Yom Kippur- Starting with Midot
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, 1135-1204), in Hilchot Teshuba (7:3), alerts us to the fact that repentance is required not only for specific sins that we commit, but also for our negative character traits. He lists traits such as anger, jealousy, gluttony, greed and the pursuit of honor. Unfortunately, when we think of Teshuba, we think only of ritualistic matters such as Shabbat, Kashrut, prayer and the like, all of which are undoubtedly important and integral to Torah life. But we forget something far more basic and elementary – our Middot, our characters. Teshuba is, first and foremost, about character refinement.
This point was developed by the great Kabbalist Rav Haim Vital (1542-1620), in Sha’ar Kedusha. He writes that the "fundamental principle of Judaism" is that we must exercise greater care with regard to our Middot than to observance of the Torah’s commands. Needless to say, this does not mean, G-d forbid, that we may neglect the Torah’s commands. Rather, it means that we must focus more on improving our character traits than on the other areas of Torah observance. The reason, Rav Haim Vital explains, is that once we have refined our characters, Misva observance will naturally follow. If a person has bad Middot, Rav Haim writes, he cannot be a religious Jew.
In truth, this point was made already by Hazal, in the Gemara. The Gemara teaches that expressing anger is akin to idolatry, and arrogance is akin to heresy. If a person does not have proper character traits, he cannot be considered religious.
In other words, a person can come to pray in the synagogue three times a day, wear several pairs of Tefillin to satisfy every opinion, sway back and forth with his eyes closed throughout a 20-minute Amida, adhere to the strictest standards of Kashrut and spend hours a day learning – but still not be religious. If he does not speak kindly and patiently to his wife, children and employees, he is not religious. As shocking as it sounds, this was said by Rav Haim Vital, the foremost disciple of the Arizal and one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time.
It is truly a shame that we find this shocking. Today, our minds have been programmed to associate the word "religious" with study and ritual, not with refined character. And so we have Jews who are "religious" but are dishonest in their financial dealings. And we have Jewish drivers with Kippot honking, shouting and cursing at other motorists. We have lost our bearings, as well as our understanding of what it means to be "religious."
To a large extent, this is a function of the society in which we live. In contemporary American society, people are evaluated based on meaningless, superficial criteria such as their net worth, fame, the type of clothing they wear, and the kind of house they own. They are not evaluated based on their nobility of character. This superficial value system has been carried over to the Jewish community. We, too, evaluate people – including ourselves – based on superficial criteria such as appearance and which Kashrut agencies we trust or don’t trust. We have forgotten that the most important criterion is our Middot, whether we act with dignity, integrity and consideration.
I recall once at a wedding seeing a "religious" fellow push his way through the crowd at the dessert buffet and fill his plate with a huge piece of cake and then adding cookies to cover the empty space that remained, stacking them in a large tower. He then came over to me and asked if I knew whether the dessert was made with "Yashan" flour. This is a perfect example of how our priorities have become skewed. He’s concerned about "Yashan," but not about pushing past people or about eating without restraint. Of course there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a tasty dessert. But indulgence in physical gratification – even if the food is strictly kosher – is directly at odds with the spirit of Torah life.
Rav Haim Palachi (Turkey, 1788-1869) writes that refining one’s character is the "cure all" remedy for all spiritual ills, and is "a priceless pearl." There are many areas in which we should endeavor to improve on Yom Kippur, but before anything else, we must focus on our Middot. This is the first and most crucial step that we need to take in an effort to draw closer to Hashem and resemble the Heavenly angels, inching our way ever closer to spiritual perfection.