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Mussar Made Easy

by Hal Dresner

Here’s a quick quiz I flunked. According to the great Twentieth Century

Talmudist, the Chazon Ish, what is the greatest sin? If you’re like me, you probably debated between Violence, Indifference, Gossip, Laziness, Miserliness, Disloyalty and Buying Retail. The answer is Worry.

Why? Because it’s impossible to worry and have trust in God—and the biggest sin is not to trust Hashem. Worrying, you see, is the fear that things will not turn out as we want them to. Developing trust allows us to believe that things will turn out exactly as they should and is, therefore, a powerful antidote

to worry.

Surprised? I bet you thought losing sleep over things like family, health, Israel, the Presidential election and Rabbi David’s salary were indications of adult responsibility. Sorry.

These and other surprising insights can be found in Alan Morinis’ challenging book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. A secular Jew with extensive experience in other spiritual disciplines, Morinis encountered a rough patch in his professional life and began to examine Mussar—which loosely translates as Ethics—a guide to transformative practices that has developed in the Orthodox tradition over the last thousand years.

Okay, I hear you thinking: This is an ancient revered Talmudic practice and you, who is not even Orthodox, is going to explain it to me in a few hundred words?

No, I, who am not even Orthodox, is going to explain it to myself in the most simplistic fashion, and you’re free to listen in.

Alright, you’re probably thinking, I feel a little better. But, as a Jew, I’m charged to “repair the world”. Yet, according to you, Mussar says I shouldn’t do anything about all the terrible things that are happening?

No, according to me, Mussar encourages social action. While admitting we can’t reform the world if we’re not perfect, it says that we can’t become perfect if we don’t stand up for the wronged.

Okay, so now what’s runnng through your mind is:

Isn’t that a contradiction in terms—like believing that things are pre-determined and also believing we have free will?

Yes and no. Mussar says our job is to let the radiant holiness of each individual soul shine through its often cloudy character. In short, we should be concerned with our own perfectability and leave the rest to Hashem.

Yet this practice also elevates our smal everyday activities into mitzvot. Simple chores like sewing on a button, mending a hole in a sock or repairing a broken clock are considered “tikkun”. Another reality check is to take a serious inventory of our actions and emotions and, instead of chastising ourselves for our failures, begin acting as if we already possessed the virtues to which we aspire.

Of course, for some of us, even after variuos forms of improvement, self-delusion remains a definite option. One anecdote—with which I painfully identify—is about Rabbi Rafael of Barshad who said “When I go to Heaven, they’ll ask me, why didn’t you learn more Torah? And I’ll tell them that I’m slow-witted. Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you do more kindnesses for others? And I’ll tell them that I’m physically weak. Then they’ll ask me why didn’t you give more to charity? And I’ll tell them that I didn’t have enough money. But then they’ll ask me: if you were so stupid, weak and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that I won’t have an answer.”

Well, my hope is that we will all have enough tme to come up with suitable response. Until then, it might help to recall the words of that old Mussar master, Bobby McFerrin, who advised us: “Don’t worry. Be Happy.”