Rabbi Moshe Rothchild
When I was in ninth grade I went to a private Jewish high school in Monsey, NY under the direction of a well known Rabbi named Berel Wein. Each morning our day would begin at about 7:30 AM with the morning prayers which lasted anywhere from forty-fifty minutes. It was a pretty serious school and right after prayers we would sit for about fifteen minutes as Rabbi Wein (pronounced Wine) would teach us mussar. What is mussar? It is the organized study of ethical behavior from the Jewish perspective. Though it was many years ago, I still remember much of what was said as if it were yesterday.
“Life is not like Burger King, you can’t always have it your way,” was one phrase that sticks out in my mind. When Rabbi Wein would teach he would always come up with clever ways to make the material interesting and relevant to a bunch of high school students, his sense of humor is legendary. “Life is like bubble gum, a little bit of flavor and the rest is chew, chew, chew.” While I did not realize it at the time, his wit contained much wisdom and has stuck with me until this very day.
Rabbi Wein used to tell us frequently, “If you are going to do something kind for someone, do it all the way. Don’t give someone a ride home and then drop them off a block from their house. Take them all the way!” That lesson is one that I practice all the time when I give people rides.
Being a good person requires thought. It is not something that comes easily or naturally. We must put time and effort into studying character and developing our good character traits and taming the bad ones, or channeling them for good. There is a famous Jewish saying that it is more difficult to change one character trait than it is to split the Red Sea! Profoundly true.
While it may seem obvious to us that we must study and dedicate time to the development of character, it was not always obvious. This week we marked the 130th anniversary of the passing of a rabbi named Israel Salanter who was the father of the study of mussar or character development. Until he came along people felt that if we would just study the Bible and the holy writings, that alone would transform us into good, kind, ethical people. Rabbi Salanter felt otherwise. We need to set aside time to look at ourselves in the mirror and self reflect. Someone once asked Rabbi Salanter, “If I only have fifteen minutes a day to study the Bible or study mussar (character development) which should I study?” He famously responded: “Study mussar because then you will realize that you have more than fifteen minutes to study!”
In memory of Rabbi Salanter, I would like to share some of his ideas that resonate with me and I hope they will resonate with you. Please write comments in the box below and let me know what your favorite idea is. Here goes:
- Never speak a word unless your heart can testify to its truth.
- Never waste a single moment; do what has to be done.
- Be careful to treat all people with honor, even those with whom you have little in common.
- The wise speak in a gentle manner; always try to speak softly.
- Recognize your own shortcomings and disregard those of your fellow man.
- Think about the benefit of your words before you say them.
Those are just a few pearls of his wisdom.
I will close with a story. Someone once asked Rabbi Salanter how he would feel if he found out that very few people ever listened to him and improved their character. He gave a classic response and said “If I found out that after a lifetime of teaching that only one person listened to me and that only one person changed just one small thing, and that one person was me, it would all be worth it.” He knew that one small change that a person makes to improve his character can have a ripple effect that would change the world. And he has.