“Awareness of one’s true value is the essential aspect of life itself and the essential measure of growth for every person who walks the face of the earth.”*
For the last decade, I have been studying Mussar (Jewish ethics leading to spiritual growth) with Rabbi Jamie Arnold at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Evergreen. Last weekend, I attended The Mussar Institute’s annual Kallah, a gathering of Mussar practitioners and teachers from around the country. The middah (soul trait) that we studied together was kavod, which means honor/respect.
We read ancient texts and newly prepared materials focusing on the value of every human being. The sages say that our value is intrinsic – we are born as holy souls. It is not contingent on anything external. That means each of us, as well as everyone around us, is deserving of respect and honor.
At the Kallah, we started the conversation with honoring ourselves and then expanded to honoring others. I reflected that it’s easy to put the theory into practice with people we naturally respect. With those whom we judge to be less wise, less kind or less like us in the opinions they hold, it’s much more difficult. I wondered how I could hone this middah in my daily practice.
Returning home, I visited my grandchildren’s classroom as customary on Tuesday afternoon. I decided to practice the middah of honor with the students. Rather than judging who was good in math or who was well behaved, I looked at them all as intrinsically worthy of respect. I pledged to honor their learning styles by helping each child in a way that made sense to him or her.
In the third grade class, I worked individually with students who had struggled on a math assessment. As we read the word problems, we broke them into solvable steps. Each child found a unique way to compute the answers. One student got hung up on basic subtraction and brought a number board to help. Another drew a number line on scratch paper. For the third, we worked with tick marks.
When one of the kids got stuck, I offered a suggestion, but not the solution. I watched the excitement in their eyes as they figured out the answers themselves.
“Oh I get it!” one boy shouted. My “high five” was returned with enthusiasm.
Rather than rush so I could help more students, I respected the time it took for each child to complete the work. It was a lesson in patience as well as honor. The kids went back to their seats feeling successful, and I felt I had truly facilitated their learning.
By helping but not solving their math problems, I was teaching them to respect their own abilities. And I was honoring their uniqueness. Once again, the children in my life were helping me with my Mussar practice.
*Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, as translated by Rabbi Avi Fertig