What Is Mussar?

Pop Chassid Note: Ruchi Koval, one of my favorite bloggers over at Out of the Orthobox, has graciously agreed to do a guest blog here.  

It’s so many things.

Let it go.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I want to understand infinity.

No one has the power to control you.

There’s a message here just for me.

I’m not limited or constrained by my personality.

I have something to learn from everyone.

I can swim against the current.

My potential is limitless.

Jealousy, addictive desire, and quest for glory make life unlivable.

All of these arise from mussar.

So what is it?

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It’s so many things.

It’s the belief that each one of us possesses a holy soul that has a unique mission to fulfill on this earth.

It’s the philosophy that our primary path to becoming spiritual beings is the process of refining our character traits.

It’s studying, in depth, the inner workings of envy, greed, stinginess, kindness, ego, generosity, fake flattery, laziness, modesty, joy and serenity.

It’s identifying where our work lies, in perfecting ourselves, whenever we are in an altercation with another.

It’s the serenity and inner joy that comes from accepting responsibility for our own reactions, perceptions, and relationships.

It’s the sense of relief when associating with others that buy into that responsibility too.

It’s the desire to understand our relationships, not just with other people, but with God; to study the workings of His world and orchestrations.

To be honest, I firmly believe that any relationship that is not employing mussar techniques (whether the parties involved are aware of them or not) will survive only by dint of a miracle.

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So what is it?

Mussar was, and continues to be, a movement. No discussion of mussar can pass without a reference to the Rabbi who made it famous: Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. He was a brilliant man, an incredibly charismatic man, but, so much more importantly, a mussar man. His character traits were paramount. He was a spiritually developed human being. And really, no Torah leader can be taken seriously unless he or she falls in that category as well.

Any biography of a Torah role model will include testaments to his or her kindness, love for all beings, humility and self-effacement, extreme generosity, honesty, faith amid adversity. Some are also brilliant; some might have photographic memories; some might be incredibly charismatic – but the common factor always remains character traits.

The mussar movement continues. About five years ago, my husband was teaching a 3-part marriage workshop, and mentioned the concept of needing “mussar” in a marriage. My friend came over to me after the session and said, “What’s that – mussar thing? Is that something we’re already learning?” So, she and I, and a few friends who joined in, began a formal, bi-weekly study of mussar. More and more women wanted to join, so we formed more groups. To date, I teach four bi-weekly mussar groups to women and my husband teaches one to men, comprising around 80 people in all.

It’s a movement. And it’s changing people’s lives.

I invite you to try it out. Find someone who has studied the mussar works such as “The Ways of the Tzaddikim” or “Ethics of the Fathers.” You can cull mussar lessons from the weekly Torah portion. You can even read about secular Jews who stumble across its study.

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So what is mussar?

Ultimately, I believe mussar is this: a window, that you have to climb and seek to find and get through, to serenity, inner joy, and incredible purpose. Try it.