When New Year’s rolls around, I review the things I promised I would change from the previous year. Sadly, the platitudes of my resolutions could be better described as my New Year’s Delusions. My grandiose ideas about integrating growth and discipline into my life remain just that: ideas. Judaism gives us incredible tools to get lofty concepts into day-to-day practice. This crucial journey toward personal mastery is called Tikkun Middot, the healing of our character traits. We’re lucky that countless sages have given us powerful techniques to set goals and actually reach them.
Middot comes from the word “measure.” We are measured by our middot. Alternatively, each of our character traits must be “measured” or balanced. For example, if we are too charitable, we may neglect our own needs. If we are too compassionate in justice, murderers may go free. Any given middah isn’t good or bad until it becomes extreme. When we notice one side getting off kilter, we have to emphasize the other side of the continuum to restore equilibrium. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), 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. Rambam maintains that imbalanced character traits create a veil blocking holiness in our lives. Working on middot isn’t optional; achieving holiness is our fundamental channel to true joy.
According to Rashi, the Torah should have begun with the first laws given to the Jews in the book of Exodus, at the cusp of our liberation from Egypt. Learning how to be a mensch comes before appreciating our liberation from Egypt and the gift of the Torah. The Talmud echoes this priority, stating “derech eretz kadma Torah” (common decency comes before Torah wisdom). Our brilliant laws are irrelevant if they don’t result in creating a just, compassionate society. Judaism rejects “I am who I am” thinking. All of us are works in progress and we acquire altruistic behavior as we age.
Anyone studying Torah sees repeating patterns from one generation to the next. Our sages teach the principle, “Ma’asei avot, siman l’banim,” what happens to the forefathers is a sign to the children. The circumstances challenging our parents are often visited upon their offspring. Do we learn from their experience? Another way to understand this precept is by perceiving the actions of our biblical heroes as an indicator of our capabilities. We have inherited the genetic predisposition to accomplish the same remarkable level of excellence, to be a “mensch.” In his ninetieth birthday speech, my Uncle Herb Glaser, a big mensch, mentioned the following qualifications for the “Glaser Mensch-o-meter” test: kindness to all, no bragging, integrity, helping those less fortunate, good citizenship, always learning and the willingness to pass good middot down to the next generation. Analyzing where I stand on the Mensch-o-meter is an ideal way to focus my New Year’s resolutions.
God operates middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. In other words, 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. Our sages urge us to judge to the side of merit. Go easy on friends and family! This universal law of “what goes around comes around” is popularly known as karma. As Jews, we call it God’s love.
A mussar vaad is a group meeting or class systematically analyzing and applying specific character traits. Some spend a few weeks on a given middah, some over a year. Text study is 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.
I have watched my friends in mussar vaadim reach great heights in their personal growth. For those of us who cannot fulfill New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps joining a mussar vaad is worth investigating. If one doesn’t have time to dedicate to a vaad, what’s the next best option? Work independently on one middah at a time. The best way to figure out where to start is to contemplate which middah is the hardest to keep in balance. That’s your soul tikkun (healing). The next step is appreciating we can and must control our responses. The repetitious exhibition of negative traits is destructive to all in our midst and invites hardship and misery.
As an example, I used to be baited into arguments and would lose my temper, saying things I regretted. I hated feeling out of control and I knew this had to change. So, when saying the Modeh Ani prayer each morning, I contemplated how joy, patience, selflessness and compassion would fill my day. I trained myself to do the diametric opposite of getting irate: I would go into serenity mode when getting sucked into an argument. Rather than retorting with a snappy comeback, I would offer the gift of silence, removing myself from the altercation and only responding when I cooled down and regained my composure. Rather than a reaction, I took positive action. When only one party is getting angry, it makes for a much shorter argument.
Here are some further techniques for transformation: keep written track on a calendar of the times you lose your temper, when you are humiliated or disappointed with yourself. Then you will have a running list where you need to focus and you can visualize the patterns of your emotional output. Imagine how empowered we could feel mastering weak links in our personalities. When we enjoy a sustained middah victory, it propels us into a realm of heroism where anything is possible.
Can’t decide where to begin tikkun middot? There are multiple middot lists available. Perhaps the most famous is the “Forty-Eight Ways to Wisdom” enumerated in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 6:5). Incorporating these lists in our efforts is praiseworthy, but our main task is mastering those areas posing the most formidable personal challenges.
Tikkun Middot is hard work. Judaism offers profound techniques to realize our goals of self-control and personal power. We just have to make the effort. Hillel the Sage 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 our shortcomings, we gain self-respect. When we gain self-respect, we are more likely to gain the respect of others. We become less self-absorbed and are able to truly radiate love.
Realizing one’s New Year’s resolutions is a multi-year effort. The key is persistence and patience. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said, “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.”
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:30 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.