Monday Mussar: An Introduction

Welcome to my Mussar Monday blog.  I am excited to explore Mussar together as it is a fantastic skill to learn in today’s busy and stressful world.

What is Mussar, you ask.

Excellent question.  Of course, because it sources from the ancient writings of Judaism, it is safe to assume there are many layers to the answer.

Layer 1: The word ‘mussar’ means ‘to give to another’

Layer 2: It centres on a methodology of ethics

Layer 3: It is an approach to the world that intends to heal and repair damage

Layer 4: It is a universal that applies to all of humanity

Layer 5: It is a skill set with practical outcomes so it must go beyond theory

Layer 6: The skill set involves introducing the mind to the soul and developing a dialogue

Layer 7: It results in noticeable changes with only positive outcomes

As this is the first blog, I’m going to have to get a bit technical, cover some of the basics and then we move forward from there.

Mussar sources all the way back to the Torah and appears in all Jewish texts.  The Mussar Masters flourished in Eastern Europe in the 19th century but the School of Mussar was all but lost during the Shoah.  We are so fortunate to be able to rebuild something that answers so many of the challenges of today’s world.

Here are the foundational concepts:

We are all created in the image of God and therefore we all share the same ingredients.  What makes each of us unique are the measures of those ingredients. The word for measure in Hebrew is ‘middah’ (plural is ‘middot’).  Usually ‘middah’ is translated as ‘characteristic’ but that is not correct. It is the measure of the particular characteristic that I focus on.  My ‘middot’ are my measures of patience, compassion, anger etc.  

So, the very first step to everything is to ‘snapshot’ who I am at this moment.  Since I am in the image of God, I will use the text description of God as my framework.  In the Torah, God identifies 13 Divine attributes so I will try and identify 13 of my characteristics.  Then I will decide the measure of each: small, medium, large. I now have a list of my middot that I will work on.

That’s enough technical stuff for now.  I’ll include more technical details each week so stay tuned.

Now to the practical side.

I like to use common examples of things.  We’ve all been taught that if we’re seated on a bus and an older person gets on, we should offer our seat to them.  What happens if we offer it and they decline? Do we sit back down?

Ethics would say we sit back down because we offered and they said no.  Mussar would say something inside of us felt it was wrong to sit while they are standing.  Whether they accept the seat or not is irrelevant, it is still wrong to sit while they are standing.  So, according to Mussar, you do not sit back down. Two ethical systems with two different outcomes.

This brings us to the strongest foundation of Mussar, in fact, the strongest gift humanity has at all: free will, my choices.  I have infinite choices everyday but I never own someone else’s free will. Whether another person chooses to sit in the seat I offered is not something I can decide.

All too often we intrude into someone else’s free will because we think we know better.  In case you missed that attribute, it’s ego, something we all have huge measures of. Don’t get me wrong, ego is vital for us, in fact every attribute is vital.  That’s why it’s not the attributes, it’s the measurements of them.

Here’s the sad reality: most of the time we all function in automatic mode and don’t actually make choices.  We have programmed responses to social settings and interactions so we don’t think about things. Of course the world can’t change, we’re not actually changing it.

So, here’s the homework for this week (Mussar will always have homework suggestions, remember it’s a practical skill).  Starting down this complex road is about small changes that reverberate so let’s start by becoming aware of our automatic modes and making small choices.

This week, whenever someone says ‘thank you’ to you, change your automatic response of ‘you’re welcome’ to ‘you’re MOST welcome’ – you don’t have to emphasize the word ‘most’, I just did that so you’d notice it.

Watch how it changes your awareness of the moment and watch the reactions you get.  The moment you notice these changes is the moment you’ve stepped through the door into the world of Mussar – it’s not for the faint of heart but you’ll find it life changing.

The Oy of Peoplehood

Hope everyone had a great week.


This week’s parshah, Matot-Masei, might as well be titled: ‘oy’. It talks a lot about war and
booty and prisoners and revenge. All I can say is to remember we are never commanded to do
that, we are reading about warfare in the ancient world – it’s a slice of hell.
But there’s a defining moment in there that talks about two tribes telling Moses they prefer to
live outside of Israel and not set up their homes within the borders of the land.
Every time I read this section, I am taken with the fact that from the moment we had a nation
of Jews enter the land of Israel, we had a group within the nation saying that life in Israel is not
for them. In other words, there are no Israeli Jews without simultaneously having Diaspora
Jews.


And now I arrive at today.


I am the generation born into a world where there is a modern state of Israel. I can’t imagine a
world without Israel, though my parents lived in a world that produced the Holocaust so that
answers that question.


But I struggle with the relationship Jews in Israel have with Jews outside of Israel and visa versa.
I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to do ‘peoplehood’. Our realities are so vastly different and
while we share Jewish history and culture, those of us outside of Israel have mastered living in a
different culture as we layer our identities. Where can we connect?


A few weeks ago, I visited Israel. There were days I struggled with what I saw and there were
days of such connection words fail. At one point, while talking with an Israeli about Judaism,
they listened to my views and then said, ‘so you’re a Reformit.’ I was a bit confused and
explained that I am not a Reform Jew as some of my Jewish choices wouldn’t fit that
community. They explained that I seem liberal, but I also keep commandments, so I have to be
‘a Reformit.’ I could see there were no other categories of Judaism possible in this discussion,
so I said nothing.


By the way, this week’s parshah clearly states what the Talmud later repeats as a Jewish
precept: silence is agreement. I said nothing and therefore chose to agree with him at that
moment. You choose your battles.


My thoughts go back years ago to when I was saying Kaddish for my father. I was also leading a
trip to Israel at that time and was strategically finding a minyan every morning so I could say
Kaddish. We were in Tel Aviv for a few days and I found a minyan in a small shul on a main street not far from my hotel. It was a group of men on their way to work stopping in quickly to
pray. It was ten men with no rabbi or chazan leading them.


The first day I walked in, I went to the women’s section which was on the same floor as the
men, a pretty flimsy mechitzah that allowed us to see each other and hear each other. They
definitely knew I was there because I had to climb over all the stalked chairs, tables and books
filling the women’s section. Actually, I was happy to find a place where I could sit alone with
my thoughts, so I didn’t mind the clutter.


One morning I was delayed and ended up running to get to the minyan in time. As I ran in, the
men were already finished and were putting away their Tefillin, ready to go to work. I
remember standing there and saying: ‘you’re finished??’, in English and then starting to cry.
These were not quiet, subtle tears. I mean sudden, anguished sobs. It was the first time I had
missed Kaddish all year and I didn’t expect the pain I was feeling. The men stopped and one
man asked me what happened. I told them I was saying Kaddish for my father but now I missed
it.


In Hebrew, I heard some of them ask each other why I’m saying Kaddish, don’t I have brothers.
One man quietly asked if it was allowed. Only one man asked the group who I am. All of these
comments were happening at once as these men are standing there, late for work, watching a
strange foreign woman crying.


The man who first spoke to me said to the group, ‘she’s saying kaddish. She needs a minyan, so
no one is going anywhere.’ Before I knew it, they all put down their Tefillin, stood around me in
a circle while one of them handed me a Siddur and said ‘Read!’ The page was already opened
to Kaddish and I quietly recited it as they all answered me.
That was peoplehood.


I have no doubt that most of them walked away confused by what I was doing. I’m also pretty
sure some of them agreed to be there so I would stop crying. The reasons don’t matter, we
created holiness together and fulfilled an ancient intent of unity.
O this week’s Parsha, when the tribe of Reuben tells Moses they don’t want to settle in Israel,
Moses argues. Actually, Moses threatens them. They stood their ground and the two sides
worked out a mutually agreeable arrangement. It strained the relationship of peoplehood then
and by the end of the book of Joshua it almost causes a civil war. The challenge of
understanding our peoplehood remains with us today and we inherit the challenge honestly.


A few weeks ago, when I was in Israel, I argued with some people I met and after I left, I missed
it. Like any family visit.

Numbers in all the Wrong Places

Hope everyone had a great week.  

The parshah this week is Pinchas and it has some wonderfully powerful points.  We meet five sisters who challenge Moses and God on the laws of inheritance and end up carrying the day, changing the laws forever.  We see God’s reaction to a High Priest who kills a man and woman for worshipping God through their sexuality. All great stuffy, but I don’t want to talk about those.

I want to talk about the stuff in the parshah that makes us yawn and ends with raising an eyebrow at a spiritually eternal and Divine document that seems to love numbers the way the Torah does. 

In this parshah, God tells Moses to take a census of Israel in order to form an army.  Each tribe will now be listed with its original founder and every male descendant and their male descendants, and so on and so on.  In total, over 600,000, which sounds like a lot of people but it’s actually a pretty small army. In other words, every victory Israel has will never be because they outnumber the enemy. I understand the need for the final figure,  but I really don’t need the initial numbers and then every number in between…

…or do I?

To most of us, me included, numbers need to be meaningful, they need to speak to me in a plain and direct way that allows me to use them as I need.  I don’t love numbers for their own sake. My accountant loves numbers for their own sake and whenever we meet, my eyes glaze over within minutes. When he pauses, I assume he asked a question and I usually nod.  He knows me well enough that at that point he picks up my phone and turns on the recorder and explains the numbers into the phone. I will listen in bits and pieces later. God bless my accountant.

So, I need meaningful numbers.  I learned an invaluable lesson about meaningful numbers when I was a student teacher.  I was placed in an elementary school in a violent section of the city. It was filled with gangs and drugs and we were cautioned to visually check our students every morning without being obvious.  We were looking for cuts, bruises, physical abuse. Every absence was to be noted.

I was assigned to teach the class fractions.  As a student teacher, I did the classic ‘draw a pie on the board, divide it in half, divide it in quarters’ and so on.  The class was quiet as I went my merry way with my apple pie drawing. Every time I turned to look at the students, they sat quietly staring back.  I felt like I was fractions’ gift to education (yeah, ego can convince us of that in a fraction of a second…) I got all the way to one-eighths without a peep from them.  Something wasn’t right. I asked if they had questions and one brave soul put up his hand and said: ‘I’ve never had pie, do you know how to draw a pizza?’

Meaningless numbers, they’ll get us every time.

So why is the Torah insisting on the numerical details?

The numbers are important when we plug in the age-old resolution: ‘cherchez la femme’, ‘look for the woman’.   In other words, behind every mystery will stand some woman, or some issue that leads to a woman, or some man who is searching for a woman – basically, everything sources to a woman.

The Torah leaves a huge issue unresolved and that is the double matriarchy of Leah and Rachel.  Jacob only wanted Rachel but also married Leah. Leah is fertile while Rachel is loved. We have the unresolved dichotomy of a woman: is she mother (Leah) or lover (Rachel)? 

Since the Torah won’t resolve it, tradition tries to figure it out by looking at who the next leader will be.  Clearly, the model for a woman would be the one who birthed the heir. Not so fast, Leah gave birth to Judah who will give us the great king, David.  But Rachel gave birth to Joseph who was a leader in Egypt. David was a warrior king while Joseph was the great negotiator. WHICH IS OUR MODEL?!

As if that weren’t complicated enough, there is a tradition of the Messiah ben David (son of David) and also a tradition of the Messiah ben Yosef (son of Joseph).

So far, no clear answer, so as a woman, I have ambiguity of role model.  Am I to be mother or am I to be lover?

Here’s where all the numbers from the parshah come in.  Maybe the biggest tribe will be the leader and then I can resolve who is the matriarch?  Except, when you look at the census in this parshah, you see the Judah and the Joseph tribes are coming in very close in numbers.

I can’t resolve the issue.  

I believe that things in the Torah are deliberate and therefore if I can’t resolve the issue it’s because I shouldn’t resolve it.  I am to cherish both Leah and Rachel. I am to be an integrated woman balancing between ‘mother’ and ‘lover’.

In the end, the ‘eyes glaze over’ numbers in the parshah told me how Israel built its first army in the ancient world while simultaneously showing me how I find my identity in the modern world.

Now I wouldn’t give those numbers up for anything.

Everything Is Fine Until the Animals Talk Back

Hope everyone had a great week.  I heard some wonderful stories this week I’d like to share, especially because they tease out a beautiful message in this week’s parshah. 

One of my sons was on vacation and met an iguana that was hanging around his room.  He told me how he planned to have the iguana eat out of his hand by the end of the two weeks.  He explained to me that iguana’s display certain behaviours when they feel threatened or cornered.  He detailed the behaviours he was watching for.  I realized my son speaks ‘iguana’ and wondered whose genes he inherited. 

He planned where and how he would meet and greet the iguana everyday and how he would advance his plan to interact.  His wife showed me a video on her phone of their last day on vacation as the iguana came to my son and ate from his hand.

I am in awe. 

Please understand, I have no desire to communicate with an iguana. Reptiles make me nervous.  I take no comfort when I’m told they’re more afraid of me than I am of them because that just means now they feel trapped and I’m the bigger threat. I am more the school of thought that says ‘as long as we don’t see each other we won’t scare the living daylights out of each other’ – fair is fair – and most reptiles smell my philosophy all over me and thankfully leave me alone.

But I was still in awe.

And as wonderful as the iguana story is, because it’s so unusual, the second story is also great for the opposite reason, it is so common.  It involves a clown fish and her clown fish mate.  My only exposure to clown fish is from the movie Finding Nemo and it definitely doesn’t do them justice.  Ms. CLOWN FISH (and I deliberately capitalize that), dominates Mr. clown fish in every way.  He eats and sleeps when she gives him permission and in return, she protects him – she is larger and basically organizes and rules his life.  She is Clown Fish Queen!

I was told that when these fish first meet, the female will bump the male with her nose, and he must then vibrate in response.  Apparently, she is asking if he accepts her as dominant and she demands he vibrate to indicate yes.  If he does not vibrate, she kills him.  Interesting system.

Why am I sharing these obscure stories?  Because they speak directly to this week’s parshah of the foreign prophet and the talking donkey.  This week’s parshah is Balak and in the parshah, Balak, the King of Moab, hires Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel.  Much as he tries, Balaam cannot curse us because God has made it clear to him that we are blessed.  He tries repeatedly and fails each time.

In fact, in one attempt, his donkey refuses to walk because she sees an angel blocking her way with an outstretched sword.  Balaam doesn’t see the angel.  After beating her, the donkey speaks to Balaam and explains about the angel and only then is he able to see it.  Yes, this is in the Torah.

I am fascinated with how animals play into the lives of foreign prophets or prophets headed to foreign lands.  Balaam and his donkey are the most obvious example but when the prophet Jonah tries to avoid delivering a prophecy to a foreign land, a whale swallows him, shelters him and ultimately delivers him where he needs to be.

These instances of extraordinary natural interactions are only a few indications of what the Sages tell us about the vision of creation.  According to the midrash, all of creation shares a common language but most of humanity has forgotten it.  The water in the clouds and the water in the earth speak and coordinate how to feed the grass and trees. The rain will limit itself to only penetrate so deep since the waters in the earth will only rise so far.  That way, little roots are fed and giant roots are fed in perfect balance. 

Unfortunately, the Sages believe we have made ourselves deaf to this language and over time, we have stopped hearing it.  There is a midrash that describes how we cut fruit bearing trees because we no longer hear them cry for the loss of their fruit, their children, but apparently their cries fill the world. 

In its original vision, we believe creation embodies unimaginable diversity of species who all connect, communicate and collaborate toward balance.  Yet so much of that has gone astray and it becomes so disheartening but then I think of my son and the iguana and the language of the clown fishes and the angel and the donkey. 

In fact, it is Balaam, the foreign ill-intentioned prophet, who ultimately blesses Israel and says, “Ma Tovu” – How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.  Every siddur begins with these words and tradition says we should speak them as we enter any shul.  But we’ve taken that even further.  Jewish gatherings and summer bonfires are filled with people swaying, arms on each other’s shoulders, singing Ma Tovu.  Kids are taught to sing it in rounds, and we take it as a moment of unity and harmony.

The Torah teaches us that God speaks with everyone and the Sages remind us that the wise one is the one who learns from every person.  As summer surrounds us and we are filled with the sounds of nature everywhere, what a beautiful message this week to take even a few seconds and listen to the sounds around us and remind ourselves that it is, in fact, a language.          

How beautiful and humbling are the words of a foreign prophet.

Thresholds

Hope everyone had a great week. I’m home from Israel and I realized I’m not a great traveller so I won’t dwell on the passive-aggressive woman sitting next to me on the flight home – it wasn’t pretty.

I had an interesting Shabbat in Jerusalem though.  I went to the Shira Hadasha minyan, which is an orthodox egalitarian service.  A few things caught me by surprise. In Israel the Cohanim bless the congregation every Shabbat.  They stand covered entirely with their Talit (looks a bit spooky). Under the Talit their arms are raised and their fingers form the letter ‘shin’ in Hebrew.  The power of the minyan is said to draw the energy of the Shechinah through their fingers and onto the congregation. It is one of the most mystically powerful moments in Judaism.  

Because it is so holy, tradition tells us not to look directly at a Cohen when being blessed.  But at Shira Hadasha, for the first time in my life, there was a Cohen standing in front of the woman’s section covered in a Talit chanting the blessing.  I didn’t know if it was a man or a woman and I had never had anyone stand in front of me doing this. Wanting to blend, I held the Siddur up to my face to cover my eyes – but I had to know.  So…I slowly moved the Siddur away from one eye and quickly glanced at the person enveloped in the Talit. My eye moved to the feet where I clearly saw the hem of a dress. It was a woman. I heard her voice and watched her sway.  Instantly, without my knowing, this woman led me to a moment of holiness. She was so close to me, she sounded like me. She was my threshold.

I thought about the parshah that Shabbat, Chukat, which is the portion we read this coming Shabbat outside of Israel.  This is the parshah when Miriam dies and Israel has no water. God tells Moses to gather the people and speak to a rock to bring water from it.  Moses, angered by the mob, hits the rock instead and as a result is told he will never enter the land of Israel. It is one of the most frustrating moments in Torah and as much as Moses will plead with God to enter the land, it will never be.

I’m struck by the fact that Moses’ fate is set so close after Miriam dies.  I’m struck by the fact that his pronouncement of death occurs through an interaction with water – these things cannot be coincidental.  Miriam’s actions as Moses’ older sister was to protect him. In fact, it is she who stood by the Nile and watched him as he floated toward Pharaoh’s daughter.  It was she who protected him from the waters that were killing all the baby boys of Egypt. She is his guardian who kept the dangerous waters at bay. She changed his destiny and as long as she is alive he is safe.  As soon as she dies, his original destiny returns and water will now be the cause of his death.

We owe everything to Miriam because without her there is no Moses.  She creates the window of time within which Moses will live his life.

I thought of a pluralistic minyan I’m working on in Toronto.  Some of the decisions about parts of the minyan are not my personal preference and I was uncomfortable.  I struggled with the question of creating an expression of holiness that might not fit the nuances of my own expressions.  But I think of these two women, one from the ancient world and one from the modern world. They both show me that at times our choices move beyond ourselves and build the doorway for someone else. 

Thank you Cohen who stood so close and blessed me.

Thank you Miriam.

The ‘Holiness Competition’ Fallacy

            Welcome to the renewal of my blog.  It’s been a few years since I posted anything and I’m excited to get back to sharing my thoughts.  Right now, I’m in Israel for a week, some personal stuff and some work meetings.  The trip got off to a roaring start when I got to the airport and lost an earring I was very fond of.  I had a very comfortable seat on the plane but accidentally managed to get gum on my headphones which then stuck in my hair.  After we landed, apparently some innocuous machine prints out your tourist visa, a small piece of paper that no one tells you is important and will save you taxes.  Needless to say, I lost that piece of paper getting into the taxi and didn’t have it for the hotel, so I was charged taxes as an Israeli, the default visa.  Jet lagged, exhausted, confused about the time difference, I went to bed hoping everything would be better in the morning.  Unfortunately, in the middle of the night I was awakened by a very large cockroach in the bed.  I was done.  Zionism will only take me so far…

            A few hours later I sat quietly enjoying an Israeli breakfast and the incredible flavours of the fruits and vegetables grown in this country.  I felt a bit better.  I went with my daughter to Ben Yehudah street and we shopped for a purse.  I walked into a store and tried on a bag that goes across the body and noticed the strap in the front is cutting a tight line between my breasts.  It was clearly not designed for a woman but the bag was so comfortable.  I turned to my daughter and asked if it looked funny.  She was laughing too hard to answer.  There were three other women there including the store manager.  The other women were clearly very observant and I was standing there in pants and no wig. 

            But I was beyond caring about my appearance and tired from no sleep.  I boldly asked them if the strap drew too much attention to ‘the girls’.  They asked if I meant my breasts and I said I did.  For a moment they were quiet so I turned to each of them with a front view so they could give me an honest opinion.  The store manager said she often wondered about women who buy these bags and how they wear them.  One of the women said she’s seen so much worse while the other woman said she liked it and ‘the girls’ seemed okay.  With everyone staring at my chest we forgot about my exposed hair and my pants.  Or maybe it never mattered to them in the first place.

            The lost earring, the gum in my hair, the missing visa and even the midnight cockroach didn’t matter anymore.  My thoughts went to the parshah this week, Korach.  In it, Moses’ leadership is challenged by his cousin, Korach.  Ultimately, Korach and his followers are literally swallowed by the earth.  A plague is sent by God against Israel and Moses tells Aaron to offer a sacrifice.  When he does, the Torah says “he stood between the dead and the living and he stopped the plague.” To me, this is Aaron’s greatest moment. 

            The issue is huge.  The problem with Korach and the people was their determination to create divisions of holiness within the people.  They presumed to speak for God, rather than to God.  They claimed to be as holy as Moses, as spiritual and as worthy.  They introduced the ‘holiness competition’ into the nation – who can outdo whom in this holy race – the one who ends up closer to God wins. 

            Rather than competing with each other in an effort to be holier than our neighbour, the Torah reminds us again and again that it is our individual and unique voices that are needed.  Since God is an Infinite Being, we are invited to explore infinite roads and relationships with God.  The Torah guides us with boundaries but allows us to define the content of our spirituality. 

            Now, as I walk around Jerusalem, I no longer see the differences in the Jews on the street with worry about conflicting views – I’m enjoying the sight and sound of our differences.  The women in the purse shop responding to me in a mundane moment as we each stood there with our differences. I see one nation of individuals, I feel the potential of our diversity and the importance of Jewish pluralism.

            I can’t wait to shop again.