Without question or doubt, the most famous figure in the Mussar Movement was the Chofetz Chaim. Indeed he is considered by many to be the most famous rabbi of the latter half of the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries. To this day, no rabbi of the modern era is held in as high an esteem as is he.
Actually, Chofetz Chaim, which means “Desirer of Life”, was not his name but rather it was Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan. Chofetz Chaim happens to be the title of his first book on living an ethical life. However, the impact of this book was so great that he and the book became synonymous, not unlike Kleenex and facial tissues, to make a rather poor analogy. He established a yeshiva in Radin, Poland to which students from around the world flocked. His was the greatest spiritual and ethical voice of his time and his legacy remains vital today. In fact, in his day, there were many who believed that he was one of the 36 righteous people of his generation, for whose sake, as our tradition teaches, God preserved the world from destruction. It is a sad irony of history that he, who lived such a sacred life, to the ripe old age of 95, shedding so much spiritual light on the world, died in September of 1933, just as the shadow of Nazism was beginning to darken the future of Europe.
There is a story about the Chofetz Chaim which I would like to share. At one time, he was asked how he was able to have such a great impact on the Jewish world. This is how he answered: “I set out to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So I targeted the community of my hometown of Radin, but I achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and I failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
This story cuts straight to the heart and beauty of Mussar and is an essential message as to what Yom Kippur is all about. For Mussar and Yom Kippur both teach us that if we wish to make the world a better place, we have to start with ourselves. For the first step to making the world better is to be found in making ourselves better.
While it true that we certainly are able to impact the world and the people around us, we cannot control them. But what we can control is ourselves. We choose our behaviors and the attitudes which drive them. As Mussar tries to teach us, if we can adjust our attitudes for the better, then we can change our behaviors for the better, and that will bring us closer to God and our fellow human beings. Not only that, but those changes can be contagious. When we think about the people in our lives who have truly inspired us, more often than not, we think about the people who have been of exceptional character. They have been loving and sensitive, generous of their time and attention, always helpful, caring for the wellbeing of others, and rarely, if ever, appearing selfish or self-involved. These are the people, more often than not, we identify as the ones we wish to emulate. By being the type of people who they are, they have, by example, helped us to make of ourselves better people. The more we become like them, the more we can inspire others as well. That is one of the most important ways that we can help to change the world, by starting with changing ourselves.
The Middot of Mussar guide us in the various ways that we can affect those changes if we but choose to take on the values and perspectives they offer. One such Middah is that of Shalom Bayit.
Shalom Bayit literally means, “Peace in the Home,” and very often the phrase is used to refer to its basic meaning, that of promoting “domestic tranquility”; principles like “don’t go to bed angry”. But it also possesses a far more complex meaning. In order to attain a fuller understanding of this Middah, we need to explore in greater depth what is meant by both “Shalom” and “Bayit”.
When most people think of the word “Shalom”, for it is a word that is not only familiar to Jews but to non-Jews as well, we tend to simply think of the word “Peace” but its inner meaning is far more than “peace” as “peace” is all too often understood; as being the opposite of war, a cessation of hostilities. “Shalom” is far more than that.
To better understand how this is so, a little Hebrew grammar lesson is in order. Unlike English, all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are consonants. Originally, in Hebrew, vowel sounds were understood but not written. Only later, in the 6th century c.e., when Jews were less familiar with the Hebrew language, were the vowel symbols we have today introduced by a group of scholars called Masoretes. Most Hebrew verbs have 3-letter roots which capture the essence of the meaning of the verb. However, by changing the interplay between the root letters and the vowel, you can adjust the nuance of the meaning of the word to the point where it can actually become a noun or an adjective.
Now we can return to the word “Shalom”. The root of “Shalom” is the verb “Shalem” which means “to complete” or “to make whole”. “Shalom” means more than just a cessation of hostilities. It requires a sense of “completeness” and “wholeness.” Therefore, for true “Shalom” to exist, there needs to be a healing of whatever was broken in the relationship so that the relationship returns to wholeness; to a sense of harmony and a state of unity. So, for example, it is not “Shalom” if the Israelis and the Palestinians just agree to stop shooting at each other, even if they agree upon mutually acceptable borders between them. It only can become “Shalom” if they find a way to live cooperatively with one another, as neighbors and friends as well as simply neighboring nations.
Another important aspect of “Shalom” is that it is not a passive principle. It just doesn’t happen in and of itself. We must actively create it. We must pursue it. We cannot merely sit by idly and wait for others to come and make peace with us. No matter how hurt or offended we are, we must take the peacemaking initiative. That rule not only applies when we are among those engaged in the conflict but also when we are witnesses to conflicts between others. Hillel said: “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.” There is a Midrash which tells of how whenever Aaron learned of a conflict between two people, he would go to one of them and tell that person that he had just met with the other person who deeply regretted their falling out and was eager to heal the relationship. Then Aaron would go to the other person and tell that person the same thing. When next the two adversaries met, they would forgive each other and embrace. In so doing, Aaron was following the example of no one less than God, for as we say about God at the end of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’a’seh shalom aleinu v’al kawl Yisraeil. Veimru: Amen” – “May the One who makes peace in the High Places, make peace among us and among all Israel. And let us say: Amen.” As Aaron was a peacemaker, and God is a peacemaker, so must we become peacemakers as well.
Now, what about the meaning of “Bayit”? Literally, it means “house”. So, on its most literal level, seeking “Shalom Bayit” means establishing an environment of “Shalom” in our homes – under our roofs – with whoever lives in our houses, whether they be family or roommates. It is not enough to merely share living space with these people. We need to share our lives with them. We need to have a real sense of connection to them. We need to respect each other. We need to care about each other. We need to support each other. In the Talmud it says, “If your wife is short, bend over to hear her whisper.” When it comes to the members of our household, we should be willing to bend over backwards, so to speak, for them, so great should be our desire to feel the harmony of our relationship. So great should be our desire that, for the sake of that harmony we can find the strength to exercise restraint. In any close family situation, there can be found many sources of potential disagreement. But part of the art of Shalom Bayit is knowing how to pick our battles; which issues are worth fighting over and which ones we just need to let them pass. As a friend once put it, asking ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?” Sometimes Shalom Bayit calls upon us to just hold back and swallow our emotions, for the sake of the harmony. Still, if there are those issues that need to be grappled with, we need to do so with moderation and sanity. As my blessed mother used to say, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Yet “Bayit” can carry with it a broader meaning as well.
Just as we can consider “Bayit” to mean our family who lives under the same roof as do we, it also can be expanded, and should be expanded, to our extended family, no matter how great the physical distance is between us. Our lives today can become so busy that we find ourselves giving little thought, nevertheless attention, to our family members who live far away. Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe we get together with them once or twice a year; more often when there is a simcha like a wedding or a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or, God forbid, some tzures, such as a funeral or a life threatening hospitalization. But other than that, we may allow the physical distance between us to create an emotional distance as well. It may not be because of some actual conflict, but still we may have allowed the “Shalom” between us to erode merely out of benign neglect. When it comes to family, it is so important for us to break down the geographic walls that can so narrowly define our sense of “Bayit.” We cannot let go of the fact that when it comes to family, the boundaries of our “Bayit” extend far beyond those of state or even national borders. It is up to us to actively pursue the “Shalom” of this “Bayit” as well, and we do so by making the efforts to remain personally connected; making the efforts to reach out in such ways so that we can continue to share in their lives and they in ours.
In Hebrew the plural of “Bayit” is “Beitim”. Aside from our “Bayit” of family, wherever they may reside, in our hectic world, we find ourselves living in many different “Beitim”, and it each of them, our lives should likewise be governed by the Middah of Shalom Bayit. The workplace is such a “Bayit”. So is the school. So are our neighborhoods and the sports teams to which our children belong. Indeed in our ever shrinking world, our cities, our states, our country, the world itself are all our “Beitim” and if we want life to be good or better in any of them, then we have to do our part to create a sense of Shalom Bayit within them. We have to be their Aarons; their lovers and pursuers of peace.
Tonight we are gathered in this synagogue. This, too, is one of our “Beitim”. We even call it a “House of Prayer”. And like the “Bayit” in which we reside, we, too, are a family; a Temple family. As important as the pursuit of the Middah of Shalom Bayit is to each of our households, it is just as important for us here in this “Bayit”. We are many people, which of course means that we are going to have many different opinions. You know what they say about us Jews – where you find 2 Jews you will find 3 opinions, at least 3. Of course there are many things about which we are going to disagree. That is only natural. We’ll disagree about politics. We’ll disagree about current events. And when it comes to the Temple, there will be even more about which we will disagree, from the cost of dues, to the amount of Hebrew in the service, to the topics of the rabbi’s sermons, to the way the budget is structured, to the nature of the religious school, even to the menu for the onegs. Yet there are some things we should agree upon, such as this is our “Bayit” and we are a family. Even with all the things over which we disagree, we still not only value, and not only hunger for, but are also willing to work for an ever growing sense of Shalom Bayit, in this, our house. We must never forget that we need each other; that there is still far, far more which binds us together than drives us apart; that we are better together than we are apart. For in the end, we are a family and as such, our primary mission should be to care for and support each other; to be there for each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow; to work hand-in-hand with each other in the building of a true and wholesome Jewish community – a better Jewish community. Disagreements can be resolved and differences can be overcome, as long as we hold before our eyes the vision of a congregation governed by the Middah of Shalom Bayit; a place where we can value each other, respect each other, support each other, and nourish each other as we join together to strive for the achievable ideals that God and our Judaism have placed before us.
 This story is found in EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.
 PIRKE AVOT 1:12.
 From MIDDOT: A STAIRWAY OF VIRTUES by Ron Isaacs, p. 59.
 Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59a.