Approaching the High Holidays through the lens of Mussar

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If you start thinking about the way you treat people on the day before Rosh Hashanah, with the notion of treating them better, you’ve started too late.

So say practitioners of Mussar, a Jewish tradition of studying your relationships with other people and with God, in order to live a more ethical life.

The practice of “cheshbon nefesh,” or taking accounting of the soul in preparation for teshuvah, or repentance, during the High Holy Days is a skill like any other discipline, according to this

“The High Holy Days are a time when we bring more intense focus to examining our relationships,” said Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde, of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Laurel. “Mussar practice gives us practical, clear, methodical tools and a process for [interpersonal] relationships.”

Mussar philosophy was popularized in the 1850s by Rav Yisroel Salanter of Lithuania. Salanter was trying to spread a philosophy that has its roots in ancient Jewish texts.

“Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives,” according to The Mussar Institute, near Philadelphia.
It is, in modern terms, a self-help movement.

“The Jewish community spawned Mussar to help people overcome the inner obstacles that hinder them from living up to the laws and commandments — the mitzvoth — that form the code of life,” according to The Mussar Institute.

While Salanter’s Mussar was addressed to Eastern European orthodoxy as a buttress against the Enlightenment, today’s Mussar is popular with many liberal Jews.

“Mussar is a spiritual practice to help us become more aware of our feelings so that our judgment isn’t distorted,” said Alan Morinis, director of the Mussar Institute.

“Mussar is a practice that can help us achieve ‘teshuvah,’” said Rabbi Charles Feinberg, executive director at Interfaith Action for Human Rights in Washington, and a friend of Morinis. “It’s a time to look at yourself, not to blame yourself, but to take responsibility for what you’ve done.”

Part of the Mussar tradition is that each person has a number of “midot,” or attributes, said Feinberg, a Conservative rabbi. “Everyone has ‘midot’ in which one is balanced and strong in, other ones where you may be over involved in or not involved in enough. Part of what the High Holidays are about is to look at your ‘midot’ and look at the ones you think may need some reflection on them and possibly some fixing.”
Those “midot” include humility, righteousness, truth, gratitude, silence and patience.

Take for example Feinberg’s war on impatience.

“When I wait in traffic, I start swearing and I get really angry at people around me,” he said. “So one thing I do is, instead of swearing for 15 minutes, I’m going to just swear for 10 minutes. Now you may think that’s really trivial and really a small, incremental change, but that’s part of the Mussar approach. Ultimately that leads to a big change.”

As part of working on his “midot,” Morinis concentrated on treating a homeless man with dignity.

“There was a guy who stood outside my bank with a paper cup, panhandling,” Morinis said. “He’s one of God’s creations, too, so the practice that I assigned to myself was to engage him in conversation every time I went to the bank.”

The High Holidays, Morinis said, are a time to focus on the Mussar work one has done all year.

“The whole idea of “teshuvah” and judgment is about taking responsibility, then committing,” Morinis said. “It’s such a gift to have the calendar bring us back to say, ‘Are you aligned?’”

Rabbi Nissan Antine of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac began studying Mussar in third grade. He went on to study in a Mussar yeshiva in Philadelphia.

“It shaped the kind of person that I am,” said Antine, an Orthodox rabbi. “I’ve got a lot of things to work on, but I would say almost anything that’s good about me is because of studying Mussar, in terms of character development.”

The Musaf, or additional service, on Yom Kippur has three themes: kingship, remembrance and shofar blasts,” Antine said. The middle section is a prime Mussar moment.

“We declare, ‘Everything is revealed before God. Everyone’s deeds, accomplishments, thoughts, schemes and motives,’” Antine said.

“So when we say that God remembers, this means more than the fact that God does not forget. It means that God penetrates into the depths of our minds and souls and judges us. We can fool others, we can even fool ourselves, but we cannot fool God.”

Through Mussar, he said, you can take God’s penetrating insight and use it as a mirror to see into your own mind and soul.

Eliana Block is a Washington-area writer.

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  1. This year my Mussar journey has led me to focus on “haughtiness of spirit.” A friend teased me for wearing shorts to a board meeting at my synagogue. I didn’t think much of it until the next day I opened a book on Talmud, and saw the reading that said, “One who wears their shoes unlaced in the marketplace displays haughtiness of spirit.”
    I realized that some of the arrogance issues I thought I had put to bed were still present. Over the next few weeks I’ve seen a few similar examples in my life. I’ll continue to focus on this aspect through the High Holidays.


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