“Why all these values, rabbi?” preteen Josh asked. “Can’t you just say we should be good people?” Often it is the most basic questions that set me thinking, and Josh’s query sure did.
My wife, Michelle November, and I are at Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, where we are chaperoning Congregation Or Ami’s 45-person delegation. While Michelle serves as camp mom, answering questions by phone for the next session’s camper-parents, I work as dean of faculty, guiding young people with the camp’s daily middah (or Jewish value/virtue).
Jewish Values Guide Our Interactions
Over the course of a session, we explore b’tzelem Elohim (recognizing that each person was created “in the image of God”), kehillah kedushah (that as part of a “holy community,” we have responsibilities to each other) and kavod (that “respect” necessarily guides every interaction we have with other people and creations).
We embrace ometz lev (being “courageous”), insist on ahavah (the “love” that binds us together) and turn our hearts toward Yisrael (the land, modern state, people and children of Israel). These middot and others permeate the camp, invigorating every moment of the day from mifkad (morning assembly) to sports to hashkavah (bedtime activities).
When ‘Just Be Good’ Isn’t Enough
Josh’s question penetrates these moments of meaning by asking, “Why do we name and number so many middot, when one simple instruction — Just be good — or one simple Torah verse — v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) — might suffice?
We find our answer back in the mid-19th century, in a commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner on this week’s parasha, Shofetim. The Ishbitzer (Polish) Chasidic rebbe (d. 1854), whose teachings were compiled as “Mei HaShiloach,” believed that the more clarity we have about how we should live, the purer, more righteous lives will we lead.
Guarding the Gateways Into Our Bodies
Our parasha opens with what appears to be basic instructions for the creation and implementation of a new justice system for the tribes. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the gates [she’arecha] that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). For Rabbi Mordechai, this opening verse points also to the way we guard our lives from sin. He teaches, “She’arecha (gates/settlements): we are to establish magistrates (judges) for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These ‘gates’ are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”
Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality drashes (explains) that “the Ishbitzer is concerned with guarding what enters us from the outside, how we are affected by what we see, hear, say and smell. All of these sense-events/acts are powerful, affecting our inner awareness and our capacity to respond in a balanced, loving manner. Without awareness of the forces at work on our consciousness we are unable to align ourselves with the Divine.”
A Complex World Requires a Multiplicity of Tools
So why do we name and number so many middot? Because we live in a complex world with widespread influences that pull us in all sorts of opposing directions. Because our yetzer harah (inclination for evil) can easily overpower our yetzer hatov (inclination for good). Because we need multiple tools to filter everything we experience. The middot stand as shofetim (judges) at our seven sense-gates, ensuring that everything we see, hear, say and smell can and will be interpreted and moderated for goodness and godliness.
Sending Kids Off With Toolboxes Filled With Torah
When we say goodbye to Josh — and to the 1,400 young people who enter Camp Newman’s gates every summer — we know we are sending him home with a toolbox filled with Jewish virtues to keep him on a morally straight path. As the 19th century Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches and the 21st century Rabbi Jonathan Slater reinforces, the overall message is this: We need to establish practices that guard us from passively being affected in negative ways, just as we need to prevent ourselves from affecting the world negatively through our deeds.
For this is our highest hope: that Josh and all the children who attend Jewish summer camps around the country find direction and guidance from the Jewish values we impart to them. And we pray: May all they have learned transform them, so that they come home kinder, more compassionate and more Jewishly self-identified than ever before.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.