When he was interviewing Tiffany Shlain about her film, “The Making of a Mensch,” radio host, author, and San Francisco State University professor Michael Krasny asked the audience to raise their hands if they thought they were a mensch. Just a few hands went up. A few more reluctantly went up when he asked who had “mensch-like characteristics.”
This reluctance to claim the mantle of a mensch goes back more than a thousand years. The Jewish sage Rava characterized people as wicked, righteous, or average, and said that he and his contemporaries were “among the average.” If a famous sage claims to be average, we should pay attention.
I don’t know how many mensches are out there, or whether you or I deserve that title. However, I do know that we all have what it takes to be a mensch. And, I know that I am more often a mensch since I started practicing Mussar.
There is a process and practice that we can follow, and if we do, we begin to walk the Path of the Mensch. This is the sentiment behind the annual Character Day, the brainchild of Emmy-nominated filmmaker Tiffany Shlain and her non-profit organization Let It Ripple. On Character Day, hundreds of thousands of people around the world will attend events with a common message: You can do better, and here is how.
Character Day has grown from 1,500 events the first year to 5,500 in the second. In this, the third year, over 81,000 events are expected on September 22, 2016. If you are local, I’d love to see you at the event I am hosting.
Character Day events feature up to three short films by Tiffany Shlain. Two, The Adaptable Mind and The Science of Character, champion a growth mindset. No matter where we are, we can change our very brains to become better people. And her third movie, The Making of a Mensch ties character growth to Mussar.
Mussar as an Opportunity to be Your Best Self
Mussar is a 1,000-year-old Jewish spiritual practice that teaches us how to find those things that cause us to get stuck in the same situation again and again, and offers a step-by-step path towards balance and healing through mindful action in everyday life. Yes, there is a solid argument that the Jews invented self-help.
I love the way that Alan Morinis, one of my teachers, emphasizes Mussar as a means to recognize and build on the goodness all around us. Not every Mussar author takes that approach. I’ve been known to skip parts of some of the Mussar classics that get too negative. For example, some books go on and on about how lowly and insignificant humans are when compared to God. I prefer sources that make the point another way – we all have a spark of the Divine, and have an opportunity to live up to our Divine potential in every moment of the day.
Many people are unsure of the Divinity. That is okay; in fact that’s common. If this is you, think of your Divine Spark as your common spark of humanity, the best of who you are that can never be taken away, no matter what you do.
I don’t think that it is an accident that Character Day exploded when it tied into Mussar. On a practical level, many Jewish institutions and luminaries were eager to become a part of the event. When Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks participates in Character Day, people pay attention. But it goes beyond that.
Mussar is practical, and draws on 1000 years of Rabbinic wisdom on how to live a good life. They offer practice advice, explaining the role of anger and jealousy in a good life, and the circumstances when too much patience is harmful to the self and others.
Mussar is also magical – it transforms people. I can’t tell you how many people have noticed changes in their lives within a few days of starting to practice Mussar. In a way Mussar is like The Matrix – no one can be told what it is, you need to experience it for yourself.
Want to join me on a Mussar journey? Start by taking a Soul Trait Profile Quiz now.