One of the signature features of the field of positive psychology is the classification of character strengths. Basing themselves 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. They concluded that in order to flourish psychologically, it is important that we identify and utilize our own strengths. Some of the most popular traits include curiosity, creativity, bravery, honesty, kindness, humility, gratitude, and hope. One of the 24 is also 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 with 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 influences 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 God 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’ (I Chronicles 29:14).
The theological message embedded in his statement is that we, and everything we have, belong to God. Consequently, we are enjoined to give Him what we have, which in reality is really His. Rabbi Elazar does not spell out what exactly it is that we should be giving back to God. Some commentaries assume that the message relates to material possessions. Everything we own really belongs to God, 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 Rabbi Elazar is not just talking about dedicating money, but also encouraging us to utilize our physical selves for mitzvot (Rabbeinu Yonah). This can be through helping others with acts of kindness or by performing other mitzvot with our bodies.
Other commentaries assume that Rabbi Elazar is encouraging us to dedicate to God a unique aspect of what it means to be human, according their respective understandings of the uniqueness of man. For instance, Rabbi Moshe Almosnino explains that we should dedicate to God our human intellectual abilities, through the learning of Torah. Similarly, Ben Ish Chai writes that we should dedicate human speech to God . We should use this gift from God to thank Him and communicate His praises. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin understands this unique aspect as referring to our human free will. We should use our free will to make choices that reflect God’s Will.
In a very creative and powerful reading, Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael, takes the message one step further. While other commentaries either referr to material possession or to some general, universal, human quality, Rabbi Lipschitz personalizes and individualizes the message:
if God graces you with a particular strength, for example, wealth, physical strength, wisdom, a good memory, a pleasant voice, and the like, offer it to God, utilizing it for the purposes of holiness.
We can often fall into the trap of looking at the service of God as being a routinized, de-personalized experience that should be copied from one person and pasted 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 God in our unique way.
This Mishna is a profound lesson in the sanctification and spiritualization of our material possessions, physical selves, and internal characteristics. God 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. In so doing, we can spiritualize our character strengths, infusing sanctity into all of our pursuits, and service God with the universal human characteristics, as well as with our own personal strengths.