Gentleness: The wise speak in a gentle manner; always try to speak softly
I heard a great line once: You attract just as many bees with honey as you do with vinegar. It’s true. The way I say things has a positive effect if done properly. If you look at the midos I’ve written about so far, it’s interesting that they are all positive things. Midah # 1 is Emes not Sheker. The “wise speak in a gentle manner”, they speak in the positive. My best friend told me that to get respect you’ve got to give respect. Speaking to others with derech eretz, in a “gentle manner” makes you wise.
When I’m not speaking in a “gentle manner” everything erupts. That’s just how most people are. If I yell or raise my voice at you, then you’ll do it right back at me. If I type like THIS THEN I’M YELLING! I find that I easily get carried away when someone won’t hear my side of the story. Someone who thinks before they speak will speak softly.
Look, I’ve yelled before. It doesn’t accomplish much except that you sound louder and it’s embarrassing. This is why midah #4 was Tranquility. I need to behave in a calm fashion before I even open my mouth. What Rav Yisrael is telling me is that my words are powerful. Everyone has been hurt by something that someone has said. While physical abuse is outwardly more apparent, verbal abuse hurts us on the inside. Sharp words hurt, soft words don’t.
Tranquility: Find an inner calmness; do not be overwhelmed; always act with deliberation
Ah, finally peace and quiet…or at least menucha, as Rav Yisrael would like to call it. I should keep this in mind at work when I feel overloaded, or better yet…erev Shabbos Kodesh (when the Yetzer Hora number one plan is to attack Shalom Bayis). This “inner calmness” is probably more that just chilling out. I think, for me, it means being “b’seder” with things, knowing that things will be fine. Even if a job interview doesn’t work out, or you get a dent in your car, or you kids spill paint on the floor, or decide to use a permanent marker on your computer monitor and several keys on your keyboard (this really happened once). Don’t lose that “inner calmness”. You can be vocally upset, but it need to be external. Rav Yisrael use to say to himself, “External anger, only” before rebuking others.
I, personally, know that there are times when I get overwhelmed and it seems like there’s just too much to do. As you can tell, the three phrases listed above are all connected. If I start out with a sense of balance within me, then it’s easier to keep my equilibrium. It could also mean some form of meditation. I won’t go into that, although Rav Salatner had several techiques he used. (I found Rabbi Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation to be rather user-friendly book on the subject. The last chapter actually is based on some mussar techniques.) Rav Yisrael was quoted as saying:
All worries are forbidden, except when one worries about his worrying.
From this I realized that when we get overwhelmed or panic stricken, I need to figure out what is the root cause of the lack of menucha. What am I really worried about? Once that is isolated, then it’s easier to go forward.
If I’m overwhelmed and my head is going in a thousand directions (which happens at times) how can I “always act with deliberation”? I can’t. Most people can’t. I must have that calmness and clarity when making decisions. The big decisions in life shouldn’t be made in haste, nor should I speak in haste. Whenever I do that, I tend to get in trouble with someone. Once again, these techniques are best exercised within the home. If you’ve got kids, they record, file, and cross-index everything they see you do. There are times when my kids, whom I love, seem to push the wrong buttons. I’ve been working on not getting too upset to quickly with them. This world operates on a Midah K’neged Midah basis.
Respect: Be careful to treat all people with respect- even those with whom you have little in common
Of course, I’m going to treat people with respect. Who wouldn’t?
End of posting.
Wait a minute!! What about when I get angry, upset, short tempered, insulted, overlooked…
I know that when I feel depressed or unhappy with a particular situation in life, I’m fragile. And I know that I’m not the only one. A thoughtless comment here, a negative non-constructive comment about a blog there. It all adds up. Rav Yisrael asks us to be respectful of others. No matter who they are or where we are. I constantly have an opportunity to be a Kiddush Hashem with everyone I meet. I believe Rav Elya Lopian was quoted as saying that the best battlefield for Midos and Derech Eretz is in your home. Those who we are close with are the ones who we must treat with the most respect. To be a tzaddik in the street is easy, it’s being a tzaddik once you kiss the mezzuzah on your front door that is difficult at times.
What about if I’m not too friendly with the other person? Or if we wear different types of yalmukas? Or we call it a kipah instead? Or our kids go to totally different schools? Or this person doesn’t cover their hair? Or they daven in the wrong shul? I could go on, but it’s really not necessary. I guess that’s what Rav Yisrael Salanter meant by “even those with whom you have little in common.” I suppose it wasn’t easy for the father of the mussar movement to engage in dialog with maskilim (followers of the Haskalah). There had to be some common denominator to start off with. There was.
We all have one. At times mine is revealed, at times, sadly, it’s hidden. I find it easy to forget that when I’m interacting with others, I have a chance to interact with them on a level of the neshama, as well. I’ll try to use this idea as a starting point when I speak with people. Especially my own family.
I’ll admit, earlier tonight I made an off hand comment to my wife. It was only a one word comment, but it hurt her. It was not very respectful. She called me on it and I apologized. I hadn’t planned on posting this Midah so soon, but it felt like the right time. Funny… I’ve just incorporated the first four Midos in an on-line confession.
Determination: Do what you have determined to do. And do it energetically.
The previous midah dealt with doing what has to be done, this is different. This midah is more about actualizing your decisions by following through. How many times have I been staring in the pantry trying to decide what to eat? Plenty. It’s not a life altering decision, yet it feels like it at the time. Making up my mind shouldn’t be so taxing. The most concrete example that comes to mind right now is blogging. Those who commented on the last midah seemed to agree that alacrity is not so easy to come by, yet if you blog then you had to start sometime, didn’t you? I’m not an expert in the cognative aspects of how we make decisions, but I know for myself what I can get out of Rav Yisrael’s teachings.
It really isn’t so difficult for me to make up my mind. I know very well what I should be doing most of the time. I also have a pretty clear idea about where I fall short in my Avodas Hashem. It’s not a big deal for me to accept that I should be learning more, or having more kavana (concentration) during davening, for example. It’s the “do what you have determined to do” part that I get stuck on. One of the reasons I started this Midos exercise was because I was long overdue for a Cheshbon HaNefesh. I’m not as proactive as I should be, but by putting this on the web and giving myself a time-line to finsh all 13 Midos, I feel that it’s an active start.
Doing something “energetically” really means making it happen. To take an idea, a decision, and bring it into this world is a powerful thing. Mostly I use this power to decide what to wear in the morning, or which book to read my kids, but decision making is a true manifestation of our bechirah chofshis (free will). If I want to become close to my creator by emulation, this a great way to do it. To put my kochos (strength) into my decisions is probably more what Rav Yisrael was thinking about, IMHO (wow, I sound like Steve Brizel). The truth is that it’s late and I should go to bed. I have a problem with this also.
“I never thought about whether I could do something, but only about whether I had to do it. And if something must be done, then Hashem will give the means of doing it.” – Rav Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, the Alter of Novorodock (student of Rav Yisrael Salanter)
ALACRITY: NEVER WASTE A SINGLE MOMENT; DO WHAT HAS TO BE DONE
I’ll let you in on a secret…it’s taken me a very long time to start this post (feel free to chuckle). As I sit at my keyboard and look at a list I made 15 year ago when I first read about Rav Yisrael’s 13 Midos, this particular midah has haunted me. I know it’s really a simple thing. In my younger years (18-24) I spent hours of hisbodidus, just thinking about this midah. The only conclusion I made is that thinking is useless, if not accompanied action. Nike made a whole campaign of this midah, JUST DO IT. Orchos Tzaddikim says that we learn alacrity from Avraham. Before the Akeida, he “woke up early in the morning” (Bereishis 22:3).
There have been times in my life when I’ve been so energized that I accomplish a multitude of things in record time. And, of course, there have been times when I can’t seem to finish anything. I think, for me, what Rav Yisrael meant by saying “nerver waste a single moment” was that when life or a task is precious to us we don’t want to waste any time. If I appreciate my life, and the opportunities I have (with family, mitzvos, my job, etc.) then why would I want to delay doing a task? There are things in life that I have not finished, goals I need to achieve. It’s the importance that we give to goals that allows us to do things with alacrity. I see this often. If someone asks me to do something for them, like turn off a light or get something at the store, and I don’t follow thru, then I’ve invalidated that person. To them, what they are asking me to do is important, so why wouldn’t I never waste a single moment. It’s not just doing things at the right time, it’s having an energy about me when I do it. “Whistle while you work.” The importance and passion that I ascribe to what’s important to me has an effect on others.
When it comes to doing what has to be done, it’s all about priorities. It can be dishes in the sink, papers on your desk, laundry, the leaves in the back yard, which emails to check first. Somethings are clearly not as important to do as others. Again, it’s not just about me. I can’t delay helping someone else. A true chessed for another towers over a cup of coffee. To miss an opportunity to do an act of kindness for another person is a waste of a single moment also. Especially my spouse (and I feel I often miss those opportunies. And no, I didn’t just type this because my wife occasionally reads Modern Uberdox). Do what has to be done, could have been the motto of Rav Yisrael (or anyone else who has accomplished something). He saw a need to counter the influence of the German Haskallah movement in Russia and the result was the Mussar movement. If I can internalize the approach of doing what has to be done with excitement and without delay, I know I will see a visible improvement in myself and that’s a good start.
I had some time over Shabbos to read something I honestly hadn’t looked at for a number of years, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar, most recently translated by Rabbi Zvi Miller. I didn’t get very far before I came across this:
Our Sages, of blessed memory, state (Yoma 9b): “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of the follow three sins that occurred there: idol worship, immorality, and murder. Yet, in the period of the Second Temple, they were involved in Torah study, mitzvos, and acts of kindness-so why was it destroyed? As a result of the baseless hatred that was there. Rebbi Yochanan and Rebbi Eliezer both said, ‘Since concerning the First Temple, their trangressions were revealed-their time of redemption was revealed. In the Second Temple, where their sins were not revealed-their time of redemption was not revealed.’”
I must admit, it got me thinking. With the three weeks approaching, where was I holding in terms of my bein adam le chaveiro? I know the answer, I’ve got room for improvement. Today I saw a rusty gear. I connected to it. I know that I need to be moving in a certain direction, but when one slacks off in midos managment, one gets rusty. I quickly thought of Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos (strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin). I thought it might do me some good to write a little about them. My goal is to have all the postings finished by Tisha B’Av. Heads Up: This is not directed at anyone, except myself. Like the intro to Mesillas Yesharim, I’m not writing anything that people don’t know. In fact, one of the amazing things about Rav Yisrael, was that the whole Mussar movement really was just to give emphasis to aspects of Yiddishkeit that had become commonplace for most people. That’s real the gadlus of his 13 Midos. Each one is directed toward the self, yet key for our relationship with others. I’ll start of briefly, with the first one:
Truth: Never speak a word unless your heart can testify to its truth
The first thought that comes to mind is how often do I put my heart into what I say? Rav Yisrael doesn’t say “never speak a word unless you can prove what you say”, he says that one’s heart has to be able to testify that what we say is emes. One must be passionate when one talks. I need to be alive when I say something and I need to give over that passion. Obviously the first step is to be truthful to yourself, then to others. Based on this first midah, our heart serves as a witness to what we say and who we say it to.
I know mussar isn’t a favorite topic for most of us, but comments are welcome.