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.
****Here’s the Mussar Practice***
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