*** Here’s the Mussar Practice.***
- Yelena ‘Helen’ Belilovsky
- Marina Gertsberg
- Vladamir Savinkin
The last two posts I’ve shared with you two Mussar practices inspired by my encounters with haughtiness of spirit. Did you try the practice for Humility related to how you dress, or the Order practice relating to where you put things down?
Somewhat to my amazement (and dismay) I had yet another encounter with haughtiness of spirit. Two in fact, and both related to email. Each time I was hasty, which means I was thinking more about my need to get done and not about the impact of my words on other people.
The first example is the more minor of the two: I sent an email with an error. The mail merge didn’t work, and instead of a name there was raw HTML.
In my rush to get the email out, I did not send myself a test message. My haste came with a cost – it looks bad, and moreover it dishonors something important to all of us – our name. Names are a big deal in Judaism. When I was a kid, the prayer book only had the names of the only the Patriarchs – now we include the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs. A name denotes importance, and in my haste I lost an opportunity to connect with people in the American Mussar community.
But the bigger mistake was an email I sent to a friend that was tone deaf to some anger in the email I was answering. 9 times out of 10, what I wrote would have been just fine. But not this time. I’ll keep the details vague, but because I didn’t follow up on something, and then did not address it in the email, a budding friendship was damaged. Not only was the recipient really mad at me, but also at a third person who wasn’t even on the email chain.
In circumstances like this, it can be tempting to blame the other person for their reaction. But Mussar teaches that primary responsibility falls on the speaker, not the listener for communication. I should have done better, and am working on repair.
Which brings us to another Mussar Practice to try to help combat haughtiness of spirit.
Send yourself a test email, and read it before sending the real thing. If you can, do this for an entire week. But realistically, the number of us who could actually do this practice for a week is zero. Too big a leap. But each of us can try it for a day, or an hour, or a few times. And then we can add a few more.
And as you read it, think on the words of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin who wrote in the Mussar classic Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh, “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: “What benefit will my speech bring me or others?”
This practice relates to the soul trait of Silence. Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us that the Torah teaches that the world was created with speech. We too create a different world when we speak, or in this case communicate by email. The communications I sent lost an opportunity to create a better world, and in one case created a worse version of the world.
For me, this practice can help me deal with this longstanding tendency I have towards “haughtiness of spirit.” Each and every email, I’ll come face to face with my own importance, and force myself to really think about the person I am communicating with. I’ll be the first to admit, there is a danger for me in this, as sometimes I can cycle through lots of drafts of “important” emails and get paralyzed. But hey – the way I look at it, I can’t go wrong spending more time making sure my communications are sent in the spirit of service to others.
I don’t think it is an accident that the last few weeks have featured several missteps that all point to my issues with haughtiness of spirit. While I have made lots of progress, there is clearly more work I have to do. This is the Jewish month of Elul, the last of the year, and a time traditionally devoted to self reflection to prepare for the High Holidays. I am being given a gift from the Divine, an opportunity to notice and focus on a key part of my spiritual curriculum that is ready to heal. If you are unsure of the Divinity, think of it as the Universe, or the best part of yourself.
The path of the mensch isn’t always easy. We measure ourselves by impact, not our intention. It is, however, very rewarding. One can gain an exquisite sensitivity to the impact our actions have on others, both to the good and not so good.
Each and every one of us has the capacity to be a mensch, and I so hope you’ll join me in some of these transformative practices.
Want to experience Mussar and personal transformation in community? Sign up for the Personal Transformation High Holidays Mussar Workshop
In 2004 Rabbi Janet Marder at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos sent shockwaves through the Jewish world by blessing the non-Jewish spouses who were members of the congregation on Yom Kippur. The message was clear: Cherish your non-Jewish partner.
Rabbi Marder said, “What we want to thank you for today is your decision to cast your lot with the Jewish people by becoming part of this congregation, and the love and support you give to your Jewish partner.” You can read the entire blessing here.
The blessing took place a few years before my family joined that congregation, and people were still talking about it. At the time, my wife was not Jewish and we picked Beth Am because the website was covered with welcoming messages, and our makeup is diverse – interfaith, same sex, intercultural marriages abound. We felt comfortable and welcomed. But it didn’t mean that there weren’t issues, issues that I was insensitive to.
I now understand how much I took my wife’s decision to embrace raising a Jewish family for granted. When I went back and read the blessing today, the following passage really struck me. “You come to services, even when it feels strange and confusing at first. You hum along to those Hebrew songs, and some of you even learn to read that difficult language.”
As I have written before, I am uncomfortable when people use Hebrew phrases that I don’t know. How much more difficult it must be for people who did not grow up Jewish. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really put it together, I did not put myself in her shoes.
Rabbi Marder’s blessing from 13 years ago also reminds me how Mussar can help strengthen relationships, by helping us recognize and cherish the differences in the other. To be clear, I think it is particularly important to cherish the differences, because despite those differences, our partner chooses to be with us.
Mussar, particularly American Mussar, offers an opportunity offers intermarried couples an opportunity to share Jewish values in everyday life without needing to know Hebrew or traditional ritual practice. Being a good person is the essence of being Jewish, and Mussar offers a roadmap to bring our everyday actions into alignment with our aspirational values. Here are three soul traits that can help us cherish our non-Jewish partner.
Honor Rabbi Marder was demonstrating the Soul Trait of Honor, in that she was going out of her way to Honor the Divine spark in others, when they are different from us. We can practice Honor by asking our partner how they are doing, and if they are uncomfortable or struggling with any part of the Rosh Hashanah experience. Work to make them feel more comfortable.
Gratitude – I did not sufficiently appreciate my wife for agreeing to raise a Jewish family. Take my advice, say thank you, and go out of your way to show your Gratitude by being sensitive and inclusive. The person you are with wants to be included, and understandably may be struggling. As Rabbi Marder said, “We know that some of you have paid a significant price for the generous decision you made to raise Jewish children. You have made a painful sacrifice, giving up the joy of sharing your own spiritual beliefs and passing your own religious traditions down to your kids. I hope your children and your spouse tell you often how wonderful you are, and that their love and gratitude, and our love and gratitude, will be some compensation, and will bring you joy.”
Order – Don’t just assume that your non-Jewish partner has to do all the child care or food preparation. When the kids were little, I often left it to my wife to take them out so I didn’t have to miss any of the service. Offer them an opportunity to participate in services and take your turn bringing the kids outside if they start to act up. And do some planning, to find an activity that the whole family can do together. For example, after services, plan to get together with a large group of friends.
Moses said, “I place before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This is a choice we all have every day. The reality is that you have someone in your life who care about you, but is really different. It might be an intermarriage, but there are other ways to be different. You might both be Jewish, but one of you is apathetic or unenthusiastic. Or you may share the same religion, but one of you is a vegan, or god forbid, a Trump supporter.
You can choose to ignore the differences, and allow them to be a source of conflict or pain. Or, you can choose to make them a blessing, and go out of your way to connect despite your differences.
On Rosh Hashanah, we are given an opportunity to really look at those relationships, to make amends for our mistakes, and decide to do better in the future.
Want to start your own Mussar journey? Click here to take the free Soul Trait Profile Quiz now
Image Credit: Rosh Hashanah by Lilach Daniel via Flickr CC
In the last post, How To Dress Like a Mensch, I wrote about “haughtiness of the spirit.” As you may recall, I was teased by a friend for wearing shorts to a board meeting. A few days later, I read “He who walks in the marketplace with his shoes unlaced is among those who are of haughty spirit.” It made me realize that I displayed a “haughty spirit” by not dressing respectfully.” Not the end of the world, but also not behavior for one who aspires to be more like a mensch.
This week I was yelled at for putting a large cardboard box on top of a stranger’s car in a parking lot. “Its just a cardboard box with a pillow in it,” I said. “It won’t hurt anything.”
“You are rude and inconsiderate,” the man answered. He walked off after that. Although I was taken aback, and really didn’t think I had done anything wrong, I gave it more thought in the context of a haughty spirit. Maybe “He who places a cardboard box on someone else’s car in a parking lot” displays haughtiness of spirit.
I wasn’t sure, so I created a poll on the American Mussar Facebook page. The results were definitive, 11 to 4 in favor of haughtiness. The comments were particularly enlightening.
One person wrote, “As a fairly introverted person, I am very protective of my personal space…including my car.” The soul trait of Humility is all about occupying the right amount of space, as Alan Morinis wrote in Everyday Holiness “ Occupy a rightful space, neither too much nor too little.” It looks like I had occupied too much space.
Another person wrote that my action was “not respectful nor considerate.” This is a violation of the soul trait of Honor, which teaches us to focus on the Divine Spark of others. I was insufficiently respectful of other people.
I even brought this example up with my study partner. We discussed it for 15 minutes. It is a great example of a Mussar choice point, a true grey area. It wasn’t like I dumped a soda on the car, which would be obviously rude. Nor was it bumping the car as I opened the door, which would have been trivial. We decided to give Enthusiasm props to the person who called me out, for “running to do good” to defend his friend’s car.
Fundamentally though, this is about the Soul Trait of Order.
In that spirit, I invite you to try a Mussar practice
Be mindful of where you put things down. When you put things down, think about whose space it is. Is it a common space at work or home? It is someone else’s space? Is it where the thing goes, or are you just throwing it anywhere? Have you put the dish on your coffee table, where it will live for the next two days, or did you take the time to bring it to the kitchen and clean it? Are the clothes just thrown on the floor at night, or did you put them in the laundry?
And you may be on the other end of the spectrum of Order – are you creating anxiety for yourself by being too controlling about how things should proceed?
Remember, each one of us has what it takes to be a Mensch, a person of outstanding character. Mussar teaches us how to become more like a Mensch by taking small, mindful actions in everyday life. Where we put things is part of that process.
In the Mussar classic Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin wrote, “All your actions and possessions should be orderly – each and every one in a set place and set time. Let your thoughts always be free to deal with that which lies ahead of you.”
By practicing Order in this way, we can make sure that we are not impinging on another’s space. At the same time, if we become too focused on Order, we can be making others conform to overly rigid preferences, in effect taking up too much space.
Making mindful choices about where you put things opens the door to balance and healing in order, and other soul traits like Humility and Honor.
Give this practice a try, and come back and let us know how it goes.
Want to know where you need more work to be more like a mensch? Take the Soul Trait Quiz.
A few weeks ago, I was arriving at my synagogue for a board meeting. One of my fellow board members looked at my shorts and sneakers, and said “Greg, you look like you rolled in from the beach.” I didn’t think too much of it at the time, but I did notice that everyone else in the meeting was dressed business casual.
Then yesterday, when I was preparing to lead a Torah Study in a few weeks, I opened The Book of Legends, (a great compendium of the Talmud), and my eyes fell on this passage
He who walks in the marketplace with his shoes unlaced is among those who are of haughty spirit. He who walks with his cloak thrown over his shoulder or his cap tilted back or sits crosslegged or holds the straps of the tefillin in his hands and throws them behind him while walking in the marketplace – he is among those who are of haughty spirit. – Derrik Eretz Rabbah chapter 11, The Book Of Legends p 711:241
Arrogance was my fatal flaw in the corporate world. And as I thought back to that board meeting, I decided not to bother to get changed. I thought to myself “They know me. What difference does it make anyway? I am really tired, and have had a rough week.”
Looking back on it, I am reminded of a passage in the medieval Mussar masterpiece Orchot Tzadikim (The Ways of the Righteous). about a man who uses every excuse in the world not to get out of bed, starting with “There is a lion in the street.” Spoiler: there was no lion in the street and he knew that. And I know that dressing appropriately is a sign of respect for the institution and my fellow board members. It was a failure of Enthusiasm, and of Humility. Enthusiasm, because I gave in to laziness, and Humility because I was arrogant for acting as if I did not need to follow the conventions of others.
Mussar is a practice of personal elevation, and how we dress is an important part of the journey. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobodka, emphasized immaculate dress as a way of honoring the Divine within. He didn’t want his students wearing tattered clothing like the stereotype of a starving yeshiva student. Check out how dapper his students look in this picture above, which dates from the 20s in the British Mandate of Palestine.
You don’t need to be a Rabbi or psychiatrist to know that dressing well is part of healthy self esteem. Here is a Mussar Practice that we can take from this lesson.
Be mindful of what you are wearing. Before you get dressed, think about the day to come. Is what you are going to wear respectful and appropriate to the people you are going to see. Will you be honoring the greatness within yourself? Are you dressing blandly because you don’t feel good about yourself?
At the same time, ask yourself if you are using your look or dress to try to overcome a hollow place within. In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis shared the story of one of his students who realized that she always dressed in bright colors and sat in the front row because of her insecurities. When she went to a meeting in beige and sat in the back, it helped her connect with others better. And she turned her focus from her dress towards building self-love. (EH p 47).
When we dress like a Mensch, we are comfortable in our shoes, respectful to the people we will be with, and look good.
Remember – each and every one of has what it takes to be a Mensch, a person of outstanding character. In the grand scheme of things, what it a big deal that I wore shorts to a Board Meeting? Not really. But it is a good opportunity for growth on the path of the Mensch.
Making mindful choices about how you dress can open the door to balance and healing in the Humility and other soul traits.
Want to try Mussar in community?