One of the signature features of the field of positive psychology is the classification of character strengths. Drawing on philosophy, religion, and previous psychological theory, Martin Seligman, Christopher Peterson, and colleagues identified 24 strengths that have been valued by most cultures throughout history. Based on theory and research, they asserted that in order to flourish psychologically, it is important that we identify and utilize our own strengths. Some of the most popular traits listed include curiosity, creativity, bravery, honesty, kindness, humility, gratitude, and hope. Also one of the 24 is spirituality, which they define as “having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe and one’s place within it.” (Character Strengths and Virtues, p. 533).
After conducting research on 1,352 middle-school Israeli adolescents, Dr. Ariel Kor and colleagues argued that instead of viewing spirituality as just one of 24 strengths, it instead can be conceptualized as a unique, independent, higher-order virtue, serving more as a meta-trait that guides and influenced the other traits. All the other character strengths can be imbued with a transcendent element, transforming them into a spiritual endeavor.
For example, we can express gratitude for a benefit bestowed by a friend, but that gratitude can also have a spiritual component if we also thank G-d for helping to orchestrate the place of this friend or the significance of the gift in our lives. This insight has the potential to boost the efficacy of character strength interventions, knowing that the impact can be compounded for those who can infuse spirituality into an otherwise mundane character trait.
In Avot 3:7, Rabbi Elazar of Bartota delivers a cryptic message: “Give to Him of that which is His, for you and that which is yours is His; and thus it says with regards to David: ‘For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand have we given you.’ (Chronicles I 29:14).” The theological message embedded in his statement is that we, and everything we have, belong to G-d. Consequently, we are enjoined to give Him what we have, which in reality is His. The challenge is that Rabbi Elazar does not spell out for us what exactly it is that we should be giving back to G-d.
Some commentaries assume that the message relates to material possessions. Everything we own really belongs to G-d, so we need to ensure that we use our money in service of Him, whether by giving charity or spending on mitzvot (see Rashi). Some commentaries add that he is not just talking about dedicating money, but also encouraging us to utilize our physical selves for mitzvot (Rabbeinu Yonah). This can be done through helping others with acts of kindness or by performing other mitzvot with our bodies.
Other commentaries assume that Rabbi Elazar is referring to dedicating to G-d a unique aspect of what it means to be human. For instance, Rabbi Moshe Almosnino explains that we should dedicate to G-d what defines us as human beings, which according to him is our intellectual abilities, through the learning of Torah. Similarly, Ben Ish Chai writes that we should dedicate to G-d what is exclusive to human beings, which according to him is speech. We should use this gift from G-d to thank Him and communicate His praises. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin understands this unique aspect as referring to our free will. We should use our free will to make choices that reflect G-d’s will.
In a very creative and powerful reading, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, takes the message one step further. While until this point the commentaries either referred to material possession or to some general, universal human quality, Rabbi Lipschitz personalizes and individualizes the message. He writes:
“[I]f G-d graces you with a particular strength, for example, wealth, physical strength, wisdom, a good memory, a pleasant voice, and the like, offer it to G-d, utilizing it for the purposes of holiness.”
We can often fall into the trap of looking at the service of G-d as being a routinized, de-personalized experience that should be copied and pasted from one person to another. Yet Rabbi Lipschitz suggests that it is essential that we are aware of our own personal talents and skills and then use them to serve G-d in our unique way.
What emerges is that this mishna is a profound lesson in the sanctification and spiritualization of our material possessions, physical selves, and internal characteristics. G-d has graced us with every aspect of our internal and external lives. It is up to us to recognize our blessings, skills, talents, and virtues, and utilize them in His service. By so doing, we can spiritualize our character strengths, infusing all of our pursuits with sanctity, and serve G-d with the universal human characteristics as well as with our own personal strengths.