Mussar Concepts and Worldview
Mussar gives us a new way to see our world, our selves, our relationships, and our actions. When we put ourselves in a Mussar frame of mind, the world looks different.
Tzelem Elokim / Image of God
We are all individuals created in the image of God. Each of us is a soul, which embraces both neshamah and nefesh (these Hebrew words denote separate aspects of “soul”).
At our core is the neshamah / soul that is inherently holy and pure, and cannot be stained by anything we do. It is the root of kavod / honor for all people.
Our nefesh / soul can be governed by free will. It’s where we work. The nefesh registers good and bad, and our actions can either sully or cleanse it. The nefesh is filled with familiar middot / traits.
Middah / Soul Trait (middot, plural)
A middah is an inner human trait. Moral traits include kindness, patience, pride, generosity, and anger. Rational traits include logic, memory and judgement.
The word middah also means “measure,” referring to the strength of a trait. Everyone has each trait in some measure. What makes us different from one another is the measure of each trait within us.
Each trait has its role in our lives. Our task is to tune them all properly. “Middot are lenses through which we see our behavior.” –Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde quoting Rabbi Ira Stone
The Mussar definition of a trait often differs from the colloquial meaning of the word we use to name it.
We each have within us a full range of middot, it’s just a difference of degree. Each middah has its role, and its proper balance depending on the person, the time, and the situation—not too much, not too little. Unbalanced middot block our inner light from shining out. Unblocking our inner light lets us fulfill our potential and contribute to the world. Our Mussar goal is to rebalance our middot.
Each person is unique, and purposely created as an incomplete being. We each have the opportunity to complete ourselves by bringing our middot into balance. “Not only is the human being created for this purpose, but is also given the ability and capacity to attain this supreme goal.” –Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
Everyone grows all the time. Life makes us grow. The question is whether we grow with good guidance. Either we take thoughtful steps to change, or we will continue to suffer from our unbalance. Our growth is not an end in itself. It is so that we can open our hearts and help others.
Vocabulary of Practice
Each of us has our own curriculum, based on our experiences, our life situation, and our Life Assignment. We find clues to the middot on our curriculum by looking into our lives for our places of un-balance, the issues that repeatedly challenge us. As we make progress in mastering our curriculum, we gain freedom and control over our habitual patterns. As we do, new elements of the curriculum emerge. As long as we are alive we have a curriculum and we have work to do.
Mussar demands that we act to change our Nefesh / Soul. Reading, thinking, and talking are excellent tools—and they are not enough. The Mussar masters also gave us tools of action we can use to help us change—chanting, journaling, and behavioral missions. Mussar learning is more than intellectual, it is also hands-on, experiential, and daily.
We change incrementally, step by step. First, we become sensitive to inner stirrings, noticing where we are out of balance.
Second, we act with self-restraint, because our external actions act upon our internal self. “Chitzonit m’orer pnimiut / the external awakens the internal” –Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler quoting Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. Modern neurobiology restates this insight as “neurons that fire together wire together.”
Third, our efforts transform us. We have changed the balance of a middah.
Cheshbon haNefesh / Soul Accounting
A daily journaling practice, called cheshbon hanefesh / soul accounting, helps us recognize what went well and what needs work. This introspection fuels growth.
Where were my challenges? Where did I struggle to do right (bechirah point)? What contributes to the well-being of my soul?
We look carefully because “the little tremors that take place in everyday life reveal the fault lines that run beneath the surface.” –Alan Morinis
Bechirah Point / Choice Point
In many decisions it is easy to choose the right. But in decisions that connect to our imbalances, that choice is difficult. We might know the right choice, and yet be unable to do it. We might fool ourselves, talk ourselves out of the right choice, or find some reason that excuses us from the right choice.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler called these difficult decisions bechirah points / choice points, and it is here that we need to intentionally and actively choose the right path. Every time we choose, that choice becomes easier for us in the future. When we choose right, we strengthen our ability to choose right again. When we choose wrong, we strengthen harmful habits. Mussar can help us do this hard work at these opportunities for growth.
In some moments we realize we are at a bechirah point and our Mussar work can help us choose the right action to do. In that Mussar moment we stop, and then act intentionally.
Life as Laboratory
We encounter opportunities for growth in our everyday lives. We do not need to search out Mussar moments, rather, they come to find us. Mussar practices prepare us to meet our Mussar moments.
Alan Morinis teaches that brute force of will-power rarely accomplishes lasting change. Telling ourselves “Be patient!” is insufficient. Instead we look for other middot that can affect the target middah. For example, to reduce anger, build patience. And to increase patience, focus on compassion, humility, and silence.
We practice Mussar in three settings:
- Alone, for cheshbon hanefesh and introspection.
- With a chevruta / partner, paired for trust, intimacy, and insight.
- In a va’ad / larger group, for accountability, honesty, and support. We don’t have to go it alone, because we have a community.
This term personifies our inner drives, self-interest, and behavior, directed by neither morality nor logic. The Yetzer haRa says “Look out for number one. Indulge yourself. Don’t think of others. Selfish is OK.” The Yetzer haRa knows exactly what to say to lure me away from the choices I know I must make. But it is also part of me, and will never go away. Expect it to show up often. When it does, greet it kindly, yet stay independent.