After my friend Don checked out Virtue Connection, he emailed word of the 48 middot, or virtues, in the tradition of reform Judaism. He added that “there are people who devote their entire lives to the study of middot (and because nothing is ever simple, there are different lists of middot) — so I am not by any means an authority.
“However,” Don continued, “the concept as I understand it is that in Genesis, the primordial Adam (both male and female) is created B’Tzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image). The study of middot is one way to force our petty strivings and jealousies into the background and instead project that divine light/breath/spirit which we are taught was breathed into us on the ‘sixth day’ of creation.”
I visited the link at http://www.reformjudaism.org/study-48-middot to see what I could learn. I was thrown off by some of the titles – for example, the middah “Minimum of Pleasure” doesn’t mean “the less pleasure the better,” but rather avoiding too much effort to pursue luxury, while still enjoying God’s creation to the full. Clicking the link on each virtue yielded rich insights and opinions on the value of friendship, studiousness, loyalty, and other perennial virtues.
For example, the practical observation is made that if God is slow to anger and abounding in kindness, forgiving transgression (Exodus 34:6), then we who are created in His image should strive to do the same. A quotation from Ecclesiastes, “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools!” is followed by this commentary: “Our text….gives us a very clear message about…being slow to anger. Just as it is necessary to control one’s words, it is also important to control one’s emotions. A person who loses his or her temper quickly and becomes angry tends to hold onto that anger and is considered a fool! Notice that we are not told that it is wrong to feel angry or to express that anger — only that we must have control over our anger.”
Or, again, advice on how to approach the virtue of contentedness: “Ben Zoma said: ‘Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion.’ In the book of Proverbs, we read, ‘A joyful heart makes a cheerful face; A sad heart makes a despondent mood. All the days of a poor person are wretched, but contentment is a feast without end. (Proverbs 15:13 and 15).”
The commentary continues: “To be truly joyful with one’s lot in life is wise advice. It is a wonderful way to live, but how easy is it to adopt this attitude? How many of us are truly satisfied with our portion? How do we recognize our own good fortune? All around us the world advertises the goods and services we all seem to ‘need.’….This obsession with our ‘needs’ is not just a contemporary concern. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Spanish poet-philosopher taught, ‘Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has.’”
It’s consoling to be reminded that the struggle to find balance (virtue) in perplexing situations – at times when we are pulled two ways — has been pondered and expressed by people of every culture and every generation. We can be grateful that we have their wisdom to draw on as we wrestle to find our balance every day.