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.