Shabbos Shuva 5778

Robert Coles is a professor emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard who taught classes on morality.  In a classic essay titled “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character”, he begins as follows:

Over 150 years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a lecture at Harvard University, which he ended with the terse assertion: “Character is higher than intellect.” Even then this prominent man of letters was worried (as many other writers and thinkers of succeeding generations would be) about the limits of knowledge and the nature of a college’s mission. The intellect can grow and grow, he knew, in a person who is smug, ungenerous, even cruel. Institutions originally founded to teach their students how to become good and decent, as well as broadly and deeply literate, may abandon the first mission to concentrate on a driven, narrow book learning–a course of study in no way intent on making a connection between ideas and theories on one hand and, on the other, our lives as we actually live them.

He goes on to tell a story about a student of his, a sophomore from a Midwestern, working-class background, who had obviously worked hard to get to Harvard, and needed to continue to work hard – cleaning the rooms of her fellow students – to get through school.

Again and again, she encountered classmates who apparently had forgotten the meaning of please, or thank you–no matter how high their Scholastic Assessment Test scores–students who did not hesitate to be rude, even crude toward her.  One day she was not so subtly propositioned by a young man she knew to be a very bright, successful pre-med student and already an accomplished journalist. This was not the first time he had made such an overture, but now she had reached a breaking point. She had quit her job and was preparing to quit college in what she called “fancy, phony Cambridge.”
… As she expressed her anxiety and anger to me, she soon was sobbing hard.  At one point, she observed of the student who had propositioned her: “That guy gets all A’s. He tells people he’s in Group I [the top academic category]. I’ve taken two moral-reasoning courses with him, and I’m sure he’s gotten A’s in both of them–and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m sure with others.”

The essential question this young and disillusioned young woman posed to her Harvard professor can be asked over and over, not only of Harvard professors or of others in the secular world of what we call חכמות חיצוניות, external, superficial wisdom.  The question is something we can ask ourselves within the confines of Jewish life, of the Torah community.  It is a question that we are often asked by disillusioned people, young and old.  How can it be that there is sometimes such a gulf between what we as a faith, as people of faith, stand for, and how we actually live our lives?  What does it take for us to live up to our principles?

Of course, we do not stand here today on Shabbos Shuva to speak about others, to analyze the failures of others or of this or that system.  Our purpose is to look at ourselves, to see what we can do to enhance ourselves, to enhance how we live consistent with our own principles.

The take-away from this question is not that principles are irrelevant, that what we study has no significance or impact.  No, we firmly believe that תלמוד מביא לידי מעשה, that study leads to action.

The Rambam explains the Mishnah (Peiah 1:1) that we say every morning in which all those special Mitzvos for which we accrue rewards in the next world but nevertheless benefit from in this world are listed.  After listing a number of great actions in the interpersonal realm, including honoring our parents, acts of loving kindness, and fostering goodwill between people, the Mishna concludes and says ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם, the study of Torah equals them all.  Rambam explains that this is not speaking about the relative weight of Torah study, but rather about the practical result of Torah study.  תלמוד מביא לידי מעשה.  Study leads to action.  If we will study, it will lead us to perform these good deeds and more.  When we study we learn the principles, and those principles in turn ground us and lead us to action.

Yet, it is apparent that this is not always the case.  Our challenge and goal today is to determine how – in establishing our principles – they can serve as an effective guide for our actions; that they not be intellectual, abstract ideas that take no shape or form, nor exercise significant influence, in our lives.

How do we ensure that our study leads to action?  How do we close the gap between intellect and character?


Rosh Hashana, The First Day of Teshuva: Principle as Our Personal Measure

A very good place to start is to explore the role of Rosh Hashana in the Teshuva process, as it appears that Rosh Hashana is all about establishing and affirming our principles, about knowledge intended to lead to action.

There is a classic question asked about why Rosh Hashana precedes Yom Kippur.  If Yom Kippur is the day of atonement and forgiveness, would it not be more fitting to go through that process before facing judgment, rather than being judged only to then have the judgment undone by forgiveness?  This question was asked by Rav Yisrael Salanter.

Consider the following approach.  The Tosfos (TB Rosh Hashana 27a) address an apparent contradiction in our liturgy regarding whether Hashem created the world in Nissan or in Tishrei, a question which is the subject of a dispute between Rav Eliezer and Rav Yehoshua.  They explain that both dates are significant in the scheme of creation, as Rosh Hashana is the day that G-d conceived of the world, while it was actually created in Nissan.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak Rosh Hashana 4:14) notes that based on this association of Rosh Hashana with the conception of creation, we can readily understand that it is the day most suited for judgment, as our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 12:15, quoted by Rashi to Bereishis 1:1) taught us that G-d’s original concept was to create the world with מדת הדין, following the strict expectations of judgment.  It was only when He saw that the world could not be sustained according to that standard that he added מדת הרחמים, the attribute of mercy.  As such, Rosh Hashana is the day we go back to measuring the world by that original standard of judgment.

While G-d certainly anticipated how things would turn out, He nevertheless did not go directly to mercy because we always need to start with a standard, a baseline.  We need to have something to live up to, an ideal.  If we start with mercy, if we start with forgiveness, then we do not have the clarity – the lighthouse – that guides us as to how things really ought to be.

We must have principles to live up to.

If our goal this season is to figure out how we grow and make ourselves better, one of the fundamental tools in that process is setting for ourselves an image and vision towards which we strive – the principle, the ideal, the baseline against which we measure ourselves.  We need to identify that ideal, learn how we should be doing things, and then we take our own measure relative to how it ought to be.


The first account that we have of the observance of Rosh Hashana comes from the book of Nechemia (Chapter 8).  How was it observed?

ספר נחמיה פרק ח

ויאספו כל העם כאיש אחד אל הרחוב אשר לפני שער המים ויאמרו לעזרא הספר להביא את ספר תורת משה אשר צוה ידוד את ישראל:  ויביא עזרא הכהן את התורה לפני הקהל מאיש ועד אשה וכל מבין לשמע ביום אחד לחדש השביעי:  ויקרא בו לפני הרחוב אשר לפני שער המים מן האור עד מחצית היום נגד האנשים והנשים והמבינים ואזני כל העם אל ספר התורה:  ויעמד עזרא הספר על מגדל עץ אשר עשו לדבר ויעמד אצלו מתתיה ושמע ועניה ואוריה וחלקיה ומעשיה על ימינו ומשמאלו פדיה ומישאל ומלכיה וחשם וחשבדנה זכריה משלם:  ויפתח עזרא הספר לעיני כל העם כי מעל כל העם היה וכפתחו עמדו כל העם:  ויברך עזרא את ידוד האלהים הגדול ויענו כל העם אמן אמן במעל ידיהם ויקדו וישתחוו לידוד אפים ארצה:  וישוע ובני ושרביה ימין עקוב שבתי הודיה מעשיה קליטא עזריה יוזבד חנן פלאיה והלוים מבינים את העם לתורה והעם על עמדם:  ויקראו בספר בתורת האלהים מפרש ושום שכל ויבינו במקרא:  ויאמר נחמיה הוא התרשתא ועזרא הכהן הספר והלוים המבינים את העם לכל העם היום קדש הוא לידוד אלהיכם אל תתאבלו ואל תבכו כי בוכים כל העם כשמעם את דברי התורה:

And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read in it before the square that was before the Water Gate from the [first] light until midday in the presence of the men and the women and those who understood, and the ears of all the people were [attentive] to the Torah.  And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the entire people, for he was above all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood…. And they read in the scroll, in the Torah of God, distinctly, and gave sense, and they explained the reading to them.  Then Nehemiah-he is Hattirshatha-and Ezra the priest, the scholar, and the Levites who caused the people to understand, said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; neither mourn nor weep,” for all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Torah. 

Did you notice?  No Machzor, no Shofar is described here.  Just one thing:  They read from the Torah.  They read the standard, the baseline, by which we are to abide.  It was that – not Unesaneh Tokef – that brought forth the tears of the people, who now had an ideal, a baseline against which they could be measured.

Perhaps that is the reason for a unique feature of our Davening on Rosh Hashana.  The lengthy Mussaf Amidah has at its core three blessings regarding three themes of the day, מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות, G-d’s Kingdom, Judgment and Shofar.  But we do not simply pray and recite a blessing regarding these themes.  We illustrate each of the themes with ten verses from Tanach, from Scripture.  Evidently, we need to establish the basis in Torah, in principle, for the vision we lay out on Rosh Hashana.

Similarly, Rabbenu Yonah wrote in the beginning of his Shaarei Teshuva (Para. 6) that the keystone of Teshuva is recognition of the standard of Torah.  While we cannot expect of ourselves perfect performance of each and every obligation and principle of the Torah, our starting point is the acceptance of its rules and truths as the eternal standard by which we live.  Teshuva is to militate against a state of נעשית לו כהיתר, of becoming inured to one or another Aveiros, not just failing to observe them but giving up on even trying. Rabbenu Yonah associates this value with the blessing recorded in Parshas Ki Savo for the one אשר יקים את דברי התורה הזאת, who holds the Torah up as his standard.

All of these sources and ideas illustrate one important dimension of how principles can make a difference, can cease to be an abstraction: By our employment of these principles as the active yardstick against which we measure ourselves.  We do not hold the principles as disembodied, intellectual commodities.  We use them as the baseline for the most serious, soul-searching process in Jewish life, as the starting point for the Ten Days of Teshuva, of personal stock-taking and soul-searching.  We measure ourselves up against the Torah.

This is reminiscent of a classic interpretation of what the Torah (Devarim 17:19) describes with regards to the King and his Sefer Torah.  The King is told to carry it with him everywhere, וקרא בו כל ימי חייו, and “read from it all of the days of his life.”  However, the word used is בו, leading some to say that what we are really hoping for is that when he reads the Torah, what he shall find in it is all of the days of his life, meaning – that his life will completely reflect the picture the Torah draws of how life is to be lived.  This is the charge of the King – not to simply carry the Torah on his arm, but to live it in his life.


ברוך אשר יקים:  Passionate Principles, ללמוד וללמד

It is worth underscoring a further point about principles, actually about kings and principles.

Ramban (Devarim  27:26), in his own discussion about the phrase in Parshas Ki Savo for the one אשר יקים את דברי התורה הזאת, follows the same reasoning as Rabbenu Yonah, that the verse is not referring to one who observes the Torah but rather to one who uphold its principles.  However, he notes a comment from the Talmud Yerushalmi that explains that the verse is directed especially at the King, as well as those who have the ability to influence others to live according to the Torah’s standards.  We are all supposed to see the Torah not as our personal standard of choice, but as the standard for the entire Jewish world, and to a degree for the world as a whole.  Our commitment and connection to our principles is undoubtedly strengthened when we elevate those principles to objective status, and then passionately advocate for those standards to be adopted way beyond ourselves.

Today, this is not a simple matter.  The direction Western society has taken has been away from accepting universal standards and values, celebrating instead the value of “freedom” to do whatever the individual values – as long as he causes no clear harm to others.  For the Jewish people and other minorities, there is a pragmatic value in this approach as it has allowed us to live by our values, and not have the values of the majority imposed upon us.  In a way, we have benefited from the Western attitude of “Live and Let Live”.  But as a result, what has developed is an atmosphere where there is no recognition of the need to hew to any kind of a standard, to respect any objective values.  This has had quite harmful effects.

I get the New York Times headlines in my email box each day.  I scan the headlines, and occasionally read a full story, infrequently enough that I still get by with the free ten stories a month!  In July, a story caught my eye, a feature in the Magazine about the movement towards “open marriages”, where members of a couple allow each other “freedom”.  The story was presented with dozens of illustrations, interviews with couples living this way – described coolly and naturally as a new and normal trend.  This shook me to the core.  What is a person raised in this environment to do?

The world around us has shifted such that we – as Orthodox Jews – need to defend standards, age-old standards, that are now often portrayed as intolerant or immoral, as they go against the ethos of the time.  For ourselves, for the next generation, we have a compelling obligation to repeat to ourselves and instill in ourselves the belief in eternal standards, in the immutable truth of the Torah’s values as the foundation of the world.  We have to hold up the Torah and we have to bow towards it.

Indeed, Ramban himself goes on to explain that there is a moment in our ritual that we make a “statement” to this effect:  When we hold up the Torah for Hagbaha, and turn it so that everyone in the shul can see the writing inside, and everyone focuses on it, bows towards it, points to it, what we are saying is: This is our standard!  These are the values around which we build our lives.

That is what we have prayed for throughout Rosh Hashana, that what we stand for and what we believe in should be recognized and appreciated by the entire  world.  We want the world to know about Hashem, and we want to be the conduit for that knowledge.  We want to be the salesmen for G-d and His values.  And a good salesman is someone who believes in the value of his product.

When we infuse our values with passion, taking it from the abstraction of a personal choice to the strength of a national or universal standard; when we translate what we learn for ourselves into something we are compelled to share, ללמוד וללמד; when we teach and preach, we will be more likely to practice.

Our values should be passionately held, shared and discussed.


ללמוד על מנת לעשות: Learning for the Sake of Doing Better

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:6) discusses the special case of one who studies in order to act, הלומד על מנת לעשות.  Rabbenu Yonah is puzzled by this, as it is hard to see this as a special case.  Is the standard the one who studies with no intention to act accordingly?  Is the standard a hypocrite?

In addressing this problem, Rabbenu Yonah offers a fundamental distinction that sharply addresses the issue we have been grappling with, i.e. how we close the gap between intellect and character, between knowledge and action.  As he explains, the standard is someone who would certainly intend to live by what he learns.  What he lacks is that he is not studying for the sake of living better!  The special case of the one who learns in order to act, the לומד על מנת לעשות, is one whose goal in his studies is to learn how to be better, how to do better. 

ורצונו לטרוח כמה ימים ושנים להשיג דבר קטון ולהנהיג עצמו על פי האמת, הרי זה למד על מנת לעשות, שכל עיקר אין מחשבתו כי אם על המעשה להיות אמיתי, ולפיכך מספיקין בידו ללמוד וללמד ולעשות שהכל בגלל המעשה.

He is willing to toil for days and for years to gain a small insight that can improve his behavior.  He is learning in order to do, as his entire intention is only to improve his actions, and therefore he is assured that he will not only be able to study and teach but that he will indeed act according to what he has learned, as refined actions were the essential goal of his studies.

This Mishna, in light of Rabbenu Yonah’s commentary, addresses our issue head-on.  The method to assure the closing of that gap between intellect and character, between knowledge and action, is the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of action, for the sake of doing better.

I don’t know about you, but for me this is not a “given”.  I enjoy the learning.  I find it “interesting”, and appreciate gaining new knowledge and deeper insight.  I am not always studying to make myself better.  But I ought to.  I ought to connect to everything that I learn, seeing how it can guide me to be a better person, how it can influence or change my behavior.  As Ramban wrote in his classic letter of guidance to his son, אגרת הרמב”ן:

והוי זהיר לקרות בתורה תמיד אשר תוכל לקימה, וכאשר תקום מן הספר תחפש באשר למדת אם יש בו דבר אשר תוכל לקימו.

Be sure to study Torah always, such that you will be in a position to fulfill its laws.  When you conclude studying, search within what you have learned to find something that you can fulfill. 

This idea was a core principle taught by Rav Yisrael Salanter, and emphasized in his classic Iggeres HaMussar.  Rav Yisrael saw his generation lacking in many core values.  They may have been careful about Kashrus, but they were not ethical in their business dealings.  His prescription, his understanding of the Torah’s prescription, was simply this:  Study those areas of halacha in which you wish to improve, and study them with the intention to improve.  This study will have the practical effect of creating the same kind of instinctive recoil from dishonesty as we may have from that which is not Kosher.

ברא הקדוש-ברוך-הוא יצר-הרע, ברא לו תורה תבלין… אם בפרט והוא העיקר, ללמד תורת כל עבירה ועבירה לבדה. לגאווה – תורת הגאווה; למשא ומתן באמונה – חלקי התורה אשר לעניינים שבין אדם לחברו בעסקי העולם, וכדומה. וכן לכל מצווה ולכל עבירה את תורתה.  הנשגב והעיקר בשימוש רפואות התורה לתחלואי היצר, הוא ללמד בעוז ועיון עמוק היטב דיני העבירה עצמה, ההלכה עם כל סעיפיה, כי עינינו הרואות הרבה מהעבירות אשר האדם נמנע מהם בטבע ולא יעבור עליהם, אף גם בעת אשר ילחצנו לזה איזה דבר. וישנם עבירות חמורות מאלו, והאדם הזה בעצמו יעבור עליהם בנקל.  … וזאת הלא ידוע, כי השתנות הטבע תוולד רק מלימוד והרגל רב. ולכן היסוד העיקרי והעמוד הנכון להכין את עצמו לשמירה מהעבירות ועשיית המצוות, הוא רק הלימוד הרב בהלכה זו הנוגעת לעבירה זו או למצווה זו, ובפרט בעיון הדק היטב, כי זה הלמוד עושה קניין חזק בנפש להיות העבירה מרוחקת ממנו בטבע.
כדומה במחוזותינו אלו, תהילה לאל, איסורי נבילות וטריפות ודומיהם מוטבעים בנפש הישראלי, עד אשר לא יצטרך שום איש לאכוף טבעו ותאוותו להתרחק מהם, כי המה לו לזרא… ואולם, בעונותינו הרבים, במשא ומתן הוא בהיפך: רוב בני-אדם לא ידרשו על חשש גזל ועושק מעצמם…  אכן, אם ישים האדם לבו ונפשו ללמד ההלכות השייכות לממון בעיון, גמרא ופוסקים איש לפי ערכו, ובפרט אם המרכז יהיה על תכונת איסור והיתר, לידע איך להשתמר מגזל, מה רב כוחה להשריש לאט-לאט קניין רב בנפש, עד אשר יהיה שווה בעיניו שאלות איסור והיתר, ושאלות השייכות לממון. … ובפרט על מנת לעשות. זאת תיתן פריה לאט לאט, לתת עוז בנפש להישמר …


I want to daven better.  I am disappointed by my own Davening.  If I want to change, I have to learn about it, but to learn for the sake of change, for the sake of action. 


Keep on Repeating it – Until You Believe It

There is a novel and eye-opening idea found in the teachings of the Ritva that is very instructive and relevant for us, and may open the door to yet another important understanding in how we can bridge this gap between intellect and character.

We all know that Moshe was not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael because of his actions at the מי מריבה, the Waters of Strife.  Yet, what exactly he did wrong is the subject of intense debate amongst the commentaries.  Rambam in his introduction to Pirkei Avos (Shemonah Perakim  ch. 4) suggests that his sin was a failure of character, as he expressed anger towards the Jewish people, an anger that was not representative of G-d’s feelings towards the Jewish people at the time.

Ramban (Bamidbar 20:7) raises a number of objections to this explanation of the Rambam, including the following: When G-d addressed Moshe, he takes him to task for not believing in Him, יען לא האמנתם בי.  If this is simply a failure of character, of Moshe losing his temper, why would this be called a lack of faith?

The Ritvah wrote a small book known as the Sefer Zikaron, wherein he responds to the questions posed to the Rambam within the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah.  He addresses this question as follows, in a manner that is completely related to our discussion.

When Moshe was speaking with G-d following the sin of the Golden Calf, he asked G-d to inform him of His ways, הודיעני נא את דרכיך.  Rambam himself in the Moreh Nevuchim (1:54) explained that Moshe wanted to learn G-d’s ways so that Moshe could reflect those ways in his own leadership of G-d’s people.  G-d of course informed him of his 13 Attributes of Mercy, the י”ג מדות הרחמים, including notably ארך אפים, that G-d is patient, slow to anger.  Yet here Moshe got angry?!  Evidently, Moshe did not really believe what G-d had told him, for had he really believed it – says Ritvah – he certainly would have responded differently.  כאשר לא נשתמש משה בעת הזאת במדה הזאת נמצא שלא האמין בדבר זה כי האמונה מצטרפת למעשה.  What he knew, if he really believed it, would have expressed itself in his actions.

Wow.  If you really believed it, you would act upon it.  Intense!

What can we do to make ourselves believe it?  Perhaps the answer lies in what we ourselves do with those same 13 Attributes.  But let us first turn again to the teachings of Rav Yisrael Salanter.

Rav Yisrael (in an note following his 30th letter in Ohr Yisrael) writes about knowledge of an external kind that can reside in the brain of a person, separate from his persona, as opposed to knowledge in the realm of character, that needs to become part of the person himself.

כאשר לימוד הישרת דרכי המידות וטהרת כחות הנפשיות נפרדים המה מלימוד כל תורה וחכמה יען בהם הידיעה ואדם היודעם שני דברים המה והידיעות המה רק צפונות בקרב האדם ובזה קנה האדם שלימותו להנהיג דרכיו על פי ידיעותיו הנכוחות והישרות.  לא כן בדבר הישרת דרכי המידות וטהרת כחות הנפשיות אשר לא ע”פ ידיעתם בלבד יחיה האדם לנהל מעשיו במישור לימודיהם אם לא קננו הידיעות בלבבו וקשורים וצמודים בהאדם יהיו לאחדים.

As such, for it to become part of the person, Rav Yisrael counsels that the study of the ideas must be done with both emotion and repetition, בשינון ובהתפעלות.  He advised his students not to simply study the ideas found in our works of ethics, but to choose a statement of Chazal, a value statement, and to repeat it over and over in a manner that stirs his emotions and finds its way – drills its way – into his heart and character.

וכ”כ ר”י בלזר בשערי אור (ט, ג):  ועל כן טוב לחזור מאמר מיראה ומוסר כמה פעמים וביחוד כאשר יגיע לאיזה מאמר חז”ל או שאר דברי מוסר אשר ירגיש בנפשו כי יתפעל מזה וילדור לתוך חדרי לבבו, יחזור וישנה עליו בהתפעלות כמה וכמה פעמים עד אשר יהיה חרות על לוח לבבו ולטוטפות בין עיניו ואז גם בלכתו בחוץ ובשכבו על משכבו יצלל המאמר הזה לתוך אזניו כפעמון ולא ימוש מזכרונו.

Do any of us do that?  Are any of us real Baalei Mussar?  I do not, because I am not.

But I do exactly that – as do you – with one specific sentence.  I do it over and over again, repeating it with emotion, hoping that it will find its way in to my heart.  I do it for approximately two weeks every year, several times a day, until on the last day I do it many, many times.  And you do it too.

The sentence that we repeat over and over again is the 13 Attributes.  We say it as a centerpiece of our prayer.  We say it over and over again, with feeling, with a tune, until we believe it.  We do not want to be in a situation where we do not really believe in G-d’s goodness, לא האמנתם בי.  Moshe heard the 13 Attributes from Hashem, he heard it once, and – he did not yet make it a part of himself.  We repeat it, over and over, until we believe it, until it is a part of us, יעשו לפני כסדר הזה.

This is what we must do with all the values that we wish to not just preach but practice.  We must make them our mantra, our repeated values, over and over.  We must not just say them in a dry and detached manner; we must say them – and I do not mean simply in a Mussar session, but in our conversations and discussions with spouse and children, friends and family – with feeling and passion, until we believe them.


The Last Step:  Being vs. Doing

In our effort to bridge the gap between intellect and character, to move us to live up to our principles, we have thus far identified four important steps:  First, identify principles that do not remain abstract but that we use as the measuring stick with which we look at ourselves.  Second, a passionate commitment to principle, to the extent that we do not keep it to ourselves but are moved to share it with others, to have others adopt this principle in their lives.  Third, study for the sake of improving ourselves, ללמוד על מנת לעשות.  And fourth, the mantra, the values that we repeatedly and passionately invoke, in that way drilling them into our way of thinking and living.

Before taking the last step, I want to share two stories.  These stories are classic, almost typical, and you have heard dozens or hundreds just like them.

A young Torah scholar went shopping for a Lulav in Bnei Brak, when suddenly he noticed the great Steipler Gaon, HaRav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, coming to look for his own Lulav at the same stand.  He watched as the great Rav looked at one Lulav, then a second, and then settled on a third, which he paid for and took home.

The young man was very surprised.  He had already spent hours searching for a Lulav that met his standards, to no avail.  And this great Rav found a good one on the third try?!  He felt he had just witnessed a miracle.  

On his way home, the young scholar bumped into a friend of his, a grandson of the Steipler Gaon.  Excitedly, he began to tell him the story of the “miracle” he had just witnessed with his grandfather. 

The grandson responded: “Let me share with you another miracle of my grandfather, and you will tell me which is greater.  Every year before Succos, my grandfather goes out to shop for the Four Species.  He comes to a shop, and takes a look at the merchandise.  Often, he is less than thrilled with the general quality.  But he realizes that if he – the Steipler Gaon – leaves the shop empty-handed, word will travel that the Steipler was disappointed in the merchandise of so-and-so.  And so, he buys one of the Lulavim, and brings it home.  At home, he has a whole stack of Lulavim that he has amassed while looking for the right Lulav.”

And another story:

Once, on an Erev Yom Kippur, while Rav Yisrael Salanter – then a very young man – was on his way to shul to Daven Maariv, he encountered a known, G-d-fearing man coming towards him.  His sense of fear of the Divine judgment was apparent on his face, and he had tears streaming down his cheeks. Rav Yisrael asked him a question for which he needed an answer, but the man – absorbed as he was in his own concern and fear – did not respond. 

Rav Yisrael commented: “When I had parted from this person, I thought to myself: ‘Why is it my problem that you are G-d-fearing and fearful and trembling about the Day of Judgment?  Why is that relevant to me?  You need to pleasantly answer my question, as that is the way of goodness and kindness.'”    (Ohr Yisrael p. 118)  

These two typical stories underscore a core Torah value.  Far more important than the specifics of this or that law or practice, is the human goodness and greatness that these practices are to mold.  When shopping for the perfect Lulav, the Steipler Gaon did not forget to be the perfect person.  While going to meet G-d in judgment, Rav Yisrael Salanter did not want to ignore the people he met on the way there.

Samuel Oliner was born in Zyndranowa, in Poland.  His family was killed in the Holocaust, but he was saved by a Polish woman who taught him – as a young child – how to pass himself off as a Christian.  As a survivor, he dedicated his life to studying altruism, to understanding why some people – like that Polish woman – risked everything to save the lives of others, while others did not.  He wanted to identify the factors that create what he would call “The Altruistic Personality”.

Towards this end he conducted extensive research.  Interestingly, one of the conclusions clearly emerging from the data was that religious upbringing per se was not a significant determinant.  Rather, how religion and values were taught made all the difference.  When people experienced religion as dogma, as a list of do’s and don’t’s that they simply had to obey, it did not appear to drive them to altruism.  But when they were made to see their religious values as something they could understand and respect, as building a truly internally held value system, then it did move them to be that greater person, the one who would do for others.

This too is part of the broader legacy of Rav Yisrael Salanter.  In a sense, his battle was to elevate the Torah student and scholar from the storehouse of knowledge and good deeds, to the personality of Torah.  To shift Torah from a to-do list to a vision of what we are to-be.   When that is the stated goal, when the objective is both greatness and goodness, then it is unlikely to miss its mark.

In so many of the challenges we face, this perspective would give us great insight and motivation to stay on track, to achieve.  What do we want to look like as a person?  דמות דיוקנו של אבא, the image of both greatness and goodness.  To aspire to be truly proud of ourselves; to be amongst those who bring pride to G-d; to live lives of congruence and consistency.

Our language and conversation needs to be filled with the language of values and principles, deeply held.  Values and principles that we measure ourselves up against.  Values and principles that we are driven to share.   We must learn, must study, על מנת לעשות with the explicit and clear goal to make ourselves better, to make ourselves greater.  To be those who both G-d and we can be proud of,ישראל אשר בך אתפאר.