*** 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
Would you like a mussar practice for Trump angst? First a question: If you hate Trump so much, why do you keep talking about him?
I asked that question to a close relative over the weekend. We were sitting together, watching TV when he said, “I am smarter than that guy, referring to a sports expert.” He had a little grin on his face, and from the way he said it, I could tell that he was lampooning Trump’s statement that he was smarter than Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
In another conversation about the suffering in Puerto Rico, someone said “the problem is that Puerto Rico is an island, surrounded by water.” She looked at me expectantly, with almost a hunger for me to engage.
A few months ago, I posted something on Twitter, and out of the blue someone tweeted the “That explains Trump.” I made no response, and I imagine a great disappointment in the poster that I did not take the bait.
In each case, it appeared that the person was looking for me to justify and feed their anger. I see the exchanges on Facebook all the time. One person rants, and their friends jump in, either agreeing or disagreeing. Everyone is angry.
If this sounds at all like you, let me ask you: Is this the life you want to live? Is this what Judaism teaches us, to feed anger and disaffection? I know, we are supposed to speak out against injustice. But what injustice are we speaking about when we bring up Trump out of the blue to make fun of him? Here, you are just feeding the anger within.
The Talmud teaches “Whosoever yields to anger, if he be a wise man his wisdom leaves him, and if he be a prophet his prophecy leaves him.” (Pesachim 66b). In modern language, the Talmud is saying that when we get angry, we don’t think straight, and we do things we may regret. I know that when I am angry, I say and do some really hurtful things to the people I care most about.
In addition, insulting Trump instead of talking about actual issues amounts to gossip, which in Hebrew is known as lashon ha’ra. The Talmud teaches that harmful speech kills three people – the speaker, the listener, and the one being talked about. Rabbi Joseph Teluskin argues that avoiding gossip allows the speaker and listener to form a closer relationship because they are forced to focus on each other. Thus, when we bring up Trump at random times, we lose an opportunity to really connect and get to know other people. It may feel good to share misery, but it won’t actually make you feel better. And it won’t help you form community.
Instead of giving in to the urge to mock Trump, practice the Soul Trait of Silence. In the Mussar classic Cheshbon Ha’nefesh, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Levin wrote, “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: What benefit will my speech bring to me or others?” One way to begin this Mussar practice is to write Levin’s phrase on an index card or sticky note, and put it on your bed table where you will see it in the morning. Read, chant, and/or contemplate it for a minute to begin your day. This will make you more aware of thoughtless speech in general. Next, stop and reflect before you say anything. As you become more mindful of your speech, you can choose to avoid the mocking speech we discussed above.
Lets consider a world in which you don’t bring up Trump at random times. It opens the door to focus on positive things that bring you energy and joy. I’ve seen it happen again and again – a positive conversation gets derailed into anger, frustration, and cynicism. Instead of allowing your negative side to bring the conversation down with insults, look for an opportunity to bring the conversation up. Staying present and plugged into the world is both empowering and life affirming. After all, our mission is Tikkun Olam, repair of the world. And mocking speech never repaired anything
Mussar has soul traits to help us focus on Tikkun Olam in the face of anger and despair. It is not enough simply to say “No Trump thoughts” or “keep it positive.” A full mussar practice for Trump angst requires a strategy to focus on something else.
Come back next week to read a post on moving from anger to Tikkun Olam.
Want to know which soul traits you need to work on? Take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz.
Judaism teaches that we ought to remain silent unless our words will bring some good into the world—and when we can add to good or subtract from evil by speaking out, we are required to do so. This is the proper balance for the Soul Trait of Silence, allowing us room to hear others when we cannot contribute ourselves, and making sure our voices are raised when those voices can achieve something worthwhile.
Human trafficking is one of the most evil and damaging problems the world is currently facing, and the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition is raising its voice to help raise awareness of the problem. The trafficking of human lives is only allowed to continue because too many remain silent when they hear about it; despite being widespread even here in the United States, few recognize the extent of this modern-day slave trade.
By bringing together individuals, communities, and nonprofit as well as government organizations, the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition facilitates the sharing of information and lends a stronger voice to the anti-trafficking movement. It also ensures that spaces are created where other issues can stay in Silence so the focus can remain on the pressing problem of modern human slavery.
Silence requires balance. It is important to listen, and important be heard when there are important things to say. The Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition lives this balance through its actions and its voice, and we are happy to salute them and their cause with a Point of Light Award. To learn more and become involved, please visit them here.