A Little Black Mark

Behar Behukkotai By :  Rachel Bovitz Director of Millennial Engagement Posted On May 15, 2015 / 5775 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
. . . I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”
–Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (from the section dated 1784)

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes a personal practice that involved daily focus on 13 moral virtues. Franklin’s memoir, translated into several languages in the late 18th century, became widely influential, reaching even Eastern Europe, where Rabbi Menahem Mendel Lefin of Satanov wrote Heshbon Hanefesh, published in 1808. Rabbi Lefin included justice and most of the other virtues in Franklin’s list when he created his 13 primary middot (moral virtues) to be focused upon in mussar practice (the Jewish approach to cultivating these virtues). Rabbi Lefin’s definition of tzedek (justice) paraphrases a classic Talmudic teaching attributed to Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

Both Franklin’s program and mussar practice remind us that we cannot quickly gloss over the Torah’s prescription, mentioned twice in our Torah portion:

אַל־תּוֹנ֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ אֶת־אָחִֽיו / וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ

You shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:14, 17).

Many of us take these simple words as a given, because we consider ourselves to be decent human beings. Mussar sees tzedek, typically translated as “righteousness,” as a virtue requiring commitment to self-reflection, honesty, and discipline on a daily basis. Like Benjamin Franklin, we may need to mark “a little black spot” when we have wronged others in small or large ways or have withheld our kindness. Such acknowledgment helps us hold firmly to Torah as a tree of (the good) life.