First Be a Person

[From "Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah" – Parashat Vaera – translated by R. Blumberg]

I have to improve in many realms, and I can’t fight on all fronts at the same time. If you try for too much, you end up with nothing. So every year I pick an area to concentrate on. This year I’ve decided not to add Shabbat, Kashrut or proper concentration in prayer, but in order to be a person, you must be more ethical. Each morning we recite the words, “Always be a person who fears G-d in private and in public.” First comes, “Always be a person” - this takes precedence. Only then, “Fear G-d in private and in public.” And there as well, fearing G-d in private comes before fearing Him in public. We shouldn’t just be putting on a show. Both morality and holiness are Divine, but morality comes first. You enter the lobby before you enter the palace.
I want very much to draw closer to G-d. I want very much to draw close to the verse, “Hashem, who will stay in Your tent, who will dwell upon Your holy mountain?” (Tehillim 15:1). The answer follows: “He who walks uprightly and creates justice, and speaks truth in his heart. He does not slander with his tongue. He does no harm to his neighbor; neither does he take up reproach upon his kinsman. A base person is despised in his eyes, and he honors the G-d-fearing; he takes an oath to his own detriment and does not retract. He does not give his money with interest, nor does he accept a bribe against the innocent; he who does these shall not falter forever” (15:2-5) I once heard a great rabbi from America say, “Before glatt kosher [perfect kashrut], one has to have glatt yosher [perfect integrity].” When I hear about religious people who cheated on income tax and were involved in all sorts of other dark monetary episodes, I am so embarrassed. When I hear about G-d-fearing people who are sunken in gossip, hatred, falsehood, base controversies, hypocrisy, insult, I just want to hide under the floor boards. I cannot say, “Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d. Hashem is One,” before I first mention G-d who “loves His people Israel,” or who “lovingly chooses His people Israel.”
And in fact, the Arizal ruled that one should not start praying until he says, “I undertake to fulfill, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
There’s a story about a Jew who ran to catch a prayer service. Afterwards Rabbi Yisrael Salanter told him, “While you were running, perhaps you stepped on somebody’s toes? Was it worth it?
I know of a very respectable settlement in which the greatest number of traffic accidents occur during the minutes before minchah. That’s worse!
There’s another story about Rav Yisrael Salanter. It was his father’s yahrzeit, but he passed on leading the prayers in favor of a Jew who was having a yahrzeit for his daughter. They asked him, “What about honoring your father?” and he answered, “Doing what I did is the greatest honor I could show him!”
I have therefore decided, “People come first.” By such means, I shall reach holiness.