We all know the so-called ancient saying, “May you live in interesting times.” Suffice it to say, we are living in interesting times. Depending on your perspective (political and otherwise) your definition of “interesting” likely varies from that of others around you. I suspect few find it boring.
We are just over a month into our nation’s new Administration in Washington, DC. Nary a day goes by when I do not find myself engaged in discussions about the various political winds blowing across our nation. Of course, if we each listen and engage only within our own place on the spectrum, we are likely either energized or enraged based on that spot and bubble. For my part, it has long been my practice to browse websites and news sources that reflect positions and principles other than my own. I need to be forced to stretch beyond my own perspective. Simply reinforcing what I already think (or believe) may be comforting, but it’s not living in the real world with its rough-and-tumble discourse.
For several years now I have been studying, teaching and practicing Mussar, which I like to define as “The Jewish Road to Character” (h/t David Brooks and Alan Morinis). Mussar is a part of our Jewish tradition which has been around for a lot longer than most of us realize. It is a set of teachings based on what are known as middot (soul traits). Mussar tradition teaches that along with our physical characteristics, we are each of us, imbued with “soul traits.” The more-or-less classic list of these middot includes such items as:
There are other lists, and indeed, studying, reflecting and practicing living out these values/soul traits is a humbling and eye-opening experience.
Over the past couple of years, as my own exploration of Mussar deepened, through study with a cherished rabbinic friend on a weekly basis, and through various offerings of The Mussar Institute I have found that these teachings have every day practical application. And this application is not simply a matter of my own interpersonal and intrapersonal experiences. The middot always seem to speak to some aspect of what is swirling in the world around me in these noisy, chaotic, conflict-ridden times.
For well over a year, my study partner and I have been reading and studying from Orchot Tzaddikim (“The Ways of the Righteous”), a Mussar text from the 15th century. Its authorship is unknown. For our part, owing to the various writing and interpretative styles we encounter in the different chapters of the book, we are convinced that Orchot Tzaddikim is an anthology of writings from different teachers.
As enlightening as it is to read and discuss the teachings from Orchot Tzaddkim, and broaden our base of Jewish knowledge as the text cites teachings from across the bookshelf of Rabbinic literature, it is equally eye-opening as we apply whatever we are studying to the evens of the day or the week gone by. For a 15th century text to speak to our 21st century quandaries and questions makes our engagement in this endeavor even more meaningful. It’s also a tangible reminder that for all that changes as human history marches forward, human nature is startling consistent through the ages.
As we settle in each week in a public room at the Watertown Library, we step out of our busy rabbinic and familial lives. As we do, we enter a worldview vastly different from the echo chambers of our day. Nevertheless, not a week goes by where real life fails to enter our study and discussion. The time we spend, the texts we learn, and the insights we acquire by engaging in this regular study and practice helps me find a measure of balance in an otherwise disorienting and challenging time.
Curious? Pick up Alan Morinis’ wonderful introduction Everyday Holiness, or check out your local synagogue. An increasing number of communities are offering on-ramps to the world of Mussar.