Thanksgiving is peeking around the corner. The hours of daylight are dwindling. We know well that this is part of a cycle. Yet, I also feel as if the darkness which surrounds us is growing in more than just the natural world around me. With last week’s elections mostly in the rearview mirror, I had hoped the tenor of our national discourse might die down a bit. Alas, we live in a world in which events – both those resulting from human actions, as well as what our insurance policies label as “acts of God” come in a seemingly never-ending stream.
I keep reminding myself that this Shabbat will mark just three weeks since the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. That nightmare thrust not only the Pittsburgh community into darkness. A shroud descended on Jewish communities throughout our country. Judging from the kindness and comfort of neighbors, friends and the communities which surround us, the darkness was felt far beyond the boundaries of our Jewish communities. And dark events have continued: shootings in numerous settings and communities, the ongoing fires in California, more revelation of anti-Semitic incidents, the ever-present political noise, and so much more.
In the weeks since Pittsburgh, I have found the conversation and mood in the various Mussar groups with which I work around Boston deepening. The groups involve some 85 or so participants. There is seems to me, a shared sense that our study and practice of Mussar – the Jewish spiritual practice of character development and moral improvement -- has taken on a new urgency and a deeper purpose. I know that for me, my personal journey into Mussar study and practice has been a source of grounding in a world which it can be so hard to maintain a sense of balance. To paraphrase my teacher Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, the purpose of Mussar practice is to help individuals deepen their understanding of the ways of the soul, and to guide them in overcoming obstacles which keep them from attaining a sense of inner wholeness (shleymut) and holiness (kedushah).
A core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy. However, our inner is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits which veil the inner light within us. Our task in life is to break through the “veils” and uncover the brilliant light within our soul. The Mussar masters developed a host of teachings and practices—some of which are contemplative, some of which focus on how we engage with other people in daily life, some seek to impact our sense of relationship with God. All are designed to help us heal and refine ourselves. Mussar is both a body of knowledge and a perspective on life. It is also a discipline because Mussar knowledge is not meant to be a merely intellectual pursuit. The teachings of Mussar are meant to be activated in our daily lives.
Mussar is built on the concept of middot (singular – middah), “soul traits” which are elements of our character. These include humility, honor, patience, gratitude, generosity, anger, forgiveness – and the list goes on. We each carry all the traits. However, we each carry them in different ways and different strengths. The path of Mussar invites the student/ practitioner to consider a single trait for a period of time so she can learn about her strengths and opportunities for growth.
Each middah is imagined along a spectrum ranging from extremely strong to absent. The general goal, I believe, is to try to walk within what I like to call “the broad middle.” Akin to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, Maimonides’ Shvil HaZahav (the path of moderation), Buddhism’s Middle Way, and other similar portrayals of the ideal path in life, the “broad middle” beckons us to strive for a balance. We can track a similar range for each of the middot. For example, we should exhibit not too much humility (or a lack of self-worth), but neither should we allow our sense of self to grow unbounded so that there a total absence thereof. In the case of generosity, we should strive not to be miserly. Yet nor should we be so generous as to give it all away. As Alan Morinis teaches, there are times when the middle is not the ideal path: For example, “in the face of injustice patience is not a virtue.” Just like a gymnast who navigates a balance beam, we must make constant adjustments. As dynamic beings, each of our middot/soul traits is in flux. So too, is the world around us. Through Mussar study and practice we hold up a mirror in order that we might examine ourselves with an eye towards personal improvement and growth.
Part of what I love about the study and practice of Mussar is that while we each have what Alan calls our own personal “soul curriculum” soul traits which need more or less work, we practice in the context of a va’ad, a group with whom we share the journey. At present, I work with five such groups. I also study as part of two personal study pairs (hevrutot) with dear rabbinic friends and colleagues. Sharing the journey helps me as I learn from those around me with whom I share my struggles, my insights, my successes, and the learning. In the darkness which I so often feel pervades our world, I have trusted companions with whom I can share the journey. This adds meaning to my life. The study, practice and my companions help provide a sense of balance.
In one of my groups, we have been working for the past month with the middah of menuchat ha-nefesh which is often translated as “equanimity” or “tranquility.” So much has happened since we began our focus on this soul trait which has thrown us off in terms of a sense of equanimity. The rash of pipe-bomb packages; the shootings in Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks and elsewhere; and the terrible loss of life and property in the fires consuming vast parts of California; all disrupt the sense of wholeness in our world. Add to this the hateful rhetoric which flies in too many directions and too many places in our country. Just yesterday morning I awoke to a news story about a 10-year old Framingham girl, a Muslim student who received two notes in her school box. One accused her of being terrorist, and the other threatened her life. Why do our times make such forms of expression possible? A 10-year old child? That expression was learned somewhere. How do we dial that back? I also read yet again about the intensifying wave of anti-Semitic and other hate expression uncovered in the Reading Schools to the north of where I live. This morning it was at UMASS-Amherst. How do we impress upon our elected officials that hate, division, demagoguery, bullying, and personal attacks are unacceptable? We are better than this.
To enhance my sense of menuchat ha-nefesh, to strengthen my sense of balance, I have decided to tune out of social media, and indeed, most media for the week ahead. I want to focus my Thanksgiving week on middot, such as kavod/honor and hakarat ha-tov/gratitude for the people in my life, and for the blessings I enjoy. It’s not that I think the world will suddenly straighten itself out next week. I don’t. But I can find balance, strength, and blessing by stepping back and refocusing. May the coming holiday week bring us a sense of awareness of our blessings, and a sense of balance so that, renewed and strengthened, we can return to the work of making our world one in which the blessing of shleymut/wholeness can be shared more broadly.