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.


  1. Great class. As we discussed, this section of the Siddur starts with the morning blessings, traditionally those said on waking. And one that isn't included in this text is "Modeh ani..." "I gratefully acknowledge You, living and enduring ruler, for returning my soul to me; great is your faithfulness." If one finds oneself gaining confidence and kindness from without or within, it can be a great way to start the day. That and wheaties ... truly breakfast of champions.

  2. The Mussar Class revealed to me that I subconsciously have always done that which leads to piety. In college and the military I fell drasticaly short. Now I know the importance of Mussar to get on the right track to piety and maybe someday holiness. I need to be more transparent so that my relationships will be more fulfilling and people will not have to read my mind to know what I am thinking. That way people will not take my short comments as possibly being a destorted sense of reality on my part. I am grateful to Rabbi Rose and everyone in the class for being so transparent as to reveal our commonality. As I told Joe, Rabbi Josh is certainly superior to me intellectually for me to be commenting on how I have seen a tremendous growth in his spirituality. I am grateful for all the knowledge that Rabbi Josh conveys to us.