Rabbi Tully Harcsztark delivers a teshuvah drasha to SAR HS before Yom Kippur.
Here’s how it happened: I had already been up for over an hour; it’s Sunday morning, had my coffee, read the headlines and had learned for a while. Figured I would go with my boys to the 9 am minyan. It’s 8:45, time to wake them up. I got the usual groan and then the turn-over. I said to myself, “I will come back in five minutes for round 2.” As expected. At 8:50, another wake up call, another groan, another turn-over. Now it’s 8:55 and no one is moving yet. “They are getting up, right?” By 8:59, I start to get agitated: why can’t you just get up? You do realize that I am coming with you to shul today! Why can’t you just get up on time?” My irritation grows, kids grumbling and finally, we get out to shul. At this point, mutual aggravation, and now none of us really in a davening mindset. And so, it has happened again—my irritability, my desire for things being just so, has taken over. It made a shul moment with my kids and with God, into a not-so-sacred moment.
When I think about my irritability, I feel bad. I don’t want this to be true about me. But at some point, I made a decision to work on it: I wanted to change, to grow. It wasn’t easy. But it was important and it made a difference.
In these moments that we have together before Yom Kippur, I want to focus on an aspect of our theme, tikkun hamiddot, but in a specific way. I want to talk about ambition. Our SAR community, is very ambitious—we have driven and hard working students, driven and hard working faculty and driven and hard working parents. We want to get good grades, do well on SATs, get into a good college, get a good job. We want to win our championship games and be popular with our friends.
But I want to talk about a different kind of ambition. I am going to call it Character Ambition. What I mean by character here: the moral and ethical qualities that are particular to who we are and how we live our lives. So Character Ambition means having ambition, a desire, to develop our moral and ethical character in the best way—and putting in the planning and hard work that is necessary to achieve it. For me in my story, it means cultivating patience so I won’t be so irritable. For you, it will mean something else. And in regard to this type of ambition, I want to make two claims today.
My first claim is that while we are all nice people, and we all want to do the right thing, being nice is not enough. We want to be the very best possible versions of ourselves. My second claim is that sometimes we get a little lazy, and forget to make choices that would help us become the people we want to be. If we want to grow, we need a plan.
As I was preparing for this talk, Shoshana Kattan (better known as Shoco) shared a video with me from Drew Dudley’s talk on leadership. Drew Dudley is saying something so important, so memorable—that HOPE IS NOT A PLAN. We need to be more concrete.
How do we figure out a plan? How do we decide what to work on? The truth is that we have a long history of thought about this. The Torah has high “character expectations” for us. The Torah’s mitzvot push so strongly for ethical and moral sensitivity.
I know what we tend to say: we’re just being high school kids, that’s what high school kids do. And our teachers give us too much work for us to think about character, about working on my middot. And faculty, will say, we are so busy doing important things that we don’t have the luxury to think about tranquility, humility, wasting time or money. But that’s why we need to talk about it. Having ambition means wanting to be better. We need to believe that we are not yet at our best and we need the drive, the desire to be the best that we can be. Ambition, by definition, means never saying “I am good enough.” Maybe everyone around me thinks that I am ok. But I am not doing it for someone else; I am doing it for me.
The Rambam wrote in his Shemoneh Perakim: “The ancients maintained that the soul, like the body, is subject to good health and illness.” That is a very deep idea. Our inner beings can be healthy or ill just like our bodies. Think about it—when it comes to my body, what people around me do is not necessarily what is good for me. People eat too much, become unhealthy. I know it will make me physically unhealthy so I shouldn’t do it. People need to exercise their bodies. It will help us live longer, healthier lives. We need to think of our souls, our inner beings, in terms of health and sickness. In what ways are we healthy? In what ways sick? What must I do to make myself as soulfully healthy as I can be?
When it comes to character ambition, here is the point: If we take tikkun hamiddot seriously, then it requires action and determination. I want to outline the beginnings of a path towards working on that. And I want to do that by taking that which we know—planning and hard work for our grades, our teams, our college applications—and applying those same strategies to our middot, to our most daily interactions with others, with God and within our own selves. So I share with you my four steps of character ambition.
Four Steps of Character Ambition
1. Set a practical goal—think of what this looks like in regular school life. I am imagining my kids writing an essay—for class or for a college application—or deciding that they wanted to make a team. In all of those cases, there is a concrete goal. So when you do it once—write the essay, play ball—you don’t feel that you’re done. You look at it again, assess what you’ve done, find out how it can be done better. Over the course of time, you get better and better at it. I have been amazed to watch my kids’ essay writing or foul shooting improve in just that way. Having a goal propels you forward. We should set goals for ourselves in middot and character growth in just the same way. Pick a middah and work at it; for a while. For me, my goal is to seek מנוחת הנפש, an inner peace, where I don’t get quickly irritated when talking with someone. When that happens, I don’t listen to others with patience and I can speak to them disparagingly. Often it happens because I am feeling bad about myself or upset about something else or angry at the other person for not totally accepting my own point of view. And often it happens with the people closest to me. I actually think that this is one of the על חטא’s—שחטאנו לפניך בלצון that we sinned before you by scorning others. And when I am not at peace, I mistreat other people, I fail myself and the whole situation becomes less Godly. But I need to be practical—I can’t leave this as an idea. There has to be a plan, and a goal. So I would say this: every time I become annoyed about getting to davening on time with my kids, every time I feel that sense that I’m somehow not a good enough Jew unless I get to minyan on time and find myself channeling that insecurity toward my children, I say to myself: take a breath, I’m ok. I might say it twice: take a breath, I’m ok. This becomes my mantra. It helps me because it’s a concrete step I can take that gets me closer to my goal: patience, tranquility. I ask you to do the same. What middah do you want to improve? To work on over the next 6-8 weeks? Lesson #1: Set a goal for yourself.
2. Get a coach—Pursuing the analogy further, in pursuing my goals and ambitions, if I really want to to do my best, I get a coach. That is obviously true for sports. That is also true when writing a paper or an application or preparing for the ACT’s or working on a robot car in engineering or if you are in the play or doing art. We always turn the coach. How can we expect to learn how to do it better without a coach? The Baalei Mussar were very clear on the importance of a coach—a rabbi or a chavruta to work with, to give pointers. If I start getting irritable, my rebbe should point it out to me or I should try to unpack the moment with my middot chavruta, or my best friend, or my spouse. The Rambam was very serious about this. He saw the Rabbi as a doctor—there are medical doctors for the body and there are spiritual doctors for the soul. The Greeks thought that too. It’s hard to develop strategies on my own, to teach myself to listen patiently all the time under all circumstances. And it’s not good enough to just “do my best.” Tikkun HaMiddot means working in earnest. And if we are serious about growth, we should get ourselves a coach—just like we have for our other ambitions. And I am pretty sure that your middot partner will do it free of charge.
3. Third, pay attention to detail—when we pay attention, when we learn about a middah and about ourselves, we begin to see the nuances that make all the difference. So I worked to find other places where the mantra would help. Working on this middah then made me experience davening and making brachot in a new way. I found davening to be a peaceful space carved out in the day to take a breath, take stock and recenter myself. And, here again, it impacted on my relationship with myself, with Hashem and with others all at once. So that’s step 3: pay attention to detail.
4. Finally, practice! The Rambam says in Hilchot Deot: “How can one train himself to follow these temperaments to the extent that they become a permanent fixture of his personality? He should perform, repeat and perform a third time the acts which conform to the standards of the middle road temperaments. He should do this constantly until these acts are easy for him and do not present any difficult. Then these temperaments will become a fixed part of his personality.” Whatever we are serious about—we don’t just do it once! After I started working on it, I began to enjoy going to shul with my kids on a whole new level. I was more accepting, we enjoyed each other’s presence—and my davening was more meaningful and more peaceful. It helped in my connection to those around me, to God and to myself.
So these are the four steps—set a practical goal, get a coach, pay attention to detail, and practice.
Picking a Middah
Can you imagine if everyone picked just one thing to work on and actually worked on it with a partner following these four steps? We would be a community of עובדי ד׳, people working hard for a kinder, more sensitive, more principled community. It would be amazing!
I asked faculty members to share with me the middah that most inspired them—and a role model who embodied it. I am sorry that I can’t include them all but I would like to highlight two responses that really resonate with me.
Ms. Schlaff: When I think of tikkun hamiddot, I think of someone I actually don’t know well at all, and of a very small act.
Here’s the story:
From time to time I speak in my shul. I’m pretty used to public speaking, but no matter how many times I get up in front of an audience, it is always good to have a “nodder”—one person amongst the crowd who looks right at me when I am speaking, and smiles, and nods. When I have one nodder in the audience, I feel perfectly fine about whatever I have to say. So there is this one woman in my shul who is a nodder. I do not know her well at all. I say good shabbos to her every week, but that is pretty much it. But after the last time I spoke, I went over to her to thank her for always smiling when I speak, and to tell her how confident it makes me feel. And what she said totally amazed me. She said that a few years ago, she decided that anytime she heard anyone speak—anywhere—she was going to make it her business to make them feel comfortable by making eye contact with the speaker, and smiling and nodding. She said it was her small contribution to the world. What amazed me was that I had always thought it came naturally to her—something she did without thinking. I was so impressed to learn it was a conscious decision. She had translated an interest in treating people with respect, the middah of kavod, into a specific action.
Ms. Dweck also responded, and her answer blew me away because she suggested her coach wasn’t some intellectual or even a grown up, but a toddler. She wrote: “A toddler learning to walk. Failure is part of the learning process and perseverance, I believe is the key to embracing the failure. When a toddler is learning to walk it is a process. He/She falls many times and each time he/she gets right back up and tries again. And again. And again. I wish we could bring this resilience with us into adolescence, adulthood and beyond. We are born with perseverance. In our very first breath of life we need to figure out how to manage in gravity. We don’t give up. We persevere.”
Perseverence, like מנוחת הנפש, is also one of R. Yisrael Salanter’s thirteen middot.
I mentioned earlier how powerful it would be to have a community of people all thinking about a personal middah, working to better themselves in a kind of shared project that was yet so individualized.
And in this spirit, I want to talk about John Allman. He was just written up in the NY Times this past weekend. He is the principal of the Trinity School, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Manhattan. He wrote a letter to his school community at the beginning of this school year suggesting that they needed to rebuild the culture, that it has become too self serving, too narrow and not enough about personal character and the greater good.
An excerpt: “consistent with our mission, how ought we to educate our students so that they leave us with a commitment not just to advance their own educational interests, but also serve the common good and to give generously to others for the rest of their lives?..As we have learned in recent years...our students’ default understanding of the purpose of their schoolwork becomes to make good grades, gain admissions to a highly selective college, set themselves on a path of lifelong superior achievement. And this default setting—one of narrowly individualistic self-advancement—has been locked into place by a frenetic pace of life and expectations of perfection that devour the energy and time students need to reflect on the meaning of their schoolwork...We need to actively develop in our students compelling alternative understandings of the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve. If we do not...”
What he’s saying is so fitting for this season, for religious life, and it’s this: if we take the idea of being a Jewish school seriously, then our goals have to extend beyond the academic to the ethical and spiritual. We have to work at least as hard at bettering ourselves ethically and spiritually as we do at our classes.
So I will end as I began. In my family, like many of us, we have the minhag of giving brachot to our kids right before we go to shul for Kol Nidre. You can find those berachot in the machzor. It is no longer a frazzled moment, calling them to get ready, hastily giving them brachot, rushing everyone out the door. I know that my family, Hashem and my own neshama will be with me in peace as I, with מנוחת הנפש, bless my family as we pray for a blessed year together. In that spirit, I challenge you: as you sit in shul, ask yourself: what’s my middah? What’s my real goal? Who can help coach me? Let me dedicate time to practice. Turn every day into a day that will effect real change in your life.
Gmar chatima tova to all.
By Rabbi Tully Harcsztark
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark of Teaneck, founding principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, is one of three educators from across the United States to receive The 2017 Covenant Award in recognition of excellence in furthering Jewish education.