I'm currently in the process of finishing a biography of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, who headed Agudath Israel of America for over three decades. That biography could be described as an Orthodox version of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. By unanimous consent Rabbi Sherer was one of the most effective people in recent memory, and the impact of Agudath Israel of America during his tenure was, in large part, a function of his remarkable talents.
Those talents were many, and this is not the place for their enumeration. But the deeper I become immersed in this project the clearer it becomes how much of Rabbi Sherer's success was a function of good middos – the respect, concern, and sensitivity he showed to others, and the dignity with which he conducted himself. Even in the decades when Agudath Israel was a small, virtually penniless organization, with a handful of employees, he was making connections with literally hundreds of politicians and key bureaucrats at all levels of government – federal, state, and municipal.
The files of Agudath Israel are filled with records of timely interventions by Rabbi Sherer where a single phone call to the right person achieved results worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a particular yeshiva. The responses of those officials rarely had anything to do with the political power of Agudath Israel's constituency, from which the bureaucrats were, in any event, largely insulated. Rabbi Sherer never spoke the language of power politics, but argued each case on the merits. Rather the bureaucrats and politicians went out of their way to help – many times even beyond the strict letter of their mandates -- because of the enormous respect that they had for Rabbi Sherer, who was often the only Orthodox Jew they knew.
AARTS, the accreditation agency serving the American yeshivos, has brought tens of millions of dollars of federal funding into yeshiva coffers in the thirty years since its founding. Yet AARTS would have never come into existence but for the close personal relationship between Rabbi Sherer and John Proffitt, the person in charge of accreditation agencies in the Department of Education. Over the seven years leading up to AARTS formal recognition by the Department of Education, Dr. Proffitt repeatedly exercised his discretion to waive various requirements or hasten the governmental review on behalf of AARTS. And each time, he gave the same reason: the desire to do a "favor" for Rabbi Sherer, as an expression of their personal closeness and mutual respect.
Rabbi Sherer emblemizes the principle that good middos pay. Unfortunately, it is not too hard to find those who also demonstrate the opposite principle: Bad middos, in the end, damage their possessor more than anyone. There are those who approach life as a jungle in which it is either kill or be killed. They devote themselves to exercising control over others, and live for the joy of breaking someone else in negotiations, whether it is in business or buying a new refrigerator.
Oh how they cherish their victories – the fifty dollars on the price here, the hundred dollars they talked someone down there. But those precious victories are usually pyrrhic. The few thousand dollars saved over a lifetime come at the cost of gaining the name "a hard person" -- someone to be avoided, whether in business or shidduchim. Often those closest to such people pay the highest price, and the angry man, as Chazal say, is left only with his anger.
Recently, I asked someone why they had gone out of their way to circulate a negative review of a project undertaken by a certain organization. In the course of the conversation, it became clear to me that if a certain phone call had been returned the critique would never have issued. How many times, I wondered, did parties who might well have ended up as business partners find themselves bitter competitors instead because of an unreturned phone call? (Rabbi Sherer, incidentally, was a fanatic about returning phone calls the same day, and if he could not do so, he would have one of his secretaries call to explain why.)
When I was a beginning lawyer in Chicago, the senior litigation partner in my firm gave me an invaluable piece of advice: Don't make life miserable for your opposite counsel. If he or she asks for an extension on a brief or to defer a hearing, grant it, without making them appear before the judge, unless you have some compelling reason. Someday, he explained to me, you will need a favor from that same attorney. You might think that with fifty thousand lawyers in Chicago, you are unlikely to find yourself on the opposite side again from that particular attorney, but you will. And even in the relatively short time that I practiced, I had the occasion to learn how right he was.
One of the best-selling self-help books of the 1950's was Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most of Carnegie's tips are really lessons in good middos – e.g., remember people's names; everybody loves the sound of their own name. Anti-business intellectuals of the time dismissed the work as indicative of the vulgarity of America, which reduced even decent behavior to the almighty dollar sign.
But that was a misreading of Carnegie. Yes, treating other people well, learning how to listen to others, for example, would help one in life. But Carnegie never doubted that good middos were desirable for their own sake. Many famous Mashgichim encouraged their students to read the book.
If anything, the utility of good middos was only proof that Hashem has structured the world in such a way that life becomes richer and more enjoyable the closer one follows the Divine instructions. Every time we smile, or give someone a compliment, or decide that something is more important to someone else than it is to us, we create a little pool of positivity. All those who are touched by that pool are instinctively filled with the desire to create own little pools. Those pools expand outward in concentric circles, and eventually they come back to engulf us as well.
The good we do for others returns to us – certainly in the World to Come, and usually in this world as well. As the wisest of all men advised: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days, you will find it" (Koheles 11:1).