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    The Rambam (Rabbi

    Moshe Maimonides,

    1135-1204), in Hilchot

    Teshuba (7:3), alerts us to

    the fact that repentance is

    required not only for specific sins that we

    commit, but also for our negative character

    traits. He lists traits such as anger, jealousy,

    gluttony, greed and the pursuit of honor.

    Unfortunately, when we think of Teshuba,

    we think only of ritualistic matters such as

    Shabbat, Kashrut, prayer and the like, all of

    which are undoubtedly important and

    integral to Torah life. But we forget

    something far more basic and elementary –

    our Middot, our characters. Teshuba is, first

    and foremost, about character refinement.

    This point was developed by the great

    Kabbalist Rav Haim Vital (1542-1620), in

    Sha’ar Kedusha. He writes that the

    “fundamental principle of Judaism” is that

    we must exercise greater care with regard to

    our Middot than to observance of the

    Torah’s commands. Needless to say, this

    does not mean, G-d forbid, that we may

    neglect the Torah’s commands. Rather, it

    means that we must focus more on

    improving our character traits than on the

    other areas of Torah observance. The

    reason, Rav Haim Vital explains, is that

    once we have refined our characters, Misva

    observance will naturally follow. If a person

    has bad Middot, Rav Haim writes, he cannot

    be a religious Jew. In truth, this point was

    made already by Hazal, in the Gemara. The

    Gemara teaches that expressing anger is

    akin to idolatry, and arrogance is akin to

    heresy. If a person does not have proper

    character traits, he cannot be considered

    religious. In other words, a person can come

    to pray in the synagogue three times a day,

    wear several pairs of Tefillin to satisfy every

    opinion, sway back and forth with his eyes

    closed throughout a 20-minute Amida,

    adhere to the strictest standards of Kashrut

    and spend hours a day learning – but still not

    be religious. If he does not speak kindly and

    patiently to his wife, children and

    employees, he is not religious. As shocking

    as it sounds, this was said by Rav Haim

    Vital, the foremost disciple of the Arizal and

    one of the greatest Kabbalists of all time. It is

    truly a shame that we find this shocking.

    Today, our minds have been programmed to

    associate the word “religious” with study

    and ritual, not with refined character. And so

    we have Jews who are “religious” but are

    dishonest in their financial dealings. And we

    have Jewish drivers with Kippot honking,

    shouting and cursing at other motorists. We

    have lost our bearings, as well as our

    understanding of what it means to be

    “religious.” To a large extent, this is a

    function of the society in which we live. In

    contemporary American society, people are

    evaluated based on meaningless, superficial

    criteria such as their net worth, fame, the

    type of clothing they wear, and the kind of

    house they own. They are not evaluated

    based on their nobility of character. This

    superficial value system has been carried

    over to the Jewish community. We, too,

    evaluate people – including ourselves –

    based on superficial criteria such as

    appearance and which Kashrut agencies we

    trust or don’t trust. We have forgotten that

    the most important criterion is our Middot,

    whether we act with dignity, integrity and

    consideration. I recall once at a wedding

    seeing a “religious” fellow push his way

    through the crowd at the dessert buffet and

    fill his plate with a huge piece of cake and

    then adding cookies to cover the empty

    space that remained, stacking them in a large

    tower. He then came over to me and asked if

    I knew whether the dessert was made with

    “Yashan” flour. This is a perfect example of

    how our priorities have become skewed.

    He’s concerned about “Yashan,” but not

    about pushing past people or about eating

    without restraint. Of course there’s nothing

    wrong with enjoying a tasty dessert. But

    indulgence in physical gratification – even if

    the food is strictly kosher – is directly at

    odds with the spirit of Torah life. Rav Haim

    Palachi (Turkey, 1788-1869) writes that

    refining one’s character is the “cure all”

    remedy for all spiritual ills, and is “a

    priceless pearl.” There are many areas in

    which we should endeavor to improve on

    Yom Kippur, but before anything else, we

    must focus on our Middot. This is the first

    and most crucial step that we need to take in

    an effort to draw closer to Hashem and

    resemble the Heavenly angels, inching our

    way ever closer to spiritual perfection.