Pesach Class

I hope that this talk about Pesach is useful. Feedback is always welcome. Here’s a link to download.

Wishing each of you a Kosher and Joyous Pesach!

Posted in Mussar | 1 Comment

Chanukah and Taryton (We’d rather fight than switch)

There is now a link to a class that I recently presented on Chanukah. It is suitable for all levels and is entitled:“Chanukah and Taryton – We’d rather fight than switch”

You may download the (free) class by clicking on the Audio link on the side of the page.

Wishing one and all an en’light’ening Chanukah!

Posted in Mussar | 3 Comments

The Ingredients of Mussar: Critical Thinking, Self Help and Torah

`That’s a great deal to make one word mean,’ Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.’ 

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6

I have noticed over the years that the term Mussar is getting used more and more broadly.  It seems to have become much of what the authors want it to be, which is fine by me, I suppose, as long as they pay it extra.

What seems to pass as Mussar is anything Jewish-sounding which inspires me (or, more commonly, what I think will inspire you) to do or be more of what I think it is a good idea to do or be.

There are some ingredients missing from this definition, though.  I’m loathe to sound like Scrooge for pointing out the lapses in something that sounds as warm and fuzzy, nay, as ‘nice’ as the above definition of Mussar.  Nevertheless, I think that some clarification is in order.

Mussar lies at the nexus of critical thinking and self-help with Torah as the referee.  Here’s what that looks like:  First I must ask myself if the Torah source I am attempting to learn from really says what I think it says.  That requires all of the skills of critical thinking so that I am not quietly imposing my biases onto the Torah but rather allowing the Torah to teach me its message.  Most of what passes for Mussar unfortunately drops out right there.  It is just not compellingly drawn from the Torah source.  That’s not to say that it isn’t true.  If I testify that Abe stole from Sol on Wednesday, and it turns out that I was out of town on Wednesday, that does not mean that Abe did not steal from Sol.  It just means that I cannot be the one to say that he did.  So I am not saying that these well-intentioned thoughts might not have some basis in Torah.  They might, or they might not.  But a truism of Mussar is that we are only moved to change ourselves (which means finding out that our goals were not correct) when we are absolutely certain that the thing we are changing towards is, indeed, true.  The only folks who are impressed with something which is not solidly grounded in Torah are the folks who thought that whatever they are reading/thinking was true even without having read it in the Torah.  In which case they can be pleased to discover that they were right all along and can even demonstrate that to you if you are willing to buy.  Mussar is the tough process of finding out that I am wrong in my thinking, or at least in discovering that there is something here that I did not think of and would not have thought of had the Torah not taught it to me.  For that to happen, we need critical thinking, and lots of it. 

A difficulty arises because one of the key ingredients to critical thinking is fairness.  Here is an example taken from

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Now, the reason why critical thinking is such a rare commodity is because of that nasty last word, fairness.  We have to be able to transcend our biases in order to consider something honestly.  How are we to do that given that every one of us suffers from biases (here is not the place for the analysis of that statement, but let it suffice that Rav Yisrael Salanter is reported to have said that nobody is so influenced by his biases as the person who believes that he has none)?!  The answer is to have a standard or benchmark for what is true.  That’s where the Torah steps in.  Careful analysis of the Torah, to the point where the new insight I am learning from the source synthesizes with the rest of Torah, lends credibility to the new insight.  I now have a Mussar thought which can be relied on, studied, reviewed, challenged and struggled with until it is internalized.  It is now the Torah that is challenging an assumption of mine and that is not the same as one man, one vote.  If that does not sound democratic, that is what tends to happen when the Creator steps in and reveals His Will.  That’s why it is so dangerous when people challenge the Torah instead of learning from it.  In the end the intellectual honesty that they feel that they’ve gained (could G-d really have taken the Jews from Egypt and given them the Torah) they actually lost (now I’m back to believing what I always believed and I’m permanently enslaved by my biases because there is no standard to rescue me from them).

So, while critical thinking is good (and we must promote it whenever we can as the world is being held prisoner by those who fail to uphold its tenets) it will not produce Mussar, which requires being true enough to be useful in shaking my own beliefs.

If we are going to share ideas that seem to move us, that seems like a lovely conversation, and one surely worthy of praise.  But if it is not solidly grounded in the text (I can hear the groans and moans saying, ‘who has time to analyze rabbinic texts?’) and compatible with the rest of the text (a single statement which implies something contradicted in many other sources is suspect of being in error or of being misunderstood), then it will not shake me from my well entrenched beliefs (nor, I might say, should it).  Mussar is about shaking me, changing me, offering me the opportunity to rise above the noise of popular truths to attach myself to the attributes of the Creator.  If all I have is a good idea, then I may well be creating the Creator in my image, rather than aligning myself to His.

Next:  the other connection, self-help and Torah.

Posted in Mussar | Leave a comment

The Difference between Mussar and Self-Improvement

What is the difference between Mussar and other forms of personal growth?

I’ve been asked any number of times how Mussar differs from Covey, Pransky, Positive Psychology and a host of other self-improvement programs and concepts.  You may find yourself asking the same question and I’d like to save you the call.

Mussar, the Torah’s approach to personal growth has, at its most fundamental core, the call to utilize the entire physical world in the service of the transcendent, eternal world.  The Torah calls upon every human being (both Jews and Gentiles in different ways) to recognize this world as the place to activate G-d’s Will through the use of the physical world of things, feelings, thoughts and actions.  The Torah teaches us how to harness the material world in the service of transcendent connection to eternity.

By contrast, other forms of self-improvement are aimed at capitalizing on the transcendent aspect of a person in the service of the physical world.  Being calmer, meditating, looking beyond the moment, understanding values, prioritizing and so on are all seen as tools in the pursuit of a better physical existence, whether that means a better marriage, friendships, a job or even a vacation.  The point of self-improvement is to harness the transcendent world of a person in the service of his physical existence.

The difference is 180 degrees. 

There are those self-improvement programs (notably in Eastern Religions) that have placed such a value on transcendence that they put the physical world at the service of their push for transcendence.  If you push for the answer to why, the answer is because it’s a better way to live.  Again, transcendence in the service of the physical world is the message.

Torah is the G-d-given recipe for being closer to Him, eternally.  It is not about avoiding damnation nor is it about being redeemed from sin, though those are certainly included in the Torah recipe.  Mussar is the arm of Torah that focuses on the specifics of how a physical, created, conflicted human being can transcend and utilize the limitations which are imposed by his base-physicality to become G-dlike, G-d-emulating and ever more closely attached to the pleasure of proximity to Him.  The person doesn’t need to be redeemed; he needs to be activated.

Without the revelation of His Will on Mt Sinai all of the other self-improvement programs run just fine.  With no directive from G-d there is nothing to do but try to improve your life here. With the revelation at Sinai the only program is Mussar.  Everything else is abusing (sorry for the extreme term) spirituality in order to achieve a more blissful life in this world.  Torah is about utilizing (indeed, abusing, from the perspective of one who is trying to achieve a blissful world here) this world in the service of His Will.

We are striving to become better and better servants of Hashem, using only this life and this world to do so, while self-improvement is about using all of the transcendence latent in a person to make our lives in this world better and better.

I cannot be a scrooge and say that I’m unhappy with the programs which help people have better marriages, more successful jobs, be happier, have less depression, etc.  I’m not a scrooge and my service to and relationship with G-d includes my celebration of everything and anything which lightens the load of another person, Jew or Gentile.  So I am happy when I hear that people go off to retreats and come back calmer, have a better marriage or get/keep a life-sustaining job.  That’s great news.  Period.

What all that does is give us more material to transform into service of Hashem.  Don’t stop when your life is better; that’s not the goal; it’s a tool and its value is measured in terms of how it is used.  Use your good marriage to emulate Hashem and His kindness.  Use the peace of mind your improved job security affords to focus with more clarity on your Torah study, your performance of Mitzvos, on your freedom to live with honesty and integrity according to the Torah’s definitions of those terms, your ability to stay focused and undistracted by the myriad attempts of mischief to distract you.  If you’re exercising regularly�then you have more stamina to serve Hashem.� If you are eating well then your body is less sluggish, less demanding and now you are freer to put your body to work in the Divine Misssion.  Mussar is about the process of doing that.

Self-improvement may be included in the long list of tools to put to the service of the Divine Mission.� However, failure to put them in their proper perspective runs the risk of leaving the person feeling like he/she has activated his/her transcendence without connecting Soul to Source.� That is a terrible tragedy.� I see it daily with people who get involved in Kabala, pseudo-mussar, and a host of other attempts to drain the wellspring of transcendence in each of us so that the Soul is fooled into serving the Body and fails to connect to the Source.� I almost wish the person had remained in his/her hedonistic rut until ready to wake up to Sinai instead of having the Soul-craving slaked at a mirage fountain.

If I’ve not hammered it home enough here, please ask.  From where I’m sitting, I’ve repeated myself more times in this article than I have in virtually any piece I’ve allowed to go past my screen.

I hope I’ve saved you a call.

Posted in Introduction | 3 Comments

A Chanukah Gift

Permit me to share with you my paraphrase of a Chanukah thought expressed best by the legendary Mirer Rosh Yeshiva (Dean of the Mir Torah Academy, transplanted from Lithuania to Jerusalem and NY) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1978) in his collection of discourses entitled Sichos Mussar.

The Jewish People were physical endangered during the Second Temple period, but more prominently they faced spiritual annihilation at the hands of the Assyrian Greeks and their assimilated Jewish accomplices.  In a miraculous turnaround the Macabees, giants of the spirit but hardly bearing great military prowess, were granted a stunning victory over the Greek armies and the Jews were spared the impending spiritual doom.  In conjunction with that victory the Temple was rededicated from its defilement at the hands of our mortal spiritual enemies and a flask of uncontaminated oil was found which sufficed, again miraculously, to kindle the candelabrum (Menorah) in the Temple for eight days.

Given the magnitude of the existential threat to the Jewish People it is therefore surprising that the smaller and seemingly incidental miracle of the oil became the halachically required manner for marking the events of Chanukah.  Surely the miraculous victory of the Macabees warrants far greater attention than the miraculous flask of oil.

We might even intensify the question by pointing out that due to a technicality in Jewish law we did not actually need the ritually pure oil that was found and lasted.  When everything in the Temple is impure, then the standard for ritual purity is lowered and that would have been the case in the defiled Temple.  We desperately needed the miracle of the Macabean victory and we hardly needed the miracle of the flask at all.  Again, why is the smaller miracle central to Chanukah?

The answer can be best understood by imagining a family in which an heirloom gem had been passed through the generations.  The priceless gem was misplaced; somehow it got lost.  Obviously the family went into a state of emergency and the search commenced.  After great efforts a young child in the family came upon the gem.  When presenting it to his father he was rewarded with a kiss on his head from his father.  Now this child celebrated the finding of the stone together with the rest his family, but he had something else; he had a kiss from his father.

A gift expresses additional intimacy when it is over and above one’s essential needs.  Indeed, once one’s basic needs are met it is fair to say the following formula: The less a gift is needed the more intimacy it carries.  We needed the salvation of the Macabean victory; we did not need the flask.  That was a pure kiss.  The intimacy that we enjoy with our Creator and Master was manifest in that small flask and it is that intimacy that colors the celebration of Chanukah.

I hope that you’ll pause to consider and experience the warmth and intimacy with the A-lmighty to be found in those little candles as you light and view them.

Posted in Mussar | Comments Off on A Chanukah Gift

Home Runs and Torah Do Not Meet

My apologies to those who are not familiar with baseball; hopefully the message will be clear even to those who do not share that childhood experience with me.

Legend has it (I’ve not seen it confirmed anywhere) that baseball great Ty Cobb once commented that Babe Ruth (the home run king of his time) didn’t play real baseball.  That is, by hitting the ball out of the park he was missing the point of baseball; the careful placing of hits so as to move the players forward.

When I heard the above I wondered why it is that a ball hit out of the park is considered a home run.  After all, hitting the ball out of the playing area to the right or left is considered a foul ball, while hitting it past the outfield fence is a home run.  Strange.  I cannot imagine the same thing in another sport.  Imagine throwing the football into the stands past the end zone and having that be called a touchdown?  Hitting the ball hundreds of feet past the hole and getting a low score in golf?  Slamming the ball past one’s opponent in tennis without hitting the court and getting a point for it?  It really is a rather strange rule; a fluke of baseball.

Upon reflection though, I realized that there is a great depth to this fluke and one which bears a great deal of analysis.  Man was created to toil (Job/Iyov 5:7).  That means that the ‘game’ of life involves steady and persistent effort to perform Mitzvos; to study Torah; to perfect one’s character; to earn a livelihood (Avos 2:2).  In a word, there is no substitute for Ameilus (toil) in the pursuit of a Torah life.  That’s the name of the game.  We are even taught that the severe reprimand/warning (the Tochacha) written in the Torah is essentially hinged on whether or not we toil in our service of G-d (those wishing to see for themselves should see Rashi on Vayikra 26:3 and 26:14).

This does not imply that such toil is meant to be depressive.  Quite to the contrary; if someone does not toil with joy then they have missed the plot.  But clearly we are speaking about toil.  And toil is one well-placed hit after another.  Toil is not home runs.

Yet we are living, it seems, in the home run era.  I have met with many people who are trying to find a way to become a millionaire.  They are not looking to take small steps; they are looking for the big win.  When setting forth their service of G-d I have seen many people take on all sorts of commitments that they cannot uphold in their efforts to score the big win in their divine service.  I meet with students of Torah who are relying on their genius and not on their diligence and I see yet another home run desperado.  I certainly don’t know how to turn this around, but I know that without turning it around in an individual’s life there will not be genuine growth.

Home runs are a fluke of baseball; but they have become a fluke of modern times.  There are few signs of laziness as clear as the passion for a home run.  Careful, thoughtful play-by-play is the name of the game called life.  A paradigm shift is clearly required if we are to be happy with our lives.  Erasing the passion for the ‘big win’ must be accompanied by a joyful acceptance of the terms of our lives and a celebration of every moment that we are blessed to be in the game.

Posted in Mussar | 1 Comment