PROVERBS 4:13 TEACHES “Hold fast to mussar and do not let it go.”
The Jewish study of mussar is the spiritual practice of balancing ethical traits in one’s life. This practice involves developing the discipline of learning how to bring balance in our daily interactions.
Mussar teaches us that every ethical trait can have a beneficial and detrimental impact.
For example, the trait of generosity can mean someone is quick to provide help to those who need it, but the negative side can be seen when someone becomes so generous that they ignore the needs of their own family.
Equilibrium must be found, and we can learn how to recognize when our life is out of balance by daily focus on a trait for a certain period of time, working to bring that trait into balance.
Two traits which are critical in our society, and for our leaders to exhibit, are honesty and courage, because it often takes courage to stand up to dishonesty.
On the surface, these would seem to only be positive traits. But speaking the truth can be hurtful if it’s not necessary to do so or is done with intended malice. And putting oneself or others at risk by impulsively going into a dangerous situation can have negative results.
“Ometz lev” is the Hebrew phrase for courage, meaning a strong heart and showing moral courage.
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently” (Maya Angelou).
“Emet” is the Hebrew word for truth, and the Kabbalists saw it as a representation of God’s plan for us to be partners in completing creation, believing that truth and honesty could bring about the ultimate manifestation of God’s will in the world.
Rabbi Luzzatto taught “Truth is one of the very foundations upon which the world stands.”
The extreme divisiveness in our society today is clearly exemplified in the willingness of some of our leaders to be dishonest, saying anything, including outright lies, to gain and maintain power.
Sadly, when people lack the courage to speak out against this dishonesty, they are not held accountable which then encourages others to follow their example. We should always expect that our leaders exhibit honesty and the courage to stand against those who would deceive.
All faith traditions value these traits as ones to be encouraged in their followers.
Rabbi Chaim Stern points out that it is essential in a civilized society for people to be able to “live with a sense of security, knowing they will be treated fairly and honestly.”
Someone who is honest and courageous does the right thing, no matter the consequences. History has shown us countless people who have stood up against a wrong though it may have cost them friends, family, their job or their political office.
Standing for truth may have even put their life in danger, as whistleblowers have often discovered. A person of good character has the courage to do what is right, not what is safe or what will keep them in power.
Abraham Lincoln said it well: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
As we choose our leaders, we would be wise to use the traits of honesty and courage as touchstones for our choices, and the practice of mussar to guide us. Can this person be trusted to always be truthful? Are they of good character and do they have the courage to stand up to evil? Do they care about those who elect them or only about themselves and gaining power? Will they always do what is right, no matter the consequences to them?
Anyone who only cares for those who can benefit them, or what others think of them, will be a poor or even dangerous leader — of a congregation, a city or a nation.
All of us, but especially people of faith, should look carefully at what their tradition teaches about honesty and courage before they choose whom they wish to lead them.
Kein yeah ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is email@example.com.