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Mussar Guidance for Yom Kippur

A special thank you to Gayle Zoffer for her excellent work in curating our Everyday Holiness curriculum materials.

I’ve been listening to a few different Elul/High Holy Day music playlists over the last few weeks, and Neshama Carlbach’s “Return Again” is a standard on many.

Return again, return again

Return to the land of your soul.

Return to who you are, return to what you are,

Return to where you are born and re-born again.

I’ve been asking myself a bit about the land of the soul and what it means to return there. Over the last few months, I’ve been working with the founder of Twin Cities Mussar, Julie Dean, to develop a set of resources based on the book Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. Morinis is one of the people responsible for the introduction and flourishing of the Jewish tradition of Mussar in the United States over the last 25 years.

Mussar is a spiritual movement that developed primarily in Lithuania in the second half of the nineteenth century in an Orthodox yeshiva context, and it is one of the strands of Jewish tradition that asks how we can live a holy life and reach our spiritual potential. Mussar offers a set of practices which can include the repetition of a daily phrase, journaling (cheshbon ha’nefesh), meditation, text study, practical actions (kabbalot), and study and conversation with a partner (chevruta). These practices are designed to make us more aware of our habitual behavior and make different, more holy choices when we encounter a similar situation in the future. Sound familiar? Maimonides on teshuvah perhaps?

Typically, people study Mussar in a community, called a Va’ad. Just as we have discussed why the viddui is in the plural, Mussar assumes that looking honestly at ourselves and working towards a holy life is easier to do with a group. The compassion, multiple perspectives, modeling, and accountability built into the va’ad and chevruta process offer us a supportive foundation to examine our personal soul curriculum and take meaningful action.

Mussar asks us to look at our actions from a place of hitlamdut, a non-judgmental awareness towards everything and everyone we encounter. All experiences and people are capable of teaching us something. Rather than having our missteps be the source of self-flagellation, it’s a chance to look with compassion (rachamim) at the places where we are not behaving in accordance with our values and work to change that step by step.

Back to the land of our soul. Morinis makes the point that we don’t “have” a soul, but rather that we “are” a soul. I’m still trying to get my head around the difference he is pointing to, but his description of three dimensions of the soul offered by Jewish sources has been interesting and helpful to me.

  1. Neshama–the inner dimension, which is inherently holy and pure. It reflects that we were created in the Divine image and that the soul cannot be tainted, even by misdeeds. As we say in the morning liturgy, “Elohai neshama shenatata bi, tehora hi.”

  2. Ruach–the aspect of the soul that is the source of animation and vigor, the “spirit of life.”

  3. Nefesh–the aspect most visible and accessible to us. Nefesh includes familiar human traits like anger and love, trust and worry, generosity and stinginess, pride and humility, responsibility and laziness, loving-kindness and judgment, etc. Each of these traits exists on a continuum. Some of us tend to live habitually on one side or another of the continuum, while what we are generally looking for is balance, being closer to the center of the continuum where we have more flexibility of action and choice. Each person has their own soul curriculum, the particular traits where a lack of balance gets us into trouble.

If we are serious about the High Holy Days and t’shuvah, there are a number of traits/middot that will assist us: Emet (truth), Hakarat HaTov (recognizing the good/gratitude), Achrayut (responsibility), and Nedivut (generosity). But the one I want to say a few words about is Anavah (humility). This is often the first middah that members of a Mussar group study because, in the words of Morinis, “It entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of who you are.” Without humility, you can drift to the arrogant end of the continuum and be unable to recognize what really needs some work. If you are at the other end of the continuum, you can be so self-critical and lacking in self-esteem that you might despair about your ability to make the changes that your self-examination calls for.

One Mussar definition of humility is taking up an appropriate amount of space, while leaving room for others. We can think about the space we take up in the physical, emotional, verbal, or even metaphorical realms. For some of us and in some situations, the right amount of space means stepping back and allowing others to take the lead; for others, the appropriate amount requires stepping forward to take up more space and make your voices heard. In the words of Morinis, “Being humble doesn’t mean being a nobody; it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.”

I see humility as an important part of this season’s work of teshuvah and tochecha (offering a loving rebuke). When asking for forgiveness, we need to give the other person space to articulate how we have hurt them and what repair should look like. In approaching those we have harmed, we need to do so from a place of balanced humility, without self-justification and without making it about us.

When we engage in tochecha, we are choosing to take space to articulate the ways in which another’s behavior has missed the mark, to speak from a place of knowing that we matter. The chances are greater that the other person will hear us if we come from a place of humility rather than an arrogant place, “I know what is right, you obviously don’t, and you harmed me.”

I think that Mussar offers a year-round opportunity for us to examine our behavior and do t’shuvah. If you are in Minnesota and want to learn more about Mussar, there are multiple va’ads starting this fall; and there are also national, online learning opportunities. May 5784 be a chance to learn from our individual soul curricula and move towards lives of greater holiness, kindness, and love.


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