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Failing a little Less, Growing a Little More: Tikkun Middot as a Jewish Spiritual Path – Yom Kippur 2019/5780

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Today, we confess our wrongdoings. We acknowledge the ways we have mistreated others and shunned our responsibilities.

Today, we stand in the possibility of who we want to be in the world. We set goals like: “I want to be a more loving and less reactive parent/child/friend/sibling.” “I hope to be more confident and assertive in my workplace.” “I want to have better work-life balance” or “engage in more self care.” “I want to be more open-minded to those with whom I don’t agree.” There are as many goals as the people here today.

Tomorrow, we go back to our daily routines with a spring in our step and a sense of commitment towards those goals.

Then we wake up and it’s the day after the day after Yom Kippur!

We might overhear some juicy gossip by the proverbial water cooler and not be able to resist sharing that information with a coworker. Our child, spouse, or friend, does “that thing” again and our newfound patience goes out the window. The cookies in the freezer that we promised ourselves we would save for a special occasion call out to us with intense yearning to be eaten. We remember that we are simply “too busy” to do self-care.

Rabbi Shai Held said in a talk about personal growth and Judaism: “Often the 12th of Tishrei (two days after Yom Kippur) is among the most depressing days of the year for me. It is the day when I realize that I have a lot of the same shortcomings that I did on Erev Yom Kippur.”

Perhaps for you, it’s not the 12th of Tishrei, but a few weeks or months later… inevitably, we see our shortcomings coming back to haunt us. We mess up. We do not keep a goal we have set for ourselves. We let routine set our ways.

Our High Holiday liturgy understands this human condition. We come back every year to the same Ashamnu & Al Heyt for a reason. There is no “Level 2 confessional!” We are human, we are going to mess up, clean up, and mess up again.

There is no “Level 2 confessional!” We are human, we are going to mess up, clean up, and mess up again.

We begin Erev Yom Kippur with this very acknowledgement. The Kol Nidre prayer is a legal revocation of our vows. Strangely, and much to the dismay of SAJ’s founding rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who tried unsuccessfully to extract Kol Nidre from Yom Kippur observance, the prayer is a revocation of future vows-ones our lips have not yet uttered!

If we know that we are going to mess up, and our system counts on it, then perhaps the question is: This year, can we mess up a little less?

Or said with a positive spin: Might we come back, about this same time next year, and each of us be able to say: we did grow, we did change even in some small but significant way for the better?

One might argue that all of Judaism is an answer to that question. Shabbat and prayer, tikkun olam (repair of the world), ritual observance call us to be more grateful, engaged people.

Today, I want to focus our attention on another Jewish practice that might help us answer those questions in the affirmative: Tikkun Middot.

Tikkun Middot is based off a movement in Judaism called “Mussar” (ethical instruction) that was started in the 19th century by Rabbi Israel Salanter who sought to make ethical interpersonal behavior central to what it means to be a Jew-as important as ritual observance in defining a “good Jew.”

Tikkun Middot, as organized through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, (IJS) is a contemporary practice of Musar that is incorporates the wisdom and practice mindfulness and centers itself with the quality of hesed, compassion. Tikkun Middot was also designed for contemporary communities and is a methodology that can be integrated into the fabric of community as a communal practice and ethos.

Tikkun Middot is a process of cultivating greater freedom and inner growth through focus on different character traits (middot) — traits that are already inside of us but that might not be activated or come into their full potential.

Some examples are:

  • Savlanut- patience, and bearing the burden of another
  • Shmirat HaLashon-(always a challenging one!) proper speech
  • Emunah– Faith and the art of being trustworthy and trusting others

This is how the practice works:

Step 1: Applying Curiosity and Awareness to Middot.

We consider a particular middah, study its textual origins and applications. Once we understand the middah, we then engage in hitlamdut– which translates to “self-reflexive learning.” Hitlamdut is, in essence, curious, non-judgmental awareness. We aim to see our connection to this middah, noticing our patterns of behavior, perhaps our points of resistance and struggle. We might also take on practices that help us heighten our awareness, like the repetition of a phrase connected to that middah. But most importantly, we seek to look inside ourselves and ask questions any observer would and most importantly, we do all this without judging ourselves for who we are or are not in any moment or in relationship to that middah. This is a very different approach than most of us engage in on a regular basis — and in that way, it gives us the freedom to see more clearly but also to hold ourselves with compassion.

Step 2: Awareness of Choice.

Awareness of Choice.

When we bring mindful awareness to middot-and to our lives in general- we become aware of choices that might not have been aware of. If we are aware of how short-tempered we are when our child does x, then when that child does x again, we may have enough awareness to stop, take a breath, and make a different choice. If we notice that we act a certain way at certain points of the day, we may be able to bring more mindful attention to those points of the day and act differently.

Ideally, we make the choice that speaks more to who we want to be. But as this is a practice of compassion, if we miss the mark, we take note and try again the next time.

Step 3: Repeat.

That’s it!

I want to share two examples from my own life:

First, on “Anavah” (humility), ego and the power of “no.”

The middah of “anavah” is about the space and place we take up in the world. Are we needing to be the center of attention? Are we fading too much into the limelight? Why are we showing up the way we do?

This past year, through mindfulness and middot practice, I have been reflecting on this quality and the role of ego in my own life. I have been noting how my ego and its other half-insecurity- end up making a lot of my decisions for me.

Earlier in the year, I was invited to participate in a daylong interfaith meeting of social justice leaders. The visioning date was to take place on a Monday, my day off. I was exhausted and burned out. I didn’t feel I had the time or the bandwidth and this would have put me over the edge.

But… virtually every significant NYC interfaith social justice leader would be there. It is my self-perception and aspiration to be counted among those peers! I thought about the networking I would miss — Who knows what other opportunities this might lead to? And I contemplated the optics- the literal optics: there would surely be pictures on social media and if I chose not to go, I wouldn’t be in them!

I had a “choice moment” — would I go or not go to this esteemed meeting? I am 99.9% sure that if I had not been doing this work, I would have gone with my default and likely would have been judgmental of the program the whole time and myself for attending…and then I would have smiled in the pictures and posted them on social media.

But after much hemming and hawing, I said no! And without a hint of sarcasm, I stand before you today, on Yom Kippur, and declare that this was one of, if not, the greatest victories of 5779.

A second story, on the middah of savlanut -patience and bearing the burden.

My husband Jon and I strive to be equals in our parenting responsibilities. We do a pretty good job. But there is one fairly significant arena in which this is not true. Fitting with gender stereotypes, I am the keeper of the family calendar: camps, after school activities, playdates, appointments, days off from school plans. It is at once a job I loathe, because of the time and overwhelming responsibility — and at the same time a job I would never give up — because I am absolutely controlling!

In considering the middah of savlanut and its counterpart of ka’as (anger), I realized that every time Jon would ask a question like, “So, it’s Tuesday- remind me what the kids have after school today?” or “What camp are they going to this week,” I would go into a either a deep fit of rage (“HOW COULD YOU NOT KNOW THIS!!”) or hurt and resentment (“how could he not know this”).

While I admit that both rage and resentment are present in normal married life, neither are helpful in fostering an environment of love, understanding, and connection.

In noticing my pattern and becoming aware, I was able to shift. Now, when Jon asks me calendar questions I assume he should know, instead of getting upset 100% of the time, I would say I get upset about 50% of the time. This is a major win!

This is exactly what I love about the work of Tikkun Middot. It is a meaningful and realistic path towards personal growth. This is not like a fad diet: this is not a quick fix. Whatever we can do to move towards our goals is beneficial and worthy of celebration. And when we fail, we recognize our fallible human nature — and pick ourselves back up again.

And when we fail, we recognize our fallible human nature — and pick ourselves back up again.

Another reason I am excited about this approach is that it aligns with my understanding of contemporary Judaism: Judaism shouldn’t just connect us to the past or make us feel warm and fuzzy. Judaism should speak to our lives and should have the potential to transform and move our hearts and actions for the better.

And call me crazy but I believe that synagogues should be places, in addition to soul cycle, yoga, retreats, and the like (all wonderful places) where we can go to grow our souls.

It is important to note that while this work is internal, Tikkun Middot is not about navel gazing. We engage in hitlamdut and practice in the service of others: to be kinder to our spouses, friends, children, parents, siblings and to be more effective agents for change in the world. It is about getting out of our way so we can see the whole that we are part of. Rabbi Israel Salanter founder of Musar was famous for saying: “My neighbor’s physical needs are my spiritual responsibility.” Further, tikkun HaOlam (repair of the world) and tikkun haNefesh (repair of our souls) are two sides of the same coin. They support each other; they are mutually reinforcing.

This is amplified because in its characteristically Jewish way, Tikkun Middot is a practice for the individual in the container of the community. It needs a minyan!

Rabbi Israel Salanter, (the founder of Mussar,) brought together his students into small groups he called “vaads” (or councils). Students would come to the group to share their insights, struggles, and successes. We will continue in that vein with a small group who want to dig deeper into Tikkun Middot.

But as I mentioned earlier, Tikkun Middot is not simply a class. It is an ethos that can permeate and strengthen our congregation. Soon, we will begin a congregational “middah of the month” which is explored through the weekly newsletter, liturgy, teachings, sacred phrases and personal practices. Also, our biannual synagogue retreat will focus on “hineni” — showing up in our lives/being present and tikkun middot will be one tool with which we approach this theme.

I am open and excited to see what other directions we take as we integrate this work into the life of the community. Mostly, I hope that each of us present can find some way in — and that most importantly, our communal Middot work helps each of you see Judaism as a resource for your personal journey.

To conclude, I want to share a teaching from Levi Yitzhak, the Kotzker Rebbe.

The Kotzker would have the following conversation with himself before bed every night.

One voice in his head: Levi Yitzhak, tomorrow I am going to behave differently.

Another voice would say: But Levi Yitzhak, you said that yesterday.

The other voice says back: But today, I mean it.

It’s Yom Kippur. Soon it will be the 12th of Tishrei or beyond, when we come to terms with the fact that we are not so different than we were on Erev Yom Kippur. But in that moment, we can choose to start again. And then the day after that and the day after that. Failing and starting over. Failing and starting over. Until maybe we fail a little less.

Through attention, awareness, compassion, practice, we choose a little more carefully more of the time. Until through the support of community, we meet again in 5780 and find that we have moved and grown (even a bisel!) since last Yom Kippur.

G’mar Hatima Tova!


Rabbi Shai Held’s quote along with the Kotzker story are here:

For more information on IJS or Tikkun Middot, check out

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