Benjamin Franklin and Rabbi Salanter
TorahParshat Nitzavim

Benjamin Franklin and Rabbi Salanter

Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20

(File photo)
(File photo)

Benjamin Franklin had a simple method, designed to help a person achieve self-improvement.

He took a long hard look at his life and concluded that there were 12 major areas in which he needed to improve. He wrote a listing of values, such as good order, moderation, justice and humility and others. In a daily diary, he advised that a person should keep track of their struggle to embody those values in their work and in their encounters with family and friends.

At the end of the year, a person could look back and measure how close or how far he or she came to those values, and keep them at the forefront of their minds.

Twenty years after Franklin’s death, a Ukrainian rabbi, Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanów, adapted Franklin’s method, which he incorporated into his book called “Sefer Heshbon HaNefesh (Book of the Accounting of the Soul).”

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the Mussar (ethical character development) movement, also introduced this method of self-reckoning into his teachings. A student would be able to examine and record his strengths and weaknesses. This tool, together with textual studies, could bring the person to a clearer awareness of what he or she could do to become a better person and a better Jew. Not merely more Torah and more mitzvot, but a heightened sensitivity to how we treat one another and the kavannah (intensity) with which the performance of mitzvot connects us to the Holy One.

The Torah portion of Nitzavim, always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, speaks of teshuvah (repentance) and self-
improvement. “And if you will return and listen to the voice of the L-rd, and fulfill all His commandments, which I command you this day … Rather, this (repentance) is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Deut. 30: 8,14)

I pray that we all take seriously this time of “accounting of the soul.” May we be able to see areas of growth and self-improvement in the new year, and devise ways to achieve them. May the new year of 5783 be a year of sweet blessings.
May all of you and your families be written and sealed in the Book of Life. Shabbat shalom and Shana tova. PJC

Rabbi Eli Seidman is the former director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Clergy Association.

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