click here to jump to start of article
Join Our Newsletter

Get latest articles and videos with Jewish inspiration and insights​

The Moral Bucket List

The Moral Bucket List

My list according to Jewish values.


A few years ago New York Times columnist David Brooks set out to discover how deeply good people got that way. He discovered that these people are self-made; they are not born that way. They achieve genuine inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.

Brooks coined the concept called the "Moral Bucket List," a list of key experiences that one should have on the way to the richest possible inner life, such as the humility shift, self-defeat, acknowledging one’s dependency on others, and realizing one's calling.

Brooks is on to something: the basis of living the good life is to work on improving one’s character. But it takes far more than a one-time experience to acquire any trait and cross it off the moral bucket list (Brooks neglected this critical point). It requires constant work at perfecting the art of humility, fine-tuning their anger management, assessing their alacrity, and the list goes on. Every victory enhances your moral fiber, and over a lifetime it crystalizes into an inner greatness that radiates outward.

It got me thinking about what a moral bucket list according to Jewish values would look like. Here is my list:

Humility – Humility is a lifelong journey of perspective. It is the ability to be objective about one's own position in life. It is the skill of being painfully honest about one's strengths and weaknesses, talents and limitations, capacity and ineptitude.

Contentment – The Mishna (Ethics of the Fathers 4:28) teaches us that jealousy removes a person from this world. One who is constantly jealous is not living their own life; instead, they see themselves through a lens refracted by a fixation with other people’s achievements. The jealous person can never be truly happy, as they see another person's property, talent or accomplishment as a deficiency in themselves. Being content with one's own lot in life leads to true greatness and happiness.

Self-Control – Our sages teach us that we should be slow to anger and easy to pacify. We must learn to identify what's really bothering us. We need to train ourselves to realize that anger is a chosen response that rarely has a constructive outcome.

Alacrity – Living lazily and constantly procrastinating is a slow but sure way of bleeding away one's life. People who are lazy miss opportunities and rarely progress. Conversely, a go-getter experiences life to its fullest. People who are lazy are gradually withering, while enthusiastic people slowly but steadily fill up their lives with experiences and meaning.

Magnanimity – Miserly people live their lives in agony. The pain of parting and the need to hoard is a constant strain. The saying goes that "giving is living." The Almighty created us with a deep-seated need to give to others, and He crafted our natures to have a distinct joy when we share financially, physically and even emotionally.

Truth – All of the aforementioned items on the Judaic moral bucket list are really an outgrowth of a single moral and value: truth. Humility is being truthful with oneself. Contentment is being candid with one's position in life. Self-control is being honest in one's reactions. Alacrity is being frank about living life to its fullest. Magnanimity is living life with a real understanding of one for all and all for one.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, a great ethicist and founder of the mussar (self-improvement) movement, said that it is easier to learn the entire Talmud than to change even one character trait. Change is really hard, but we need to keep in mind the fine example of the people whom we meet in everyday life who exude kindness and integrity. These individuals have made a clear and conscious choice to slowly and painstakingly tick off item after item on their "moral bucket list." The result is genuine greatness, and it is within everyone’s reach.

What is your moral bucket list? Share with readers in the comment section below.

July 4, 2015

Give Tzedakah! Help create inspiring
articles, videos and blogs featuring timeless Jewish wisdom.
The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Dvirah, July 8, 2015 4:11 PM

Alternate Perspective

So you've got these buckets...but they're not a list, they are a collection. They start empty and one fills them up with "moral experience"...and then one finds that as they fill up they just get bigger and one doesn't ever actual tick them off (eliminate them). One never need stop growing spiritually.

(2) Sharon, July 7, 2015 3:15 PM

by all means work on yourself...

I do believe that we must all work on ourselves to be the best we can. And those characteristics listed here are surely worthy of our attention. But my life experience shows that basic character traits are hereditary or learned very early in life. And these have a very large effect on the person's character. I can't conclude that they are immutable, because that would make life pointless, and I won't accept that. But I definitely conclude that you can never judge a person, can never know what battles another person is fighting. I can admire wonderful people, buty will never know how much of their greatness was a gift and how much was the result of their hard work.

(1) Nancy, July 6, 2015 11:04 AM

This list is terrific!

I can only improve upon what has already been stated. Right now I am working to improve the Hebrew I started learning about a year ago. My reading is NOT where I want it to be, but I will get there!

Submit Your Comment:

  • Display my name?

  • Your email address is kept private. Our editor needs it in case we have a question about your comment.

  • * required field 2000
Submit Comment