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A Few Reflections on Middot from Our Confirmation Class

May 15, 2019

This year’s Confirmation ceremony featured an exploration of Middot – Jewish moral virtues. While Mitzvot are the literal commandments that we follow, Middot are the general character-based guidelines that help direct our behavior and the way can fulfill Mitzvot. The Confirmation class reviewed Middot through critical thinking and personal reflection.

Our confirmation students this year were: Elle Baker, Jacob Bushee, Jordan Carrier, Jacob Luterman, and Jacob Smollen.

Click the linked names to read these students’ reflections on middot.

Elle Baker

Shabbat Shalom.

I chose the middah v’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha, or love your neighbor as yourself. This Middah is especially appropriate when talking about this week’s parsha, Kedoshim. The aliyot that I personally read deal with, along with other laws, how to treat the stranger and those in need. The famous lines לֹֽא־תְקַלֵּ֣ל חֵרֵ֔שׁ וְלִפְנֵ֣י עִוֵּ֔ר לֹ֥א תִתֵּ֖ן מִכְשֹׁ֑ל  “you shall not insult a deaf person or put a stumbling block before the blind,” and וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם֙ אֶת־קְצִ֣יר אַרְצְכֶ֔ם לֹ֧א תְכַלֶּ֛ה פְּאַ֥ת שָֽׂדְךָ֖ לִקְצֹ֑ר וְלֶ֥קֶט קְצִֽירְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תְלַקֵּֽט: “When you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest” are in this parsha. Furthermore, this parsha is the first and only time that the saying וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ appears.

When choosing a Midah to write about, I had a multitude of options, but I wanted to choose something that relates to my time at the AIPAC policy conference this past spring. The Fleischmanns offered me a great opportunity to attend the conference. I am interested in Israel and, took them up on this offer. I am happy to report that it was a meaningful learning experience, and I hope to attend many more AIPAC conferences in the future! While at AIPAC, I attended an interesting session about the relationship of Jews and Arabs within Israel. When talking about Israel, the conflict between Arabs and Jews has always been an interesting and important topic, but this session made me more aware of the real challenges of coexistence.

I love Israel. I feel a connection to Israel not just because I am a Jew, but also because I have family and friends who live there. As a person who holds v’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha deep in my heart, the question of how Israel exhibits this midah was constantly on my mind throughout my AIPAC experience.

Israel is a sacred place for many people, of many backgrounds. Israel brands itself as a place in which people all of religions, ethnicities, and cultures can coexist, but that often does not happen. The question of Arab sovereignty and citizenship is consistently a tenuous question in Israeli society. How does Israel grapple with its identity as a safe state for Jews with its commitment to ensuring all of its citizens have full protections? In order for Israel so be a fully Jewish state it must uphold all middot, including v’ahavta Lere’acha Kamocha, for all of its citizens.

When hearing from speakers at AIPAC, an important discussion point for everyone was the Nation State Bill. Most of the law talks about holidays, symbols, and provisions that have been established for many years. One part of the law states, “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” While this may not seem like an issue on first glance, many people feel that by not mentioning Arabs at all in the bill, except to say that Arabic has special standing as a language, it insinuates that Jewish citizens have rights that Arab citizens don’t have. To me, the question of Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel therefore speaks directly to the notion of v’ahavta Lere’acha kamocha.

Another issue that was discussed, was the fact that Jewish children do not have many interactions with Arab children and Arab children do not have many interactions with Jewish children. This lack of familiarity leads to misunderstanding, bigotry, and immense tension. In order for Israel to be a safe place for everyone, bridges must be built. That being said, there are people who are trying to help release some tensions between these two groups, and make Israel a more united country. During the conference, I heard from one of the founders of the Hand in Hand schools, Mohammad Darwashe. These schools are all over the country, and are places in which Jewish and Arab children learn together, with Jewish and Arab teachers. Darwashe explained how interactions as short as three days, can bring Arab and Jewish children together and build bridges and understanding. I believe that efforts to build empathy and coexistence are true examples of our ability to fully carry out v’ahavta lere’acha kamocha.

The midah of love your neighbor as yourself is often overlooked or not considered in social and political decisions and interactions in so many places: Philadelphia, the United States, Israel, and in almost every country across our world. V’ahavta lere’acha kamocha teaches us that building understanding and coexistence is an essential part of being Jewish, and of being a citizen of the world. This, however, is not strictly an Israeli problem, but rather a problem that any every nation in the world struggles with. In order for Israel, the United States, or any other nation to operate with equality, and loving kindness, v’ahavta lere’acha kamocha must be on all of our hearts and minds.

Shabbat shalom.

Jacob Bushee

Shabbat Shalom.

My middah is ometz lev, meaning courage of the heart. I chose this middah because I feel that it challenges us to remember the importance of not only courageous acts, but also of living courageously throughout one’s life, constantly pursuing justice.

To me, ometz lev goes beyond the call to not be fearful and to act courageously in individual moments. It means that you should go past the fear and anxiety to help people in need. Ometz lev means that individual heroic acts are not true courage. Ometz lev, instead, means living a lifestyle that always pursues justice and peace.  I am proud of my Jewish tradition because it is based on a history of people exhibiting ometz lev to save our people, and others. Our sages were not defined by individual heroic actions, but by the morals that guided their hearts to protect others. They had the courage to live without fear of being put down for what they believe.

This year, our Confirmation class studied the role of Jews in the American Civil Rights Movement. After discussing the intersection of social issues and middot, we engaged in primary document analysis to learn about the coalitions built between American Jews and Black Americans in the struggle for civil and human rights.  It was clear that these Jews exhibited ometz lev. While they took actions that we would surely deem as courageous, their courage stems from their deep-rooted commitment that tells them to do what is right and just. One of those people was Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Rabbi who escaped Nazi Germany and felt, through the deep seeded courage in his heart, that he must actively contribute to the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke at the March on Washington, and emphasized the ideals, of equality, unity, and freedom, which built the United States. He also connected the movement to Jewish history of slavery, ghettos, and a proclamation of freedom, as he explained: “Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.” He expressed sympathy and empathy for Black Americans who experienced similar power structures and oppression as Jews. This Rabbi once again stood in the face of an unfair system of government, openly speaking out against the evil ideals embedded in Jim Crow segregation. Even when people were being arrested all over the country, for unjust reasons, he still risked his safety to speak at a monumental event, thus showcasing a true act of courage: courage of the heart.

Our class also discussed Judith Frieze, a young Jewish woman who joined the Freedom Riders in Mississippi. She challenged the Jim Crow laws through demonstrating, with Black Americans, in a bus terminal. She was held in jail for her act of civil disobedience for 6 weeks. In this sense, she demonstrated ometz lev and stood together with those oppressed. Her incarceration showed a true courage of the heart. Like Joachim Prinz, she was courageous enough to let herself get arrested to help a greater cause and risk serious injury even though she would gain nothing herself. She was doing this to live correctly and justly. That’s what ometz lev is all about.

In Devarim, Moses tells Joshua, his successor, to be strong and courageous without him. Both Joachim Prinz, and Judith Frieze were strong and courageous in the face of systemic oppression. Both of them could have backed out and not stood up. Yet they did not, and stayed courageous even with the danger of being arrested. That’s true courage of the heart–ometz lev–and I encourage each of you to have courage of the heart, mind, spirit, and soul.

Jordan Carrier

Shabbat Shalom.

The middah I chose to explore was Middah Ohev et HaMaysharim: “The Love of Being Straightforward.” I decided to examine this middah in the context of this week’s parshah, “Kedoshim.” In this context, God issues a multitude of commandments, instructing the Israelites on how to be a holy people. In doing so, God reveals the importance and influence of being straightforward.

What is the love of being straightforward?: acting ruthlessly and directly honest, withholding few thoughts and perspectives. Being straightforward often has a negative connotation, as in being blunt, heartless, or stringent. In contrast, I believe that we need to view and assess the love of being straightforward by emphasizing constructive criticism.

In Parshah K’doshim, God, through Moses, gives the Israelites laws that form the basis of an austere, peaceful, and equitable society. The commandments feature straightforward, simple phrases that were not just suggestions, nor were they laws open for negotiation. For example, one of the laws propounded by God states, “You shall observe my laws.” God offered Israel this covenant, and, in return, Israel promised to abide by God’s terms. One who did not choose to follow the laws would face the ultimate consequences. The moral law requires strict obedience, reveals the nature and will of God, and it still applies and is followed today.

Furthermore, the manner in which God is presented in the Torah relates to being straightforward. God’s incessant demands and desires are propounded strictly and candidly; God makes it clear that you either follow God’s laws or you face the ruthless consequences. God decides to make the laws concise and straightforward to get the message and desires across.

Just as God was straightforward in giving the Israelites the laws, we need to be straightforward in providing feedback. This connects to criticism, or candid feedback people face on a daily basis and how they react to it. Just as the Israelites gratefully accepted God’s stringent terms, people are faced with decisions on how to react to criticism and rules.

In our contemporary society, one of the ways people get their messages across is through honest, brutal comments, or criticism. Our feelings and opinions regarding constructive criticism vary. Constructive criticism is the process of offering positive and negative opinions, typically in a cordial manner rather than with an oppositional tone. Through the use of constructive criticism, one can reflect on themselves and observe perspectives on disparate topics they would not have otherwise seen.

Personally, I used to dread criticism, especially from my parents. I was used to receiving nothing but praise from my middle school and elementary teachers and mentors, so why did I have to deal with criticism from home? However, as I matured through my adolescent stages and read the NY Times articles my Dad printed out for me, I learned that the criticism I received was never meant to induce trepidation, apprehension, or remorse into my life.

Throughout the last couple years of my life, I have received incessant criticism from my parents, basketball coaches, and new teachers at Central High School, where I am a student. Instead of feeling futile and like a disappointment, I realized that these sage remarks from people older and wiser than me could be used to my advantage.

The advice I took from my parents has helped me acquire my first real job, advocate for myself in academic settings, and present myself and ideas with confidence and poise. For example, the criticism I receive on and off the basketball court has greatly improved my game. Once, while playing basketball in a park, a stranger criticized my shooting form. Imagine that! Initially, I disregarded the comment and the person, but then I realized he had a point. I followed the stranger’s advice, altering my form by shooting with a higher arc. It has helped my shots ever since.

Straightforward constructive, NOT destructive, criticism is not something to fear; it is something to cherish, grow from, and relish.

In addition to receiving straightforward statements and criticism, I have learned how to offer criticism in the most benevolent way possible. I consider myself a very honest person; my honesty has emotionally injured people in the past, so I have been working on my tone while giving criticism. I have experienced the disadvantages of being straightforward in certain settings where I am a bit too comfortable.

In order to give criticism, you must receive and accept it well. Criticism is something every one of us receives incessantly, especially (as my parents tell me) throughout adulthood and the workforce. And so, I urge you:when you are receiving unwanted criticism, think of the positive effects it could have on your life and your growth as a human being.

Shabbat Shalom.