Banjo Torah: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates

I just started studying the field of Judaism known as musar. It deals with what are called Middot, various ethical qualities of God that we try to emulate. These qualities which include kindness, patience, humility and enthusiasm.

As Sam Glaser explains “Middot comes from the word “measure.” We are measured by our middot. Alternatively, each of our character traits must be ‘measured’ or balanced. For example, if we are too charitable, we may neglect our own needs. If we are too compassionate in justice, murderers may go free. Any given middah isn’t good or bad until it becomes extreme. When we notice one side getting off kilter, we have to emphasize the other side of the continuum to restore equilibrium. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), the founder of the Mussar Movement (concerned with enhancing moral and ethical conduct), states that repairing one bad trait is harder than learning the entire Talmud. Rambam maintains that imbalanced character traits create a veil blocking holiness in our lives. Working on middot isn’t optional; achieving holiness is our fundamental channel to true joy.”

Restoring balance is a daily task for all of us. Tonight when we read Torah we are reminded of a different restoration of balance. Years ago an exhibit of Holocaust artifacts came through Temple Beth El. As the story goes Rabbi Emeritus, Merle Singer told the curator of the exhibit that this particular item, a banjo Torah, belonged back in an ark to be read, not in a traveling exhibit.

Chances are this banjo Torah was created by a Nazi who had no care for a Torah and needed to repair his banjo during the Holocaust. By putting it back in the ark and reading from it on the Shabbat when the Torah portion Vayishlach that lies in the banjo is read, we too are restoring balance.


Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton


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