As we travel together through these Yamim Nora'im, the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity to engage in the deepest kind of reflection into who we have been this past year and who we hope to become. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, things we have worked hard on and things in our lives that still need our attention.
What is Mussar?
"Everything that came into being during the six days of creation requires improvement - for example, the mustard seed needs to be sweetened, the wheat needs to be grinded . . . also human beings need to be finished" (B'reishit Rabbah 11:6).
Our world is a world of transformation. When we are improving and refining ourselves, we are in concert with the Divine plan - fulfilling our purpose for existing in this world. . . . Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but we are also given the ability and capacity to attain this supreme goal. - Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
Mussar is a process of growth and transformation that helps us to become the person we want to become, our highest spiritual potential. Mussar means "ethics" in modern Hebrew and is a spiritual practice of cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls. Mussar is also the name of a Movement begun in the late 19th century in Lithuania.
While mussar is a life long practice, the idea of using some of the tools of this practice between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are examining our deeds and committing to teshuvah, a return to God, our community, and our best selves, is an exciting prospect.
The practice of mussar asks us to consider a wide set of attributes that make up our actions, influence our responses to others, and affect how we navigate the world. These attributes, or soul-traits, are called middot (singular middah), or measures.
We will find that we each have our own spiritual path and that the things that I need to work on are likely not the things you need to work on. But the goal is to work on that or those traits so that when the time comes to respond to a situation, we are ready to act how we want to act. That moment, when all our soul-training is about to be tested, when that guy cuts us off on the road, or our friend gets that promotion - that moment is called a bechirah-point. Bechirah means choice and it is the moment that our training becomes real: Who will we be when every one of our buttons is being pushed? How will we act? What will we choose to do?
Mussar is not self help, even as it does help us to become all that we are capable of becoming. It is a demanding and exciting process in which we are asked to hold the needs of others in our hearts, care about how we interact with the world, and grow to be kinder, warmer, calmer, more generous, not for our sake, but for the sake of others who deserve our highest, truest self.
As the text by Rabbi Salanter teaches above, human beings are built to improve ourselves, to engage in the act of teshuvah, return, and to finish creation with the repair of our own souls by the work of our own hearts.
There are many answers to this question and each teacher of mussar might answer it differently. The overarching truth, though, is that any practice that will allow you to transform yourself through the act of cheshbon nefesh is a successful practice.
Traditionally, mussar includes serious text study, meditation, secluded reflection, and sometimes a practice of learning and discussion with a partner. One of the primary tools of this practice, though, is keeping a journal. While we may not all be prepared to commit to a life long practice of mussar, we can hold this journal in our hands and say that the next ten days are going to be different. During the next ten days, called Yamim Nora'im, the Days of Awe, we are charged with taking seriously the process of teshuvah, of return, making real changes in our lives, repairing our broken relationships, returning to our God, our community, our family, and the truest version of ourselves.
This journal affords us an opportunity to take ourselves seriously as the potential for change is never more powerful during the Jewish calendar than it is on these days. Reflecting some basic practices of mussar, each of the pages of this diary are headed with a middah, an attribute of value to the soul (this is just a sampling, there are many more!). Each trait is followed by questions, thoughts, definitions, or descriptions. These are meant simply to guide us as we consider our own lives each day between now and Yom Kippur. We are, of course, free to use our own interpretations of these middot or to replace them with soul-traits you feel are more critical to your teshuvah this year.
As you journal, it might be useful to think about mussar's three-tiered approach to change: Sensitivity, Self-Restraint, and Transformation. First, we practice sensitivity - the art of making ourselves aware of how we react to people and situations that challenge us. Second, we practice self-restraint as we train ourselves to respond, and therefore act, differently as our external actions trigger internal change. Finally, we move to transformation, as we reprogram ourselves so that we simply no longer think to act a certain hurtful way.
This set of emails is a starting point, a way to pass through the doorway and exist in this liminal space between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It can help make us more aware of the middot we'd like to work on, what we will need to do in order to change, and the soul-training we might want to commit to in this coming year. To consider these middot is to begin anew a process of self-reflection, growth, and a journey toward our highest selves, toward profound wholeness and holiness. May our writings and reflections bring us joy, challenge us in every good way, and open up sacred opportunities for a life renewed.
Day 1: Rosh Hashanah
Humility is about taking up the amount of space that we should take up, but no more than that. A person who has too much of the middah of anavah shrinks from the tasks for which s/he is responsible, but a person who is arrogant and conceited makes no room for others to exist, inappropriately aggrandizing his/her own self above others. Some of us are far more prideful than we need to be while some of us painfully degrade ourselves. Unwarranted arrogance can make others feel small or shut out, while true humility can result in inner dignity.
In this past year, how have you taken up more space than you should have or shut out others' voices or participation? When did you take up less space than you should have, avoiding responsibilities that belonged to you? If your lack of anavah made another feel small, how will you apologize for hurting them? How will you practice the middah of humility this coming year?
Sometimes in life, it's important to be impatient; impatience is a virtue when we are confronted with injustice or the suffering of another. Yet far too often, we are impatient in ways that hurt others, seething or yelling at someone before we even know what's happening. Often, impatience comes from a place in our egos in which the world revolves around "me" and my needs. A driver who cuts us off, a partner who is late in getting ready, a child who can't find her shoes - we see these as impediments to our own plans and, impatiently, we lash out.
During this past year, with whom did you act impatiently? How might you repair that hurt? Were there times when you were too patient? How might you plan to practice greater patience this coming year?
Day 3: Gratitude, Hakarat Hatov
With so much hype about the need for more and more worldly possessions, we can become mired in what we don't have. We often encounter obstacles that obscure our vision of the blessings in our lives, yet to feel and express gratitude for the gifts that we are given can amplify those blessings, help us transcend our feelings of deficiency, and honor those who help us attain what we do have.
What are you grateful for in your life? To whom are you grateful? During this past year, were there times that you wished you had practiced this middah? Who is still in need of receiving your gratitude? How do you want to practice gratitude in the coming year? What can expressing more gratitude do for you and those you love this year?
Day 4: Order, Seder
It is taught that while the pearls of a necklace are the most valuable parts, it is the clasp that is the most important, since without it, all the pearls would fall off and scatter. So it is with the middah of order. We so often live in our own clutter - in our homes, our cars, our offices, our minds, our business dealings - feeling scattered, unable to get out from under it. Yet to value order in our lives, physically and spiritually, is to align ourselves more fully with the order of the universe, honor those who share our spaces and our lives, and create sacred space out of what might otherwise be a real mess. Order, as with our other middot, takes discipline and commitment, but the space it can create for us is immeasurable.
What in your life is in disorder? What will it take for you to put things in order, physically or spiritually? What other attributes will you need to make this commitment to yourself? How might adding a sense of order to your life in the coming year change you, change your mindset, change your relationships?