You might be questioning whether it’s appropriate to use the words “Joy” and “Mussar” in the same sentence. Mussar has a strong judgemental tone. When you give somebody Mussar, you’re not telling him to “Have a nice day”. Rather, you’re telling him that “You need to make some serious corrections, brother.”
If we look at the Mesillas Yesharim, the classic textbook on spiritual growth and Mussar, we’ll see that the perceived judgemental tone of Mussar is well founded. The early chapters deal with the trait of Zehirus, watchfulness. The first essential spiritual practice of Zehirus is thinking before you act so that you don’t come to do something wrong. The second essential spiritual practice is reviewing your daily actions to identify and work on correcting in the future, the things you did wrong today. This type of self-judgment sounds intense and it may turn a person away from Mussar, but please read on.
The key is to put this self-judgement in its proper perspective, as the Mesillas Yesharim does in the first two chapters of the sefer. He tells us that the highest pleasure that can be achieved in this world (and the next) is the pleasure of connecting to Hashem. We know that positive emotional and spirtual pleasures are the result of love and connection, as we experience in the pleasure of loving our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends. We can experience an even greater pleasure when we love and connect with the Master of the Universe and the Source of All Existence. Achieving this great spiritual pleasure takes work. However, when we do put in the proper effort and achieve success, the fact that we worked hard to earn that pleasure makes it even sweeter.
The Ramchal teaches us that this work involves overcoming these deficiencies:
1) controlling and directing our physical desires;
2) reducing self-centeredness and ego;
3) overcoming our natural inclination towards laziness;
4) getting past the distractions of day to day living to focus on serving Hashem;
Corresponding to the extent that we overcome these deficiencies is the extent to which we can experience the greatest of pleasures—connecting to Hashem. We correct these deficiencies through the positive and negative mitzvos. And just like a businessman must judge his activities to achieve his goals, so too must we judge our activities to see why we are not achieving the intense spiritual pleasure available to us.
This is the Joy of Mussar. We have the ability to achieve intense connection and pleasure and Mussar helps us to keep moving on that path. We know from our professional, friendship-building, parental, and spousal experiences that achieving success in the most important things in life takes work. How fortunate are we to have an avenue like Mussar, and a sefer like the Mesillas Yesharim to instruct us on what we need to do to help us achieve the greatest pleasures and happiness available in this world.
Here is a link to hebrew and english versions of Mesillas Yesharim.
Updated from the originally published post of June 2018