Getting Mussar, Giving Mussar, Learning Mussar

There was a recent apppeal in Kew Gardens Hills to learn 10 minutes of Mussar every day for a number of weeks to help an ill person, so I suggested a daily 10 minute session to my son. He initial stated that nobody likes Mussar, but after learning for a few days he’s really enjoying it. What changed?

Few people like to get Mussar. Who wants to feel inadequate? It’s a basic human need to feel good about yourself. If we pick up the Mesillas Yesharim and hear it telling us how inadequate we are, any rational person would put it down. And if someone is ineffectively criticizing us, we’ll go to great lengths to eliminate or neutralize the source of pain.

Although we don’t like to get Mussar, we often seem to enjoy giving Mussar. Pointing out someone else’s inadequacies carries an implication that we’re better than that, so it makes us feel better. We overlook the discomfort and pain we’re causing the other person, and the usual lack of effectiveness, since after all we’re doing it for the sake of Heaven and for the person’s own good.

The best answer is to take a learning Mussar approach. The learning Mussar approach starts with the premise that we can always improve in every area. We take the long term view that we’re travelling on a long path and it’s a lifetime journey. Mussar is our guide, it shows us where we can reach, how we can get there, and the pitfalls along the way.

But most importantly the learning Mussar approach gives us an incredibly effective framework for growing with others. It’s no longer I’m right and you’re wrong, but rather let’s travel this long path of growth together. We both have a lifetime of work ahead of us so let’s help each other grow. By taking every life lesson learn to heart we transform our interactions from giving or getting Mussar, to working through every issue together.

Imagine how beautiful our community would look like if we switched from a giving/getting Mussar framework to a learning Mussar together ideal. What if our non observant friends and families really felt that we’re all traveling together on the path to becoming a better Jew. With a learning together attitude, the resolutions to conflicts, will present themselves. It’s really up to us, it’s in our hands to make this difference.

31 comments on “Getting Mussar, Giving Mussar, Learning Mussar

  1. I would like to offer an alternative to the above seforim as sources for Mussar that may seem radical to some readers but which IMO seems eminently logical and which was mentioned at a siyum recently by R B Simon, a RY in RIETS. . The Shem MiShmuel points out that Sefer Devraim is the first and quintessential Musar sefer because of its content and because Devarim which is called the Mishneh Torah serves as a bridge between The Torah Shebicsav and TSBP simply because it is Moshe Rabbeinu’s restatement of the Torah along with a few seemingly new mitvos here and there such as kiddushin, yivum and chalitza. ( For more on this issue, see Ramban at the beginning of Dvarim.)

    Many Rishonim see remazim to TSBP in the words of Dvrarim and note that whereas there is a Machlokes as to whether one can use the method of explication of a Passuk known as “Smuchim’ in Breishis thru Bamidbar, all agree that Smuchin can and is utilized throughout Dvarim. The Dubno Magid quotes the Gra to this effect. That being the case, one can argue very well that a careful review of Dvarim with the classical Mfarshim can also serve as a Sefer Mussar with respect to many fundamental Halachic and Hashlaafic concepts and Ikarie Emunah in addition to understanding Parshas HaShavuah.

  2. JT said, “In case you’ve forgotten I did do the Jewish school thing, sitting in way too many classes growing up. I don’t need to sign up for any more classes really in that area.”

    My point with respect to yourself was to use their key people as resources to find the kind of mentors you want, not to go to their existing classes.

  3. Dovid, it was a self deprecating kind of joke. I spelled hypocrisy wrong twice in my comment.

  4. Gosh, JT, I haven’t used the word hypocrisy in any of my postings…was your note intended for someone else? I really do enjoy reading your poetic prose (an cons), although I get lost amongst them sometimes. As far as your other suggestions, if I didn’t know the context of what we’re discussing, I might think that you’d prefer to attend an “intelectually-based” course called “Vulcan Mussar Techniques – Emotions are Illogical – by Rabbi I.M. Spock”. Seriously, though, I hear what you’re saying regarding the lack of classes that would meet your needs in NYC. I’d think that networking for a chavrusa might be a better plan to get things started…;)

  5. Bob Miller ,
    Neuroscience knowing, torah knowledge and ünadulterated quick brilliance are the prerequisite exquisite set of skills I was looking for in a lecturer emphasis on the NEUROSCIENCE. Why is that so rare a juxtapositioning for pious position spouting and pulpit preaching.

    And definitely not seminars on why religious women in tanach ànd even bright women today, are so special especially when earnestly modest , keeping shabbas and listening to the parsha and marrying Jewish men for baby breeding in eishas ISH like fashion. In case you’ve forgotten I did do the Jewish school thing, sitting in way too many classes growing up. I don’t need to sign up for any more classes really in that area.

    You do get a packet of zinnia seeds for your efforts though.

  6. “Bob Miller – name one neuroscience knowing mussar minded brilliant rabbi in NYC and you win a free season’s pass to my blog and a complimentary bottle of Absolut Peach or Pear”

    If he knows Torah and not neuroscience is that OK?

    Anyway, try making a contact here:
    They have some top people and offer frequent classes/events in Manhattan and elsewhere for Jewish women. If you describe what you’re after, someone there may have an idea of how to proceed.

    If this works, kosher organic pomegranate juice with an OU (my wife gets it at Trader Joe’s) will be a better treat than Absolut anything.

  7. Bob Miller – name one neuroscience knowing mussar minded brilliant rabbi in NYC and you win a free season’s pass to my blog and a complimentary bottle of Absolut Peach or Pear.

    Dovid, ummm the 3mmm approach to mussar mindfullness and mending, is sharing and or pretending its possible that you have similar personal concerns with regards to the thing ure mussaring about to others.
    Possible pre-flattery like “wow” wont cut it really ;-) .In this case instead of cliff notes for runaway metaphors mussaring, I would suggest you focus on “hypocrisy” spelled wrong twice and humbly suggest I should practice what I preach especially considering the meaning of the misspelled word !
    But since you asked for the cliff notes, who am I to ignore ;-) ……..
    Basically before I got carried away, I was opining in pining like english and unabashedly selfishly suggesting that what NYC is lacking is lots of lectures/lessons and seminars focusing soley on the combination special of Alei Shure and neuroscience. I think that could be a perfect juxtapositioning of juicy concepts.
    I also think it could be the start of a mutually benefical ,intellectually based/ emotionally moving mussar movement for those that would never consider the role emotions play in religious decisioning and other fun choices in the fascinatingly fantastic, facetious free and oh sooo fun ferris wheel of religious life .

  8. Well, your point is well taken, at least when dealing with other people. But we are supposed to judge others favorably, and ourselves harshly (in order to grow, of course, and not neurotically). I think the problem I’m getting at was summed up by a mistake early in your piece, “If we pick up the Mesillas Yesharim and hear it telling us how inadequate we are, any rational person would put it down.” In fact this would be a very EMOTIONAL response, and not rational at all. Rationally, we should want to evaluate whether it is TRUE that wee are lacking, and if so to see our faults clearly so that we can fix them and thus draw closer to Hashem. The fact that ‘giving mussar’ rarely has positive effects is a sociological point which you addressed quite effectively. Thanks.

  9. Wow, JT. Each time I read one of your poetic posts, I feel like I get a data overload. I do understand some of your points, though. I only wish I could get a Cliff Notes version of them.
    There are sources for learning that are not too dry-bone…you just need to keep searching for them. Like Bob suggests, maybe their are some smaller informal groups of people learning mussar and deeper subjects together.
    These aren’t advertised, so it’s sort of by word of mouth. If we made it this far…we can
    make it further…even though there doesn’t seem to be any sign of high quality Post BT GPS devices around…

  10. Some topics are too personalized or involved to be handled appropriately in a public lecture or seminar. A small group or one-on-one format for such instruction could work better under the right conditions. Some very qualified, approachable mussar-conscious rabbis can be found by interested individuals, especially in big cities.

  11. Part of the problem is that if your hungry for real meaning, the lecture menu around here in New York could best be compared to expensive watered down drinks at a cheapskate pub, with a few strands of fading pink lights pretending to be a popular chelsea nightclub.
    And the menu generally runs the smallminded gamut from bake your challah and eat it too how to’s , to program your own belief with our new and improved bible coding program ór the ever popular what should be bugging you about bugs and berries.

    Belief fixers and martini mixers. Drink and learn how shallow you are. And find your match in the process. No mind too small /no fee too large/ no segulah too outrageous.

    There are no hardcore lecture and learning groups open to the public that I know of. Forget about the yeshiva guys in their cozy beis medrash for a second, what about individuals in cubicles that went to the wrong jewish school and or no jewish school.( it happens to the best of us) and are looking for some organized flavored hard core jewish intellectualism.
    Not kosher cotton candy seminars,not shabbas cooking and or cults are cool classes ór light pirkei avos martinis and ór feel good skimming the parsha skim milk and sage advice with your saki.
    Maybe some Alei Shure or gemarah and neuroscience mixing could work nicely.

    Most of the lectures and seminars around here are either for individuals that have never been religious ór those that are religious but have no questions and just love being religious. And can sit through someone’s brilliant dissertation on the current parsha and its direct connection to animal sacrifices and how it relates to the intricate laws of hilchos shabbas.

    There are no ongoing really deep life lectures or classes for those that want to become better persons and know their stuff, but àre too distracted by all the contradictions. Blinded by hypocrisy on the road back. For some Its not easy ignoring stuff.

    Some make it their life objective to focus on the hypocricy and self reinforce why they could never be a part of that,and then market their mission statement to like minded individuals.
    Others ignore the contradictions and practice the art of deliberate denial marrying myopic viewpoints and breeding pollyana like ponderings and conclusions.
    And then proceed to knock those that keep tripping on those stumblings blocks of hypocricy and contradiction.

    And others just swing back forth like wind chimes on a windy day making random music and noise that annoy some and impress others.But never really finishing songs.

    If more emphasis and a concerted focus was directed towards deeper stuff then it would be so much easier to love everyone and forgive them for their shortcomings.

    And if stringent halacha wasnt drummed into little kids brains,so often they would grow up being more tolerant, less haughty and less prone to throwing stones at cars on shabbas and bleach immodesty away and yell at ladies seated in the men sections and or lecture older aunts and uncles that are not dressed the way their teacher commanded them to dress.


  12. Thank you, Mark. The Ramchal continues with the following statement, which I believe brings the matter into more clarity. So if mussar seems “so clear and so obvious to them that they see no need for investing much time in its study…”, surely the need for studying musar should NOT be glossed over by them…

    “For it is obvious that something which does not occupy a place in a person’s mind becomes of no concern to him. And although the beginnings and foundations of piety are inbred in the heart of every truthful person, if he does not utilize them he will lose the ability to discern their details, and he will pass over them without awareness.”

    I’ll have to pick up R’ Fertig’s sefer and gain some additional insights…

  13. The Ramchal talks about it in the Introduction.

    And there are also those who have entered the realm of the sacred and are studying the holy Torah; some occupying themselves with the theoretical aspects of the Halachah, others with Midrash, yet others with the practical formulation of legal decisions.

    However, there are few from this last group who choose to devote thought and study to the total perfection of the Divine service: to the love of the Eternal, the fear of the Eternal, the cleaving to the Eternal, and to all of the other aspects of piety. It is not as if they consider these aspects of knowledge unessential. For, if questioned, every one of them will maintain that these are of paramount importance, and that one cannot envision a truly wise person who has not comprehended all of these issues. Rather, their failure to devote more attention to the matter stems from its being so clear and so obvious to them that they see no need for investing much time in its study….

    But R’ Fertig’s sefer explains it in depth.

  14. Mark…Any idea where in Mesillas Yesharim this is covered? The Avi Fertig book looks great. Thanks for suggesting it.

  15. The Mesillas Yesharim talks about why those shteiging away on Gemara don’t learn Mussar.

    There is a fantastic new sefer called “Bridging the Gap” by Avi Fertig which goes in depth into the hows, whys and why nots of Mussar. Highly recommended.

  16. I live in one of the larger communities near NYC. It seems to me that it is a rare thing to see mussar texts being given much quality time in the beis medrash. This has always puzzled me. Seeing gemara and halacha being poured over for endless hours is certainly a fine way to use one’s time. I wish I could learn more myself. But I hardly ever see mussar texts being learned in public. Is there a reason for this? Is it considered to be too personal or even embarrassing to do so? For me, learning gemara and halocha is an ongoing challenge that sometimes leaves me a bit disheartened because I find it quite difficult. It has been the study of mussar, and even chassidus, that has kept my spirits strong during my entry into the frum world. Sometimes I get the vibes that many FFB shteiging away at their gemara have forgotten why they’re learning it in the first place. I sense that many of them rarily stop to smell the roses. Do I have my BT priority’s mixed up when I feel that in our generation, mussar is needed more than it has ever been? Outside values have slowly, but steadily, creeped into our communities and I think that we need to bolster our learning of mussar – even giving it equal time in the beis medrash.

  17. I agree that a visit can do a lot to shake off a stereotype, but practically speaking, is it reasonable to expect people to do this? If a person had a friend in the city, they would have a link for information about where to stay, etc, but they also would be less likely to have the stereotype. If they have no friend in the area, how do they get the information they would need to visit?

  18. The websites do not begin to cover some of the more interesting communities that have reservations about the internet.

  19. Bob Miller-I think that there are webistes that serve as a means of introducing communities to potential visitors, but IMO there is nothing better than a personal visit to shake off a stereotype.

  20. Steve, how about having Jewish communities make and exchange short movies about themselves? This at the very least would show their better sides that are often ignored by others.

  21. I agree that a shiur or vaadim in Alei Shur would be an excellent component of any curriculum anywhere. However, IMO, we need to do something more proactive to reduce urban myths and stereotypes beyoind hearing a great shiur or shmooze.

  22. Alei shure should be taught live more often,preferably in New York. With questions,second guessing and real answers give and take.

  23. Rabbi Keleman of Yerushalayim is leading several mussar chaburos for women both in E Yisroel and here in the States. It is as described, a group learning texts together and discussions to work on ridding oneself of particular bad middos. Although I was not able to join this year, the participants raved about it, said it changed their lives.

  24. Steve, The Chinuch lists Ahavas Yisrael as a Mitzvah in Parshas Kedoshim. Along with several others there about not having any negative emotions towards a Beni Yisroel.

    In terms of Mussar, I could be wrong, but I see very little of an active participation element about this. In my experience, most people don’t attach enough importance to it, but refer to it as a Rav ‘giving Mussar’.

    Even in classes on this topic, there is more of a tradtional text reading, commentary, etc.

    I think we could use more of a group dynamic thing, where a specific behavior(s) would be viewed much like alchohol is for Alchohlics Anonymous.

    People would go to this Shiur with the intention of improving or getting rid of a bad characteristic, indeed not doing a Torah Mitzvah.

    They would hopefully grow to an extent that they could share to the group that they stopped doing X behavior which they use to do towards Y.

    I don’t see this type of group in the mainstream Frum community, but I could be wrong.

  25. I would like to suggest the following notion that I think falls within the idea of Cheshbon HaNefesh that is a prominent feature of almost all of the classical Mussar works. You may have learned in Yeshiva X and have been told that Yeshiva Y is not a yeshiva,that its talmidim are not Bnei Torah and that is RY are not worthy of respect. You may even subscribe to all, part or some of this perspective. However, in the interest of ridding oneself of the midah raah of being choshed bksherim. I highly recommend it to anyone who realizes that they may have engaged in this practice. It is an eye opener and important means of showing one’s Ahavas Yisrael-even if you susbequently still are loyal to the yeshivah that has had the most impact on you.

  26. On the other hand, JF, a person has to start learning and improving when he is still under the influence of impure or vested interests. How else could anyone first find out about and then get involved in mussar?

  27. I think that this approach turns “giving mussar” into “sharing mussar”. In that way, we, hopefully avoid the superiority complex that might come with simply “giving” mussar. If I’m “sharing” mussar, I’m saying that I need it too.

  28. I think this is the reason learning Torah improves people.

    In order to learn, one must open ones mind. That’s how the truth seeps in, despite our (universal) natural defensiveness.

    It’s also the reason learning with impure or vested interests (i.e. in order to justify/rationalize a behavior) doesn’t work. If I come to learning with a closed mind, either my mind must open or I’ll fail.

  29. I’ve recently gotten the mussar bug. I’m learning תומר דבורה every day and I’m enjoying it immensely.

Comments are closed.