Thursday, 15 March 2012

Friday, 24 February 2012

Assignment for March Class


My apologies for the delay. The next assignment is to read pages 41 to 57 in Siddur Eit Ratzon. As previously, please identify middot in the prayers. Also, if one of the middot you identify matches up with what you are practicing, please consider using a pharse from that prayer as your mussar phrase.

Also, please send me an email by the end of next week – that is next Friday – about your mussar practice. Look again at the blogpost in which I describe and recommend various mussar practices and let me know which ones you are doing and how your practice is going generally.

Also, please let me know if I can share your response, either attributed or not attributed, on the class blog.

Also, today is the first day of the month of Adar. There is a teaching in the Talmud, "When Adar comes, joy is increased." There is something about this month when we (may) begin to move out of Winter's darkest and coldest hours, when Purim comes with it's profound but crazy celebrations, that might enable us to rediscover joy.

Joy itself may not be a middah - it is more a state of mind. But learning how to let go of anger (slowness to anger, erech apayim), learning how to discover gratitude (hakarat ha-tov, as we discussed in class last time), learning how to not be haunted by worry and to have trust that things will be ok (trust, bitachon) - these are all middot. If you are not in the middle of another middah right now, these might be things to consider.

Finally, please, please - if you need Jewish teachings about a middah that you are working on, send me an email or call me to let me know. I will help you.

Thank you, and shabbat shalom

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

What to Do: Mussar Practice

This might be the most important communication in the entire class. Please read it. The topic is mussar practice. Without these practices, mussar will just be one more class you've taken. With these practices, mussar can change you.

Mussar Practices

Some of the following is adapted from Alan Morinis’ very fine book, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.

A Good Idea is Just an Idea

Mussar begins with the assumption that knowing what is right is not enough. The complexity of the human makeup, our ability to rationalize, to confuse ourselves, to fall into the trap of laziness, and a thousand other strategies, make the struggle for spiritual self-refinement extremely difficult. Our yetzer ha-ra, the subtle strategist working to subvert our spiritual ascent, has so many tricks up his sleeve that mere knowledge of what is good is insufficient.

There is simple proof of this right in front of you. Do you need Jewish teaching, or any teaching, to let you know that generosity is good? To learn that anger is bad? That compassion is a beneficial and beautiful trait? That showing more love in your relationships is a good in and of itself? Probably not. Most people have a good sense of what traits would be nice to have in abundance.

Then why are you still struggling to make these things real in your life? Why are so many of us struggling to do so?

The answer from the rich tradition of mussar is very clear. The power of our rational mind – that faculty that enables us to arrive at the conclusion that generosity is a good to be pursued, for example – is a tool in the spiritual struggle. But it is not sufficient. Our intellectual acceptance will have little power to guide our action when the yetzer gets started with its many tricks.

Practice Makes…Better

Mussar practice has developed several strategies to help us overcome our yetzer ha-ra.

All of them take time. There is no doubt that your yetzer ha-ra will try to persuade you not to make time for these practices, or that you don’t have the time, or that your time on self-improvement is better spent doing something else, etcetera etcetera.

Here are some practices handed down from our tradition.


I want to clarify something I said in class. I said that I don’t like to journal. I should have said that the method of journaling recommended in Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, which involves simple + and – signs in a chart (I demonstrated this in class) has not worked for me.

Some kind of written reflection on how you are doing with your middah each day is very important. As I said in the first class, this might just be 2 minutes (obviously a bit more is better). Otherwise, your mind (and your yetzer) will find other things to focus on, taking you far away from self-awareness until the week is over. You will remember in only a very vague way what your struggles and successes were in the week. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.

Do not criticize or be angry with yourself as you review your day. It is important to remain somewhat dispassionate in the process. Not that what’s happening doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary. But you are in the process of doing soul work, and you are trying to understand, at this point, where your weaknesses and strengths are. Heavy-handed judgments will make things less clear, not more.

Spiritual Teachings from the Tradition

Identify a sentence or phrase from our tradition that encapsulates your middah (and contains the word of the middah). In the famous work Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh, the author Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin recommends using just a single word. I find that using a sentence is more powerful and makes a deeper connection to our tradition.

I can help you identify this phrase. You should also look through the siddur (and, if you bought it, the Telushkin book) for something that connects to your middah.

Then find a place to put this phrase where you will see it. Maybe you can make it the text that scrolls across your computer screen as your screen saver; put it on your desk; carry it with you in your pocket. Wherever you will be sure to see it during the day to help remind you that you are working on a particular middah.

If you cannot identify a phrase within, say, 15 minutes of looking in the books you have, email me. I will find one for you.


The other night in class we began with a meditation. The reason for this is that awareness of what is happening internally, as it is happening, is essential to being able to understand ourselves and also changing our own behavior. These are distinct spiritual powers, both of which have to be developed. Meditation is a very powerful tool that helps us develop an inward sensitivity.

A few minutes – even five – per day can be very powerful. Keep it simple and straightforward. Find a comfortable position. I do not like to sit cross-legged even though many people reflexively fall to that position upon hearing the word “meditation.”

Find a comfortable, quiet place where you can sit down. Make sure there is nothing (cell phones, other people, etcetera) that will disturb you during this time. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and simply breathe. Focus your mind on the sensation of your breath coming in and then out of your nostrils, the feeling of your chest rising and falling. When a stray thought comes in – “Oh, I forgot to get schmeer at the store” – turn your mind back to your breathing. Don’t get upset or frustrated when this happens, and it will happen. Just calmly return your mental focus to your breathing, which should remain calm and regular throughout.

If you have time to extend the practice then, after a few minutes, focus your mind on the sensations on the top of your head. An itch? Nothing? Hot? Cold? Do the same thing for the rest of your body, moving your concentration slowly down your body.

To be sure, meditation is a very rich spiritual practice that would require a lot more discussion than what appears in the previous paragraph. I have described techniques borrowed from Vipassana meditation. I am not a maven in this or any other school of meditation. If you want to know more about meditation, sign up for the class that my friend Rabbi Ruthie Gelfarb will be teaching at Har HaShem (January 28th, February 25th and March 24th from 4-5 PM). For more information email Chris Serna at

Find a Kabbalah

Kabbalah is, of course, the general term used to describe Jewish mysticism. But in mussar it has a separate (additional) meaning. It is just an exercise you use to try out – or test – the middah you are working on.

There is no ‘official list’ of kabbalot (plural of kabbalah). You have to design your own. Be thoughtful about it, though. Don’t make it to easy, and don’t make it too difficult. For example, if you are working on developing chesed (lovingkindness), it would probably be too little to commit to smiling at one person this week. And it would be unrealistic to commit to making dinner for 25 hungry people this week. Choose something that will push you and force you to be deliberate, but is not something that is so hard it will cause you to throw up your hands and say, “ah, what’s the use!” Of course, what is the right intensity is going to vary from person to person.

The following examples are adapted from Alan Morinis’ Everyday Holiness

Middah Kabbalah
Generosity Give $1 to 100 people or causes
Humility Refrain from speaking in a group discussion
Honor Speak only positively about others
Gratitude Express thanks to every inanimate object that sustains you
Simplicity Eat only what you really need; don’t buy nonessentials
Lovingkindness Offer kind words to people who need them.

Torah Study

A weekly engagement with Jewish texts is a fundamental mussar practice. Of course, certain texts will be relevant to your middah and certain ones won’t. But a regular engagement in the Jewish spiritual discourse of thousands of years of conversation is a very rich way to learn.

I believe that engagement with Torah is to answer in the deepest way the question mi anochi, “Who am I?” Mussar is about getting underneath the layers of artifice to begin answering this question.

The Torah study discussion at Har HaShem every other Saturday morning (check the Chadashot) is a great way to start.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Assignment for the January Class & How to Use the Siddur

Stop! If you are visiting the blog for the first time, please read the post below this one - ("Welcome to the Class Blog") - which, even though it appears after this post, is actually the first post . That's how blogs work: newest posts at the top, older posts at the bottom. After you've read that introduction to the blog, come back and read this post.

What You Should Have Done So Far
In the previous class, I asked you to identify the middot (attributes) that you need to work on. Remember that I handed out a list of middot to help spur your thinking. If you need another copy of that, let me know.

What you should be doing is choosing one of those middot each week to focus on. For example, if you chose "generosity," then you should focus on being more generous for that week. Look for opportunities to be more generous, and put yourself in situations that will make you focus on this middah. For example, make sure you go out to lunch or coffee with other people a lot that week, and make sure that you pay.

Most important is that you have a way to reflect daily on your middah. This is why journaling is so important. If you don't look back at the end of your day and at the end of your week, you will lose sight of what you are trying to do. Remember the mussar classic Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, says that the yetzer ha-ra is a very subtle adversary. It is too sly to lash out with dramatic episodes of craven behavior. It is happy just to let you forget that you're trying to become better and let you fall back in to old habits. Spiritual practices like journaling and focused Torah study (learning about Jewish teaching on the middah you are working one) and others we will discuss during the course are intended to raise your awareness of these habits and create new ones.

By now you should have the siddur (prayerbook) that I asked you to order, Siddur Eit Ratzon. If you don't have it, call Robert Farr at Har HaShem and arrange to pick up your copy (and also your copy of the other book if you ordered it). Thanks again to David Bernstein for making this happen!

Siddur Eit Ratzon: The Prayerbook We Are Using in This Class
A word about the prayerbook (the assignment is below, so keep reading!) This siddur is very unusual in that it is a traditional siddur - that is, it includes all the prayers that are part of the Jewish prayer tradition, or liturgy - but it also has egalitarian translations and meaningful commmentaries along the margins.

Let me break down a page for you. We will use page 9 as an example, since it is pretty typical. Turn to page 9. Note that on the left you have page 9 and on the right you have page 9.

Starting from the left, you have the transliteration: in big block letters is the title of this section of the prayer service, Birchot ha-Shachar, and below that the transliteration of the prayer (not every page has the big bold letters at the top; it's just that this page happens to be where this prayer starts, so it's 'title' is here in bold letters).

Moving one column to the right, you have the prayer in Hebrew.

In the next column (which is on the facing page), in the column labeled "Morning Blessings" you have the English translation of that Hebrew text. It is not a literal translation; the translator has made some choices to make the English evocative and poetic. It is what I would call a translation that is very faithful to the Hebrew.

In the next column to the right, you have various notes ("Guideposts," Kavvanot," "Alternatives") that are offered by the editor of this prayerbook (a nice man whose name is Joseph Rosenstein). These reflections give insights into the prayers.

In the gray box at the bottom of the page, in the "Meditation" section, are some ideas for delving more deeply into the experience of the particular prayers of blessing on that page. These, too, are the author's own personal offerings and, like the Guideposts, Kavvanot and Alternatives, are not part of the prayers themselves. So this entire spread (left page and right) is focused on that one single prayer. Got it? If you are confused, please email me at

The Assignment for the Next Class
1) Read from page 9 to page 18. Read through the translations of all of these prayers. In addition, please read the "Guideposts" on the pages that have them. I recommend the other marginal comments, "Kavvanot," "Comments," Kavvanot" etcetera, but these are not required, nor is anything else on the page.

So, again: I am only requiring you to read the translations and the Guideposts. But I am impressed with much of the other additional material and if you read it you will be learning a lot about Jewish prayer and the Jewish prayerbook.

What you are looking for in the siddur: Read with care and look for middot mentioned in the prayers. This is not a test for you to "find" the "right answer." This is an invitation to read the prayerbook creatively, with care and openness to finding new meaning. For example, on page 9, in the third paragraph, the blessing says "How precious is Your loving kindness, O God." Loving kindness (chesed) is a middah that you may need to work on and you have discovered it in one of the prayers.

This may seem strange at first - that, in the example I gave, and in other prayers you will encounter we are looking at attributes of God that we want to work on in ourselves. The Torah says we are created b'tzelem elohim, in the divine image, and our Sages and mystics have long taught that we share some qualities and capacities with God. More on this theology later in our learning together.

2) When you find a middah based on the words or concepts, or ideas that were inspired by the words of the prayers, write it down along with the sentence it is in from the prayer. In some cases, it won't be a particular word or even a sentence, but just something that the prayer evokes. That's ok. Just describe what that is and what is the middah that it makes you think of.

3) On page 12 is the prayer "elohai neshama." Spend a few minutes reading this short prayer and reflecting on it, because we will discuss it in class. What do you think a "soul" is? What does it mean for a soul to be "pure"? How might the idea of a pure soul be relevant to mussar? How would the idea of a soul that can be pure be relevant to how we act? You don't have to write down answers to those questions, but you will probably get more out of it if you do!

A Closing Word
Mussar work is as deep as you let it be. If you are stuck, if you don't understand, if you need guidance, you must reach out to me. That is why I am here. Mussar can be profound. Like anything in life that is worthwhile and that can change you, it requires an investment of heart, soul and mind. Practically speaking, this means it requires time. I am here to help along the derech (path).

Check back at the blog every few days as I will be adding material as we go.

Welcome to the Class Blog


This blog is an essential part of the class. For those who have taken the class before, note that in the past I have offered blog posts as an optional addition to the class material. That is not the case here.

This blog will be a necessary part of the mussar learning and work between classes. You will need to use the material on this blog in order to prepared for the next session of the class. The blog will have explanatory information, links to additional resources, questions, assignments in addition to other things.

Also, we will use this blog to carry on conversations beyond the class walls. Please add your comments. In fact, please be generous with your thoughts and comments. Here's how: at the bottom of the blog posts (entries like this one), you will see a little link at the bottom that says "0 Comments" or "2 Comments" or whatever the number is. Click on that link and you will be invited to enter your comments. They can be questions, responses to something I've said or something that happened in class. Really, whatever you like.

If you've never used a blog before: the most recent blog post is at the top. So, just as with an email chain, if you want to see the previous blog posts, you have to read from the bottom up.