life the Torah demands, and of the lifelong process of character refinement which forms the foundation of Torah life.

“The Man of Gd”

The final portion of the Torah, which we read on Simhat Torah, tells of the beautiful blessings with which Moshe Rabbenu blessed Beneh Yisrael just before his death.  The portion begins, “Vezot haberachah – And this is the blessing.”  The Or Hahayim, one of the great Sephardic commentators, finds it significant that this verse begins with the conjunction “Ve-“(“And”), indicating a link between this verse and the preceding verses.  With this letter, the Torah indicates to us that Moshe’s blessings to the people are closely related to the content of the final verses of the previous parashah.

Those verses, the Or Hahayim observes, speak about Moshe’s death, how Gd informed Moshe that he would not be allowed to cross into the Land of Israel, as he would now die on Mount Nevo.  This decree, that Moshe would die without entering the Promised Land, was the result of Moshe’s mishandling the crisis at Meh Merivah, when the people angrily fought with Moshe when they found themselves without water.  In a certain sense, the tragic end to that story was the people’s fault.  The people accosted Moshe as an angry mob, and this led to his mistake.  We could have excused Moshe for feeling angry and resentful at this moment, knowing he was about to die because of the way the people acted at Meh Merivah.  And yet, he harbored no hard feelings toward the people, and gave them the most beautiful blessings as his parting words.  Moshe conquered the innate, human tendency toward anger and revenge, and was able to love and cherish the people despite all the trouble they caused him.

For this reason, the Torah in this first verse of Vezot Haberachah refers to Moshe as “ish haElokim – the Man of Gd.”  The sages explain this to mean that Moshe was both an “ish” – a man – and “Elokim” – Gdly, like an angel.  At this point, Moshe was half human, and half angel.  Nowhere else in the Torah do we find such a title.  This title is used not when Moshe split the sea or spent forty days with Gd atop Mount Sinai, but when he blessed Beneh Yisrael despite knowing he was about to die because of what they did to him.  It is then, when a person refines his character and eliminates natural negative traits such as jealousy, anger and arrogance, that he becomes angelic.

On Yom Kippur, we strive to become angels – and this requires refining our characters.  The Sefat Emet noted that the ten days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur correspond to the Ten Commandments.  The tenth day, Yom Kippur, corresponds to the tenth command – “You shall not covet,” the prohibition against envy.  On this day, we strive to be like the angels who have no jealousy or greed.  This is the forgotten piece of Yom Kippur.  Before everything else, we should be working to refine our middot.  And once the foundation is in place, we can then continue to advance and grow spiritually, so we become worthy of happy, healthy and prosperous year for ourselves and all Am Yisrael.