Guest author: Nan Rubin
We can draw closer to the divine spark within each of us as we pursue right action. Mussar practice is an ethical approach to daily life and a self-directed path for spiritual growth rooted in ancient Jewish texts.
Once only available to Orthodox communities, it has been made accessible to Jews of all persuasions, including Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, by Alan Morinis, author of Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and Everday Holiness. By studying a broad range of character traits known as middot, which we all possess in different measure, it is possible to refine how we relate and interact with others and to consciously promote these positive qualities in the world. Thus, traits such as generosity, humility, patience, and honesty can be studied, observed, and transformed within each person. A basic principal in Mussar practice is that as one does so one becomes, the mind actually leads the heart. The goal is not self-help, but self-improvement for the benefit of the world God has gifted us.
The contemplative practice is built upon three legs: individual reflection and goal setting (Heshbon Hanefesh), partnering with another for study and practice (Chevrutah), and communal reflection and sharing (Va’ad). For the past four years Congregation M’kor Hayim in Tucson, Arizona, USA, has been home to two Mussar groups. We are men and women from mid-forties to seventies—all of us drawn to repair our world (Tikun Olam). Our process of personal discernment includes journaling, meditation, prayer, chanting, and day to day observation of specific traits in our actions. We assign ourselves exercises, kabbalot, to spur change and growth. For example: if I tend towards impatience, I might deliberately choose the longest line at the supermarket for a few weeks to cultivate patience. If I am working on the middah of careful speech, I will avoid all forms of gossip. The more one feels challenged by these exercises, the more work there is to do.
This individual effort is supported by having a Mussar partner to study Jewish texts that relate to a given trait and to bare witness to each other’s personal encounters with these traits. At a typical Mussar Circle or Va’ad, we begin in silence, each taking time to center and let go of thoughts that tether us to the day, the week. As the facilitator sounds the bell, we open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to one another as we share.
In all three levels of Mussar practice, including the listening and responding to one another, we abide by the principles of spiritual direction: to stay present, non judgmental, and open to the expression of spirit within each of us. If we listen deeply and bare witness for each other, it is possible to discover our path to Shleimut, spiritual wholeness.
Reflection: As Jewish and Christian faith communities prepare for Passover and Holy Week, how might the contemplative practice of Mussar help you “draw closer to the divine spark within?”