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 school@harhashem.org.

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.

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