Shavuot: How Mussar makes us mensches

Shavuot: How Mussar makes us mensches

Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel, Conservative

The holiday of Shavuot has many fascinating associations for the Jewish people, including celebrating the agricultural harvest and receiving the Torah. Some communities celebrate Shavuot with the beautiful practice of staying up all night learning Torah. I want to share some thoughts about a Jewish practice that gives us a roadmap to strive to attain the proper balance of humility within ourselves, and the subsequent practical benefits this practice can have on our everyday lives.

Imagine peering into the deepest of the depths of outer space to discover and see a black hole, something never seen before. Some experts probably opined it was not possible. Earlier this spring, scientists accomplished this magnificent feat when they captured a picture of a black hole within the galaxy known as Messier 87 (no relation to Mark Messier 11 for those Ranger hockey fans out there), located 55 million light-years away from Earth. It was possible. A network of eight telescopes across our planet assembled the first image of a black hole. We are fortunate that we have access to such telescopes that made viewing the first black hole a reality.

Now imagine accessing a telescope to aid us in peering into the deepest of the depths of something right here on earth — ourselves. Our Jewish tradition has long known about such a telescope — called Mussar character development — and the Mussar va’ad or group to help us cultivate a Mussar practice is making a revival in many Jewish communities.

The goal of Mussar is to provide us with practical tools to help us do the work of looking within ourselves, helping us to learn more about ourselves and how we relate to others, one character trait at a time.

Proverbs 1:8 defines Mussar as “instruction,” when it states “[m]y son, hear the Mussar [instruction] of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother. It is fascinating to note that in this sentence in Proverbs, the words “Mussar” and “Torah” are both being used linguistically as synonyms to express the same concept of “instruction.” In other words, just as our Torah is an instruction book for how to lead a Jewish life, so too is Mussar.

I teach Mussar character development and hockey at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires (inspired by one of my mentors, Spencer Rockman, who teaches Mussar and soccer with NJ Rovers Soccer) and have found that campers appreciate experiencing the practical benefits of working on the various middot or character traits, not as an abstract teaching, but rather within the actual context of the hockey game. The campers experience the tangible benefits of how the practice improves teamwork and affects the game. For example, we worked on the middah or character trait of “anavah” or “humility,” and experienced how teammates in game situations strive to find the right balance of humility in terms of deciding when to take a shot on goal yourself and when to pass to a teammate. Balance is the key. Neither extreme is usually beneficial, meaning that it usually does not benefit the team for a player to always shoot or to always pass, but rather to work on humility by finding the correct balance and practice it within the parameters of the hockey game. The top three career National Hockey League (NHL) leaders in assists, Wayne Gretsky (1,963), Ron Francis (1,249) and Mark Messier (1,193) were iconic players because they found a balance between shooting and passing.

Humility has been identified as the gateway to all other character traits. Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, lived in Al-Andalus in the 11th century (modern day Spain) and explained in his classic work Duties of the Heart that all character virtues or traits are dependent upon humility and how humility is at the core of teshuva or repentance. He describes one method of acquiring humility by explaining how human beings leave behind all possessions at death, including a visualization of imagining one’s face in the grave “without its radiance and his complexion darkened, how he will become wormy, decayed, and putrid, the marks of his physical beauty gone, his corpse emitting an increasingly foul odor. . . when these and similar thoughts enter his mind, he will feel humbled and bowed. He will not become proud or arrogant, haughty or self-important.” See Duties of the Heart, The Gate of Humility Chapter 5:3.

About 700 years after Bachya ibn Paquda, Ben Franklin (1706-1790), identified 12 virtues or character traits as part of an ethical code, which held both individual improvement and contributing to the greater good of society as goals. Franklin added a 13th virtue of humility to his 12 character traits when one Quaker friend helped him realize he was too proud. It is recounted in J.A. Walwik’s book Rewarding Virtue (Hamilton Books, N.Y. 2008) that Franklin’s excessive pride came across as overbearing and insolent in conversations.

Franklin embarked on his own Mussar practice, albeit with a different name, to work on the proper balance of humility, by striving to avoid the use of the words “certainly” and “undoubtedly” in conversations, and substitute them with words like “I conceive,” “I apprehend,” “I imagine,” or “it appears to me.” Furthermore, when someone asserted something Franklin thought was error, Franklin would strive to “deny himself the pleasure” of contradicting the person abruptly, and instead be more gentle in his response to the other. Franklin admitted that pride was difficult to subdue.

I have found that the fleeting moment of gratification and feeling the sheer power of expressing the comment containing too much ego, is oftentimes followed by extended, sustained periods of sadness, remorse, and regret.

Let’s pray together that this Shavuot and beyond we venture to access this powerful telescope of Mussar character development, to help us peer into our own depths, to help us become more aware, and to help us attain our proper balance of humility. Hopefully our Mussar practice will provide us with practical insights to facilitate attaining our own inner sense of peace and improve our relationships with others, by giving us a practical roadmap and tools to strive every day to be the best mensches we can be.

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