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For the twenty-nine days of Elul, from August 23 to September 20, we will post a middah — a character trait — here with  a brief reflection for you to contemplate. We encourage you to dive into this study. It is a powerful and uplifting practice.

As we enter the month of Elul — the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holy Days — we begin a period of introspection. The study of mussar — a traditional Jewish practice of mindfulness and self-improvement — serves as an excellent way to prepare for the High Holy Days. We study mussar to focus our attention inward and to begin a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls.

We ask ourselves: Have we behaved in ways that are in alignment with our deepest values? Mussar provides a deep way into answering this question by providing criteria by which we can judge our actions and set our intentions. 

The practice of mussar is based on considering one’s character traits, or middot. The rabbis who heralded this tradition focused on specific middot as a way of improving the self, with the goal of becoming a more loving and gracious person in community with others.

The study of mussar is most effective when we take it on as an introspective daily practice. It could be as simple as contemplating a specific middah — a character trait — and answering some guiding questions to generate reflection. In this way, we don’t only consider where we are in our lives, we give specific thought to individual components of our character. This is a tool for self-improvement and spiritual uplift. Studying mussar is largely an individualized curriculum that brings to light our different strengths and weaknesses; while it might be natural for some of us to feel profoundly grateful with our lot, others might struggle with a nagging dissatisfaction.

Wednesday, September 20: Forgiveness

When we are able to forgive, we gain blessings in our lives: we let go of grudges that hold us down from fully experiencing joy and contentment. We open ourselves to the possibility of healing. This is as true when we forgive ourselves, and when we forgive others. We need to be willing to accept an imperfect past in order to be open to a better future.

As Alan Lew writes: “Forgiveness, it has been said, means giving up our hopes for a better past. This may sound like a joke, but how many of us refuse to give up our version of the past, and so find it impossible to forgive ourselves or others, impossible to act in the present?”

Questions for Reflection
What holds you back from being forgiving? Are you causing yourself and another unnecessary suffering by holding on to a grudge and not forgiving?

Today’s Practice
Think of a person who caused suffering for you or someone for whom you care, who you have not yet forgiven. If forgiveness of a large hurt is challenging for you, start small. Try to forgive. Notice the changes you feel in yourself. With practice we can increase our capacity to forgive.

Tuesday, September 19: Rest

One of the gifts that the Jews offered to the world is the idea that rest is an essential part of calendar. We learn from the creation of the week that one out of the seven days was set aside for rest. This has been woven into the way we mark time with the work week separated from Shabbat. There is a deep wisdom to this practice. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to gain perspective on our lives by taking us out of the day-to-day. Shabbat allows us to get in touch with what is really important and appreciate our surroundings, our family and friends, and our basic existence.

As Abraham Joshua Heshel stated: "Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the Earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to someone else."

Questions for Reflection
Do I allow myself a pause from my day-to-day activities and my ordinary habits? Do I take time out to appreciate the gifts in my life?

Today’s Practice
Cultivate a Shabbat practice. Allow yourself to take a day of rest from the work week and allow yourself just to be.

Monday, September 18: Gratitude

Why is it difficult to feel satisfied? With all of the things we have to be grateful for — relationships, work, community, material comforts, and even life itself — many of us find it difficult to tap into a lasting sense of gratitude (hakarat hatov).

It is human to strive for more. While we know that desire can help us be productive and grow, there is a downside to desire. We can get caught up in wanting more and end up unsatisfied with the gifts we have.

We read in the Talmud that Rabbi Meir said, “A person is obligated to bless 100 blessings every day.” This sounds like a great idea, but in reality, it can be difficult to find 100 things to feel grateful about each day. If we strive to come up with 100 blessings — whether for the food we eat, the people in our lives, or the beauty around us — we may have trouble counting to 100. Practicing gratitude relies on being mindful of large and small blessings, the remarkable, and the unnoticed. When we focus on our blessings, we open ourselves to the possibility of feeling whole.

Questions for Reflection
Do I feel unsatisfied? If so, can I locate that which I am taking for granted? Do I pause and appreciate the large and small gifts that I have in my life? Do I express my gratitude to others?

Today’s Practice
Try to notice 100 blessings in your life each day. Give thanks for even the smallest kindness your receive from others. Give thanks for what you are able to do for others. Give thanks for life itself.

Sunday, September 17: Learning

The cornerstone of Jewish life is learning (talmud Torah). The rabbis in Pirkei Avot ask who is wise? One who learns from everyone. We are urged to never stop thirsting for knowledge and wisdom and to seek out all kinds of teachers. Our teachers may be professors, rabbis, sages, authors; our teachers can also be our parents, our children, our friends and life itself. When we think of ourselves as students of life, we open the channels for deep learning and constant growth.

Questions for Reflection
From whom do I learn? Who haven’t I identified yet as a teacher who has something to teach me? What lessons are hidden in my life experience?

Today’s Practice
Look for hidden lessons in your everyday encounters, in what you read, in your life history and in the world around you. Seek opportunities to grow in wisdom.

Saturday, September 16: Patience

Patience (savlanut) is an important aspect of our relationships with each other and with ourselves, yet for many of us it is difficult to be patient. There are countless situations in life that test our patience; from waiting for a medical test result, to waiting for our children to make it through a tantrum or simply waiting for a subway. We don’t like to wait. We want answers immediately. We want what we want and we want it now.

To be patient we need to draw on our humility and remind ourselves that while our own needs and desires are important, they are in concert with the needs and desires of others. Becoming more patient is a practice. By cultivating a sense of patience, we help ourselves build resilience to the anxiety and even anger that the process of waiting can hold for some of us. As we work on sitting with disquieting feelings that accompany the act of waiting, we build tolerance and strategies for getting through these times.

As Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe stated: “The patient person is exactly like someone who is carrying a heavy package. Even though it weighs upon him, he continues to go on his way, and doesn’t take a break from carrying it. The same is true in all the relationships that are between people: we see and hear many things that aren’t according to our will, and still we continue to be good friends.”

Questions for Reflection
When is your patience tested? What can you draw on to help you though?

Today’s Practice
Try to recognize the next time you start to lose your patience. Explore what feelings come up for you. Practice tolerating the wait. Acknowledge the negative feelings that waiting brings forward. You don’t have to act on these emotions. Try to find reassurance in knowing that the waiting will pass. Actively cultivate patience.

Friday, September 15: Guarding One’s Speech

It is a natural to have a desire to gossip. We want to gossip to keep track of each other, and to keep track of our social structure — who is fighting with who, who is doing well, who is not doing well, and so on. But as we know, gossip can hurt people’s reputations in ways from which it can be very difficult to restore. This is true now more than ever in our digitalized world, where information and misinformation is shared and preserved so rapidly.

As Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said: “Not everything one thinks should be said. Not everything one writes should be printed, and not everything printed should be read.”

Questions for Reflection
Do you find yourself sharing your negative perceptions or suspicions about others? Do you make an effort not to say things about others that could cause them embarrassment or worse?

Today’s Practice
Pay attention to your inclination to share gossip. When you feel the urge to gossip, do something else (count to 10, get a glass of water, etc.) to put a buffer of time in between you and this action. Pause and let the urge pass. Commit yourself to not sharing gossip.

Thursday, September 14: Not Embarrassing Another

Shaming another is a terrible act in the eyes of Judaism. We read in the Talmud: “When one publicly shames a neighbor it is as though that person shed blood… One who whitens a friend’s face in public has no share in the world to come.” When we shame people, we lower their dignity, confidence, and self-worth. We devalue their humanity. Being consistently shamed can lead to many problems for people throughout their lifetime, such as disengagement from community and relationships, and a diminished zest for life.

Judaism teaches us to go out of our way to avoid embarrassing another (lo levayesh). But our sages recognized that we all have the capacity to put others to shame, and gave us a lesson about this as well. The Talmud records that Rabbi Judah HaNasi was delivering a lecture, and he noticed a distracting smell of garlic. He said: “Whoever ate that garlic should leave the room.” When the students saw one of their fellow students start to get up, they all rose and left with him so he would not be shamed.

As we see with this story, shame thrives in isolation and is diminished when we know we are not alone.

Questions for Reflection
Think of a time when someone was embarrassed. What was our role? Were we active or passive? Reimagine the time. Is there a way in which the person could have been spared? How might we have acted differently?

Today’s Practice
Sometimes we say things without filtering them first and imagining how our words will make another feel. Particularly, when we are angry or stressed. Take a breath, and wait a moment. Become aware of how you feel, and how the other person is feeling.  Choose your words with care. 

Wednesday, September 13: Compassion

Being compassionate is not just a nice thing to do — it is a foundation for living a Jewish life. We are taught to take care of the less fortunate, to remember our history as slaves, and to cultivate compassion (rachamim). Nevertheless, our capacity for compassion may be blocked when we feel overwhelmed with personal ambition, anxiety, anger, confusion, or distraction. When we cannot access our sensitivity to another person’s experience, our channel for compassion can become closed. This may become a source of isolation and great unhappiness. Furthermore, it prevents us from acting in accordance with our basic humanity, which demands that we recognize our connection and responsibility to one another.

Some make themselves rich, yet have nothing;
Others make themselves poor, yet they have much.
Those with a compassionate eye are blessed,
For they give of their bread to the poor. (Proverbs 13:7)

Questions for Reflection
Am I in touch with the ways in which I express compassion for others? To whom do I orient my compassion? Do I limit my compassion to people close to me? What blocks me from feeling compassion?

Today’s Practice
Allow yourself to feel compassion towards people whom you come across. Imagine their struggles and consider the ways you might offer them some help or comfort. How might you act on your feeling of compassion?

Tuesday, September 12: Hospitality

Abraham, the very first Jew, sat at the edge of his tent in the heat of the summer in great physical discomfort in order to be at the ready to greet passersby. Right from the beginning of Judaism, the value of hospitality (hachnasat orchim) is central.

The Talmud tells us: hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the God. We know we should welcome the stranger, but sometimes we find ourselves contracting inwards, turning away from those who need welcome. We can close ourselves from the needs of others we don’t know because we are put off by them, intimidated by them, or simply too caught up in our own selves to take notice of them. We can end up leaving the welcoming of strangers to others. Judaism’s foundational story of the Exodus reminds us that we, too, were strangers in a strange land. We pass this story from generation to generation to cultivate compassion so we can go beyond welcoming others into our physical spaces — so that we can become welcoming people.

Questions for Reflection
Do you find yourself ignoring those who clearly could benefit from being welcomed? What stops you? Can you remember a time when you felt truly welcomed by a stranger?

Today’s Practice
Open your heart towards someone in need of hospitality. Take concrete action towards being a more welcoming person.

Monday, September 11: Joy

We all want to experience a sense of joy (simcha). Deep contentment is a high value. The term joy does not refer to a momentary burst of excitement; rather, joy is a cultivated attitude that arises from a sense of well being.

The first word of the Book of Psalms is “happy.” This sense of contentment is not about ignoring life’s difficulties, but reaching out for joy in spite of all of life’s challenges. Jonathan Sacks wrote: “It is one of the most poignant facts about Judaism and the Jewish people that our history has been shot through with tragedy, yet Jews never lost the capacity to rejoice, to celebrate in the heart of darkness, to sing the Lord’s song even in a strange land.” Joy is a gift.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who struggled with depression, wrote this prayer: “God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy — overcome despair, seek, pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves, and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep abiding pleasure in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am.”

Questions for Reflection
What blocks my ability to access a sense of well-being and joy? Can I cultivate joy? How do I share joy with others? When do experience joy? Can I bring more of it into my life?

Today’s Practice
Pay attention to moments when you experience a sense of well being. Allow yourself to experience this fully. Think about how this sense of well being cultivates joy.

Sunday, September 10: Lovingkindness

The trait of lovingkindness (chesed) is so important, in Pirkei Avot we read that it is one of only three pillars upon which the world stands. “The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the service of God, and upon acts of loving-kindness.”

In embracing this trait, we are compelled to look inward and combat whatever blocks us from spread generosity and compassion in the world. It is all too human for us to resist acting, but as we know, if we wait until we feel in the mood to give to the poor, many people would go hungry. When we push ourselves to do acts of lovingkindness, we open ourselves to the rewards that only doing good deeds can bring. We allow for the possibility of feeling a sense of our place in the world and a profound sense of connection with others.

We read in the Talmud: “Just as God clothes the naked, so shall you clothe the naked. Just as God is merciful, so shall you be merciful…”

Questions for Reflection
What acts can you do just for the benefit of others? What stops you from engaging in acts of lovingkindness?

Today’s Practice
Do an act of lovingkindness each day. Embrace these acts as a part of who you are and how you express yourself in the world.

Saturday, September 9: Honor

Everyone is created in the image of God — from the most successful and privileged person to the least accomplished and least able. Yet the practice of honoring others isn’t as simple as it may seem; we are culturally trained to give our highest respect to those who achieve in some way. We often get caught up in competitive thinking and assume some people are more deserving of respect than others. Judaism teaches us to cultivate acts that give honor (kavod) to everyone.

Our sage, Ben Azzai, said: “Do not scorn any man, and do not discount anything. For there is no man who has not his hour, and no thing that has not its place.”

Questions for Reflection
How do I show honor to others? Do I outwardly display an attitude of respect?

Today’s Practice
Notice if you act more respectfully towards some people than others. Start to incorporate a more inclusive approach. Practice greeting everyone you meet with respect.

Friday, September 8: Orderliness

Most of us do not like clutter. We don’t like cluttered spaces, cluttered schedules, or cluttered thoughts. A sense of order provides the framework for a mindful and organized life. When we have orderliness (seder), we gain a sense of security and control. We can then focus on the important aspects of our lives.

Yet we are frequently challenged when we seek order in our lives. First of all, we need to take stock and consider the disorganization in our lives — physical and organizationally. We also need to discard what’s not necessary, which can be a painful, wrenching process. But unless we strive for order, we won’t be able to bring forward the most cherished aspects of our lives. A sense of order gives us freedom.

As Rabbi Simcah Zissel Ziv (1824–1898) wrote: “Take time, be exact, unclutter the mind.”

Questions for Reflection
Do I feel my life is out of control because my living space, my schedule, or my mind is cluttered? What do I need to get rid of in order to streamline my priorities and bring about a sense of order?

Today’s Practice
Focus on ridding yourself of unnecessary clutter of one kind or another. Ask yourself what is getting in the way of a more orderly life.

Thursday, September 7: Attentiveness

Attentiveness (shmiat haozen) is at the core of studying mussar. Without attentiveness, our lives become a film we are sleeping through. Many spiritual traditions are focused on attentiveness — most notably, meditation and yoga. However, Jewish tradition has been talking about attentiveness and mindfulness for milenia.

Rabbi Jonathan Slater says, “Mindfulness is a practice that helps us to look beyond our particular lives to see the reality of all life — and respond more fully to it. It is not introspection or navel gazing simply for the sake of “self-awareness.” It is a path toward a peaceful heart, loving relationships, and a joyful embrace of all of life.

Questions for Reflection
Do I find myself overwhelmed by distractions and the noise of daily life? When do I find myself really present to my experience?

Today’s Practice
Take five minutes to pay attention to what is around you or what you are doing. How does your body feel? What do you hear? Try to be present to the potential gifts of the moment.

Wednesday, September 6: Generosity

Giving is a fundamental expression of humanity. It is natural to want to give and connect with others. Giving helps us to establish, solidify, and maintain relationships. Giving charity helps our relationship with ourselves and our larger sense of purpose. Furthermore, Judaism generosity (nedivut) is a central value of Judaism. We read, “kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh,” all of Israel is responsible one to the other. Implied in this is that all of humanity is responsible for one another. We are all creations of God and equally deserving of the riches life has to offer.

There is a story about a famous rabbi who was called the Hafetz Hayyim, from the early part of the 20th century: When an American visitor to his home saw how bare his room was and asked him, “Where is your furniture?” The Hafetz Hayyim asked the man, “Where is your furniture?” The American answered, “furniture, I don’t have any here. I am only a visitor here.” But the Hafetz Hayyim answered, “I, too, am a visitor in this world.”

We, too, are visitors who inherit what is given us for a time and then pass it on. Why have we been given such gifts in our lives, if not to share them?

Questions for Reflection
Do you find yourself keeping material riches for yourself or sharing only with your loved ones? What stops you from being more generous with others?

Today’s Practice
Do a generous act for others. Push yourself to give until you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Practice different ways of giving: give money, your possessions, time, and care.

Tuesday, September 5: Awe

The feeling of awe (yirah) is a core spiritual experience. It is about coming into contact with something divine in our midst. So much of God’s creation has the potential to inspire feelings of awe and wonder — from the sun, brilliantly appearing in the sky each day, to a butterfly, emerging from a chrysalis, to the ocean, which goes on in waves for what seems like forever.

Our relationships with one another, too, can give us a sense of awe. When we connect with another on a deep level, we can feel a greater sense of the meaningfulness of the world. We become aware of the spiritual core to these connections.

Alan Morinis writes: “Through the extraordinary experiences that generate awe, you become acquainted with the spiritual charge that is available to you in every moment of the day. If you undertake to grow that experience in you, as you become more adept at finding yirah (awe), you will find it arising in you not only in the extraordinary like birth and death, great mammals, and kaleidoscopic sunsets, but in a cup of tea, a flower, the ability to hear, and almost everywhere.”

Questions for Reflection
When have you felt awe? What experiences have made you feel life grow heavy with meaning?

Today’s Practice
Pursue experiences that might lead to a sense of awe. Try to notice beauty around you. Be present to the moment and let wonder in.

Monday, September 4: Trust

The root of the Hebrew word b’tachon is “b-t-kh”, which has the meaning of trust, confidence, or hope. All three work together to describe what it is to have faith. In spite of all of the challenges we face, there is always the possibility for things to get better. Faith is sometimes challenging for us to hold on to, because we know that things do not always work out; relationships fail, people let us down, we let ourselves down. Jewish teachings tell us not to ignore the things that grieve us, but to find the path through them — to cling to hope even when times are dark.

The willingness to trust is a deliberate choice. It takes courage and faith.

Nachman of Breslov said: “All the world is a narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to be afraid.”

Silence is a fence around wisdom. (Proverbs)

Questions for Reflection
What blocks my access to trust? Do I find myself holding on to feelings of mistrust? Can I find glimmers of hope? Can I cultivate trust to counteract my sense of worry and mistrust?

Today’s Practice
When you feel worried, remind yourself of Nachman of Breslov’s words.

Sunday, September 3: Respecting Boundaries

God created the world through separating elements into their own spaces. Every entity requires its own space. Much of the scaffolding of Jewish life is about setting boundaries and separating space: Shabbat from the rest of the week, dairy from meat, and so on.
Boundaries are critical in setting up healthy lives and relationships. We all have boundaries to what we are willing to share and what we can take from others. These boundaries may be physical, emotional, or professional. But because we all have different needs, it can sometimes be difficult to know when we have trespassed on another’s boundary of space, time, or intimacy. Similarly, we might allow another to transgress our own personal boundaries, especially when someone else’s feelings are at stake. Yet we must tune into our own feelings with a sense of respect.
Rabbi Avraham Kahn writes: The Midrash Shmuel explains that the Mishnah teaches that everyone shall make "protective fences" just like the rabbis made "fences" in order to assist the Jewish people in general from transgressing the Torah law, so should every individual build his own fences in areas where he knows that he has a weakness. The Talmud  teaches that a Nazirite who may not drink wine should stay away even from the vineyard itself. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and in order to grow in our study of the Torah and in the fulfillment of its laws, we need to create our personal fences, each one in the area where we need it. In this way, we will be able to overcome our weaknesses and go from "strength to strength" in our service of God.
Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Our personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”

Questions for Reflection
How do I respect boundaries? Do I make space for another person’s desires and feelings, even if they are in conflict with mine? Do I understand and articulate my own boundaries?

Today’s Practice
Pay attention to limits set by others, whether verbal, physical, or unspoken. Notice how we respond to limits placed by ourselves and others. Where do we have challenges in respecting these boundaries? What could help us when we are tempted to transgress a boundary?

Saturday, September 2: Courage

Whether due to imminent danger, existential conditions, or day-to-day life, it is a part of the human experience to have fear. In times when our fear overtakes us, we can draw courage (ometz lev) through our connection to that which is greater than ourselves.

The Psalmist writes:
Though I walk through a valley
of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me.
We have the ability to draw strength from deep within, even when we are anxious or distressed. The kernel of inner light within each of us always remains lit. Like a pilot light, it never goes out.
At times of distress, strengthen your heart.
Even if you stand at death’s door.
The lamp has light before it is extinguished.
The wounded lion still knows how to roar.

Question for Reflection
What causes me fear? What gives me comfort in the face of this fear?

Today’s Practice
Cultivate courage by practicing taking a step towards doing something you know is right, but have been avoiding because of fear. Notice when the fear passes. Hold on to this knowledge to help get you in touch with a sense of hope and faith.

 

Friday, September 1: Loving All Creatures

In the Book of Genesis, we read that human beings are created “betzelem Elohim”, which means “in the image of God.” It naturally follows that we should all have a deep respect for each other. Jewish tradition takes this further: we are told to “love your neighbor as yourself” and inversely, "not [to] do unto your fellow what is hateful to yourself!" Can you imagine how much better our world would be if we all tried to live by these commandments? Loving another as ourselves is about being selfish on someone else’s behalf — making sure they are well cared for and have all that they need. Not doing what is hateful to us to another is about making every effort to avoid the possibility of another human being getting hurt. As Rav Kook said, “Loving God’s creatures is expressing in practical action, and pursuing the welfare of those we are bidden to love, and seeking their advancement.”

Our sages gave us a to-do list that helps to focus our attention through study, prayer, and actions towards loving all of God’s creatures (ohev et Habriyot). It reads:

These are the obligations beyond measure whose reward, too is beyond measure.
They are:
honoring one’s father and mother,
engaging in deeds of compassion,
arriving early for study, morning and evening,
dealing graciously with guests,
visiting the sick,
providing for the wedding couple,
accompanying the dead for burial,
being devoted in prayer,
and making peace among people.
But the study of Torah encompasses them all.

Question for Reflection
Have you been generous of heart to someone for the simple reason that s/he is a fellow human being? When did you last do an unselfish act for a loved one? When did you last do something unselfish for an acquaintance or stranger?

Today’s Practice
When you carry the goal of being loving to all of God’s creations, how does it change the ways in which you interact with others? How can you take practical action to pursue the welfare of others and seek their advancement?

Thursday, August 31: Judging Others Favorably

When a person does something wrong, many of us almost instinctively rush to make condemnations. Judaism teaches us to soften our hearts, try to understand the reasons behind wrongdoings, and to judge others favorably (machiro l’char zechut). As Hillel taught: “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his/her place.” If we cannot think of a good reason for a person’s wrongful actions, we are to think of this occurrence as an aberration, rather than emblematic of that person’s essence. The Talmudic sage Joshua ben Perahiah said: "When you judge anyone, tip the scale in his/her favor. Judge the whole of a person favorably." This is good advice that also applies to how we judge ourselves; we should give ourselves the benefit of the doubt as well. When we err, we shouldn’t rush to condemn ourselves, but rather, learn from our mistakes.

Question for Reflection
When observing someone’s wrongdoing, am I quick to judge that person? When I observe myself doing something wrong, do I judge myself harshly? How can I react with kindness and love toward others and toward myself?

Today’s Practice
The next time someone does something wrong, make an effort to temper your reaction. Get in touch with the notion that we are all human and err.

Wednesday, August 30: Equanimity

Equanimity (shiviti) refers to a sense of inner balance. When we are in a state of equanimity, we are not easily frazzled or upset. We cultivate an inner quality that allows us to handle the inevitable ups and downs of life.
A Hasidic rabbi and itinerant teacher, Rabbi Rafael, is known in Hasidic lore for his great equanimity. A story is told that he wanted tzitzit (a kind of tallit that is worn as an undershirt with fringes attached) made from a special fabric he brought from Israel. He gave the precious material to the tailor, who went to cut a hole in the garment for the man’s head to fit through, and he accidentally cut two holes. The tearful tailor told Rabbi Rafael what happened and the rabbi calmly responded: You have given me a gift — I need two holes in this garment: one so that I can wear it, and the other to challenge me to not allow anger to get control over me.

In another story, Rabbi Rafael lost money and remained calm. When asked why he wasn’t upset, he said: “It is enough that I lost money; I don’t need to sully my soul with anger.”

Question for Reflection
When have I allowed my anger to get the best of me? Am I ruled by emotions? Can I look at the messages behind the emotions and deal with them before they affect my behavior? How can I cultivate a sense of equanimity?

Today’s Practice
Watch your emotions. Think of yourself as observing them, rather than being ruled by them. Look for the message your emotions are giving you about your condition.

Tuesday, August 29: Diligence

We all have times when we are working on a task that we don’t feel like continuing: sometimes we are bored with our work, or we feel lazy, or want to channel energy in a different way. Our sages taught that we should resist the temptation to cease from work before we have finished what we have set out to do. Rabbi Salanter stated, “Do what you have determined and do it with feeling.” There is a wisdom in this: diligence in our work cultivates a sense of fulfillment, dignity, and pride. The Psalmist teaches us, “If a person works, that person is blessed.” (Psalm 23:3) When we approach our work with intention and commitment, it can give us a sense of purpose, order, and even a sense of spiritual grounding.

Rabbi Tarfon said, “Even the Holy Blessed One did not have the Shekhina to rest upon Israel until they had done work, as it is said, ‘Let them make for me a sanctuary, and then I will dwell among them.’

Question for Reflection
Have you experienced a sense of well being from meeting goals that you set for yourself?

Today’s Practice
Choose a task you would like to accomplish within a manageable timeframe. Imagine the dignity and pride you will feel in being diligent as you set to work. Keep this at the forefront of your mind in moments when you find yourself pulling away from your initial intention.

Monday, August 28: Silence

When we chant the words of the Shema, we enact the ancient call to listen. We close our eyes and open our ears to those around us and to ourselves. In order to truly hear, a part of us needs to be silent. We listen more closely and fully experience what is around us. Silence (shtika) helps us gain perspective that we often lose when we insert ourselves into the picture.

Silence is a fence around wisdom. (Proverbs)

Questions for Reflection
When did I last allow myself to be silent? Does silence make me uncomfortable? What can I learn from silence?

Today’s Practice
Consider everyone you encounter in your daily life. Notice how you consider yourself in relationship to them. Consider if you are thinking of yourself as better or more elevated than another, or lesser or not as worthy. Let these questions help you become more aware of your attitudes so that you can work towards readjustment.

Sunday, August 27: Truthfulness

Truth (emet) is a slippery word because truth is subjective. One person may believe something is true, while another doubts the same idea. A notion of truth can change depending on one’s perspective. That said, there are clear instances of falsehood. Intuitively, we know when we have propagated lies. False testimony, false denials, deceiving others into trusting, saying one thing while thinking another — these are just some of the ways we can violate truth. When we act falsely, we damage other people and hurt ourselves spiritually.

A Yiddish folk saying states, “With lies you can go far, but not back again.” Judaism teaches that striving for truth is a holy act. Truth is in line with that spiritual kernel inside all of us that helps guide our moral and ethical actions.

Questions for Reflection
Do I find myself stretching the truth to make things easier on myself? Are these mistruths convenient in the moment but hurtful in the long run?

Today’s Practice
Be silent for a period of time each day. Observe your internal responses. Allow silence to help you listen closely and tune in to yourself and world around you.

Saturday, August 26: Willingness

Sometimes we find ourselves not wanting to act in ways that we know we should. We hold ourselves back by allowing our feelings of internal laziness, resentment, or boredom to justify our reluctance to act. We also rationalize these feelings with a selfish stance that permits us to sit back while others do the work. What makes this even more complicated is that these feelings can easily get conflated and we don’t always know why we don’t act.

It is difficult to maintain a careful balance between respecting ourselves and our own boundaries, and acting in ways that are selfish at the expense of others. We can often swing back and forth from being too selfish to being too selfless.

Willingness (ratzon) is a complex trait. We need to look inward and really understand our motivations when we choose not to act. Conversely, we need to examine when we are too willing and enthusiastic and risk overextending ourselves. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin wrote: “Always find something to do for yourself or for your friend and don’t allow a moment of your life to be wasted.”

Questions for Reflection
Did I recently pass up an opportunity to act or participate in something? What motivated this choice? What held me back? Did I relegate actions to others and miss out on opportunities? Conversely, am I too eager to participate and then I burn out? When I choose to act, am I sincere in my motivation?

Today’s Practice
When you are asked to participate or help in some way, take a moment before responding. Get in touch with your motivations for saying yes or no.

Friday, August 25: Deliberation

We all know we should pause and reflect before we hit “send” on an email or text. We also know we should watch words when we argue with someone we love, or when we are engaging with colleagues or strangers. The practice of deliberation (zehirut) gives us a vehicle for pausing and taking time to consider our words and actions before it’s too late.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov wrote: “Let your heart not be precipitate nor your mouth be hasty. Rather, pause several times while speaking or acting so as to deliberate and calm yourself.”

Questions for Reflection

Remember a time when you didn’t pause and reflect before speaking or acting. How did your hastiness affect your relationship with others? How did you feel about yourself?

Today’s Practice

Take a moment and consider your words and actions before doing something in haste. Really consider the effects of your actions on another person and calibrate or revise your intention.

Thursday, August 24: Taking an Honest Accounting of Oneself

Judaism teaches us to take an honest assessment of ourselves. We are encouraged to feel the joy of our accomplishments, but also to have a realistic understanding of our inadequacies in order to strive for more wisdom, knowledge, and abilities.

Our sages wrote: “Only one who senses he is lacking something will seek out the Torah, which brings completion to the incomplete.” Each of us is unique and has our own special abilities and weaknesses. In searching these out, we  improve ourselves and see our lives improve in turn.

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the Seer of Lublin: “Show me the best way to serve God.” The tzaddik replied, “It is impossible to tell people the way they should take. Everyone should carefully observe which way one’s heart is drawn, and then choose this way with all one’s strength.”

Questions for Reflection
What are some areas that you see in yourself that could use some development? What are your strengths?

Today’s Practice
Take an accounting of your strengths and weaknesses. Act on an area you wish to improve.

Wednesday, August 23: Humility

If we are distracted by our own ego and sense of self-worth, we don’t always see things as they are. Conversely, if we are clouded by low self-esteem, we also miss out on perceiving reality. A sense of humility (anavah) keeps us in balance.

Humility is not self-depreciation. Nor is humility about putting others above us and diminishing ourselves. Rather, humility takes confidence, strength, and a sense of security to make room for the experience of others.

The Kabbalists taught that before the creation of the universe, Ayn Sof (Infinite God) withdrew Itself into its essence to make space for creation. We too need to be able to pull back our perspectives and desires to make room for others; and yet, this does not diminish the fullness of ourselves.

Jewish tradition values humility as a central tenet of the Torah. Rabbi Hanina ben Idi said: “Why are the words of Torah likened to water? In order to indicate that just as water leaves high places and goes to low places, so the words of the Torah leave the one who is haughty and stay with the one who is humble.” 

Questions for Reflection
How can we balance our power and privilege with humility? In times when we have abundance in our lives, are we able to remain humble? How do we make room for others? How do we pull back to shine light on those we love?

Today’s Practice
Consider everyone you encounter in your daily life. Notice how you consider yourself in relationship to them. Consider if you are thinking of yourself as better or more elevated than another, or lesser or not as worthy. Let these questions help you become more aware of your attitudes so that you can work towards readjustment.