Introduction to Mussar – the Real, the Ideal and the Process

               Mussar is the term for describing the lifelong endeavor to make a human being ever more Godlike.  In order to facilitate that endeavor, Mussar employs many tools.  The first tool is accurate description of the human being; his strengths and his frailties.  Without such an understanding of the self, all growth is merely a fantasy or a wish.  Mussar is, if it is anything, real and always starts from absolute, hardboiled reality.

                As such, the first part of Mussar is the ‘real.’  To bring the real to light might involve studying how the Torah describes people, especially great people, whose flaws appear under the electron microscope of the Torah; the study of whom can help us understand the secrets of our own hearts.  In this capacity, we are said to be studying Mussar when we delve into the descriptions of the human condition as they appear in the blueprint for the world, the Torah.  The point of such study is to help us locate ourselves in reality; to know the strengths that we can draw upon and to identify the challenges we were created to overcome.

                The next role of Mussar is to cull from the Torah what the human being is meant to look like – the ideal.  For the ideal we don’t look at human beings but rather at the attributes of HaShem (G-d).  While we may use human role models to help us in our efforts towards the ideal, we still always recognize the ideal as nested in the attributes of HaShem.  Each person who studies Mussar, then, is meant to plot his position (his ‘real’) relative to the ideal.  So far, all the person has are two descriptive points; the real and the ideal.

                Rounding out the picture is the aspect of Mussar which places its focus on the ‘process.’  Here we are not studying Mussar in order to describe; but rather to prescribe.  Mussar in the earlier senses is static.  The real and the ideal are facts.  In this sense Mussar is dynamic insofar as it addresses the process of change; of moving (often inching) along the path from the real towards the ideal.  There could be many strategies employed here, some that have already been suggested by the masters of the Mussar process and some that are waiting to be discovered by you and I as we struggle to make our way from the real towards the ideal.

                Each of these steps are necessary for real growth to happen.  Without a clarity regarding who I am and what my strengths and challenges are (both within me and around me) I could live a life of self-deception.  Without a clarity regarding the attributes of HaShem to which I strive I could be placing great effort in chasing a useless goal of supposed self-improvement.  And without a process I leave myself living a life of fantasy.  Here I am wishing that I were more like the ideal; bemoaning the fact that I am stuck in the real; and going through life remaining right where I am.

                I hope that this ‘top view’ of Mussar is useful.  I will leave it permanently on its own page (and perhaps add to it from time to time) so that we can each refer back to it to keep our ‘eyes on the ball’ and for those who are new to the story of Mussar to gain access to this central story of Jewish life.

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15 Responses to Introduction to Mussar – the Real, the Ideal and the Process

  1. Aaron Lerch says:

    Dear Rabbi Becker,
    whilst you have clarified what mussar is supposed to be doing, I still have some difficulty understanding how it works out practically. Take for example a person that is experiencing difficulties getting up in the morning to daven with a minjan. He spends some time thinking about it, being that he would like to change and is well aware of his obligations. But he finds it impossible to work out why he is finding it so hard to get up. He wonders if he is plain lazy, lacks fear of heaven, or doesn’t realize the importance of prayer sufficiently. So he decides to use mussar in order to help him with his ordeal. But how will mussar help him with the ‘real’, clarifying what his situation is + the real reason for his problem? How will mussar clarify his ideal, when he is already aware of his obligation? And even more, how will mussar help him find ‘tachbulot’/ techniques to assist him specifically in the process of getting to the ideal? Perhaps using an example will clarify this issue better.
    Thank you and kol tuv,
    Aaron Lerch

  2. Micha Berger says:


    Those in the Mussar movement developed tools for each of these steps. Traditionally, someone who wants to get a clearer idea of where he really stands would keep a cheshbon hanefesh.

    Once he identifies the constellation of middos that could use work, and which middah is both key to change and yet not trying to bite off more than can be chewed, one can study Mussar texts to see what the idea is for that mddah. But not study the way one studies Talmud, halakhah or Tana”kh. Rather, studied with a passion, so that the study makes emotional impact, with an eye toward understanding the nature of the gap in one’s own life. Learning behispa’alus. This in itself is too large of a topic for a comment on someone else’s blog.

    Then there are tools for closing that gap. Qabbalos, incremental steps one accepts upon oneself toward the ideal. Forming a va’ad, others pursuing resolution of similar problems who will study and work together. Hisbonenus, visualizing the ideal so that one can both strategize before the situation really hits, and so that one can have attitude changing experiences. Etc…

    By Rabbi Becker’s definition, though, these tools do not define Mussar. The approach to life does. The tools are simply what others who took that approach found, that worked. The Mussarists did not limit themselves to seeking within the mesorah (Jewish tradition) for answers; as examples, ideas from Benjamin Franklin and Dale Carnegie were consciously borrowed.

  3. E.D.Becker says:

    I am very grateful that my friend and colleague Rav Micha Berger ( has graciously given of his precious time and considerable writing talents (see his site for many more examples) to contribute here in response to Aaron’s question! You could not possibly overstay your welcome here.

    Aaron, I would add that the struggle towards the ideal requires regularly asking the basic questions: (1) Am I working towards becoming a perfect me, or am I working towards better service of HaShem? When our heads are completely filled with ourselves then our service, no matter how desperate and urgent, degenerates into self-service; (2) Have I paused long enough to feel/discover/know the real urgencies of my life; what really excites me; what gets me going. The Yetzer hijacks our urgency (we get more excited about playing with the latest PDA than about getting up and putting on Tefillin) and leaves us struggling with trying to uphold rules that do not move us – only the guilt remains.
    I’m writing this note in the hopes that someone will nudge me to expand on it (or let me know that it needs no expansion and I’ll leave it be).

  4. Michal Segelman says:

    Rabbi Becker, thank you for this fascinating website. mussar/psychology is definitely something that “really excites” me and I was thrilled to find this blog.

    As no one else has nudged you yet, I’d like to ask what you meant by “the Yetzer hijacks our urgency” (although I can definitely relate to “only the guilt remains”) — please elaborate, I’d love to hear more.

  5. E.D.Becker says:

    Simply put, the Yetzer operates with the ancient principle that nature abhors a vacuum. A person’s mind is going to be filled with something that excites him (be that a positive, productive endeavor or a negative self-destructive one) or, when there is fear of the ‘excitement’ (as when a person is afraid to confront him or herself) then there is numbness. The Yetzer is always alert for such emptyness and offers the person here-and-now excitement in an attempt to distract the person from here-and-now growth and closeness to HaShem. In that sense the Yetzer hijacks our urgency. That is one of the reasons that it is so important to visit and revisit our urgencies and why the masters of Mussar advocated avoiding unnecessary urgency or excitement. Urgency and excitement are precious commodities, to be used with caution and purpose.

    Thanks for your encouragement. I have a feeling that there is more to say about this subject and I look forward to your questions to draw that ‘more’ out.

  6. Micha Berger says:

    Rabbi Becker’s thoughts spawned a train of thought of my own, which I put up on my blog (“Aspaqlaria”) at .


  7. Michal Segelman says:

    I know this article and subsequent comments are about mussar, but I’m wondering if and how these concepts translate over to psychology. From the mental-health perspective, any inner purpose (or “urgency”) will give shape to my life, take some of the intensity away from anything not relating to my inner purpose, and help me avoid self-destructive behaviors (unless my “inner purpose” is inherently self-destructive). Do you agree? Obviously I try my best to be an oveid Hashem, but I’m just wondering if you would say that anyone who is not an oveid Hashem can not really feel fulfilled and emotionally healthy.

    I’m also still not 100% sure what you meant by, “When our heads are completely filled with ourselves then our service, no matter how desperate and urgent, degenerates into self-service.” Let’s say I want to work on my temper. Let’s also say that my goal in working on my temper is to make it easier to get along with the people around me. Finally, I am succeeding in becoming more even-tempered, but the people around me do not acknowledge it or become more even-tempered in response. I think you’re implying that I’m likely to become frustrated and possibly drop the whole project if my underlying motivation is not fulfilled, and the only underlying motivation that is guaranteed to be fulfilled is that I’ll be closer to emulating Hashem.

  8. Micha Berger says:

    Since Rabbi Becker seems not to be around, I hope Michal will put up with my attempt to answer. (If not, skip to the next comment. )

    I think that the distinction I tried to make in that blog entry I referenced above between urgency and importance would help. Your being a shifchas Hashem (which is my best attempt to translate “eved Hashem” to the feminine) is an important goal. It may also at times be an urgent goal — you may need to do some avodah now, or the opportunity will be lost. Mitzvah haba leyadekha al tachmitzenah — a mitzvah which comes within your reach, do not allow it to grow old. (A rabbinic word play from a pun on not letting matzah become chameitz.)

    But one can’t let urgency override importance. Because the call of the world is through our more mammalian, action-response, immediate gratification side, we can often find the world’s temptations the more urgent. And thus we place that next cupcake (sorry, I’m on a diet) ahead of the truly important.

    Ever since Eve and Adam took their bite of that fruit, every decision people make comes from a mixture of motives. Perhaps we can even call it the “tree of knowledge of good-and-evil” as opposed to distinct concepts of good and of evil. Perhaps not. But some of those motives will be good, and some not so good. For example, a certain amount of a person’s desire to give charity is to do the right thing, a certain amount may be to be known as being generous, or to out-do some neighbor, or some other ulterior motive. In mussar-speak we call those the “personal negius”. The ulterior motive is always there; the best we can do is keep them down in intensity.

    So, I took Rabbi Becker to mean that the more we are full of ourselves, the more our actions are for these baser motives rather than following our higher calling.

    As for your parenthetic “unless my ‘inner purpose’ is inherently self-destructive”, this issue wouldn’t come up in mussar. Mussar isn’t about someone defining their own inner purpose, but about pursuing the one Hashem gave to us in the Torah. In terms of the post that spawned this discussion, psychology doesn’t presume to tell you the ideal. Rather, a person defines their own. “Health” is measured by a person’s ability to function, with no regard to defining what a person is supposed to be functioning as.

    Mussar includes the means to match the map, my own mental image of who I’m supposed to be, with what Hashem tells us of the terrain. And the “terrain”, our true function, isn’t to self-destruct.

    Personally, I think someone can miss the differences between their map and the terrain, or manage to purposefully not see them. And such a person could gain a decent degree of emotional health, in that they could function well at their chosen function. But that’s different than being holy.


  9. E.D.Becker says:

    I’m grateful, as ever, to Rav Micha Berger for adding his thoughts in my absence!

    Bear in mind that our nature is to be filled with the agenda of none but my own; to pursue the welfare of none but my self; to consume and subsume all of reality into the needs of the self. We also have the capacity to make genuine room for others; to rise above narrow self-interest and to transcend that which buries us in self-need. In esoteric terms, we are given the opportunity and challenge to emulate G-d, whose Divine Nature is to fill everything (‘maleh kol ha’aretz kevodo) and who ‘makes room’ for each of us at every moment (kabalistic concept of ‘Tzimtzum’). Our capacity to ‘make room’ for other and for the Divine mission is, itself, the spark of divinity in each of us. The more we exercise that capacity, the more divine or holy we become. Consistent with the nature of the human challenge is the fact that we can become preoccupied with self-perfection (or perfecting the world) without actually caring at all about anyone or anything outside of the self and my definition of a good world. I can pursue perfection without recourse to a Divine mission; I just want to be as perfect as G-d is. If we can even lose focus during our striving for perfection, just imagine what we are capable of doing when we are striving for some temporal goal or pleasure. The Torah is the blueprint for perfecting the world on G-d’s terms thus transcending my own narrow self-interest even when perfecting myself and my world. All the moreso is the Torah vital when attempting to address my temporal needs and desires. It used to be easier to serve G-d on Yom Kippur when fasting and abstaining from pleasure than on Purim when rejoicing and indulging. Lately I’ve observed that both are rather easily hijacked by our self-absorbed nature. Mussar is the process of steering all of our energies on the road towards emulating G-d.

    Perhaps this should grow up into a separate posting? One of these days I’m going to figure out how to organize a blog. Any suggestions will be gratefully accepted!!


  10. Micha Berger says:

    Rabbi JB Soloveitchik gave a lecture (Boston, after Shabbos Feb 3 1979) an essay linking the concept of Tzimtzum with the burning bush (the fire, which originally seemed to be a “bush burning in fire” is seen on second glance as only “a fire within the bush” and with Moshe’s being more modest than any other person. Anavah, modesty, is described as an imitation of Divine Tzimtzum.


  11. Michal Segelman says:

    On a technical note, there’s something called a “pingback” (or trackback?) — you can start a new article which contains a link to here, and at the same time it will drop a comment in this thread that points to the new article.

    Back to the topic at hand. Thanks to both Rabbi Berger and Rabbi Becker for your respective answers. Combining your answers, I think you are saying that psychology is a study of the real, but does not provide an objective picture of the ideal. We can try to improve our real, but without that objective goal of “v’halachta b’drachav” there’s no guarantee that we’re moving in the right direction (and even if we are, with our naturally selfish negiyos, we’re bound to lose focus along the way).

    Now, a new question. Rabbi Becker, you spoke about how important it is to “visit and revisit our urgencies.” Can you elaborate on this? How does one identify their urgencies (or uncover new urgencies), what do you mean by “revisiting,” etc?

    Thank you for all your time in answering my questions!

  12. Micha Berger says:

    Michal, you might be interested in my notes of a talk by Rabbi Becker. It’s the third section of my notes a mussar program in May ’04 in Houston. The topic of his talk was contrasting Mussar and self-help programs.

    I have nothing to offer in answer to your new question. Rabbi Becker seems to be checking in around weekly.


    PS to Rabbi Becker: I like the new template.


  13. E.D.Becker says:

    Ephraim is now sitting Shiva for his father z’l whose levaya was on Monday. May we share besoros tovos.

    Best wishes,
    Malka Becker

  14. Michal Segelman says:

    I hope no one minds if I revive this thread.

    In all my above comments, I’ve been grappling with the question of: What is the difference between mussar sefarim and psychology self-help books (other than the obvious, that one is divinely inspired and the other is not). At times, self-help books refocus me just as well or better than a mussar sefer would, enabling me to get “unstuck”.

    For example, both a mussar sefer and psychology would promote the idea of being proactive, psychology very directly and mussar perhaps indirectly. What is the difference?

    The answer that sits best with me for now is a combination of what R’ Becker and R’ Berger (and some others, off the blog) have said. The goal of psychology is to help you achieve mental/emotional stability, teach you how to interact more effectively with the world around you. The goal of mussar, on the other hand, is to help you become a holy, G-dlike person. A mussardik person by definition interacts effectively with the world around him, but that’s just a pleasant side benefit as he works towards his goal of “vehalachta bedrachav”.

    I’ve also been working on a related question of “what is the place of psychology/self-help books in my quest to grow in avodas Hashem.” I think that psychology and mussar are related, even though their ultimate goals are so different, and as Rabbi Becker says, psychology is only a recent attempt to understand human nature. Since they are related, there are some concepts from psychology that can be used as powerful mussar tools.
    At times, focusing on psychology can be a distraction from the goal, since psychology divorces the concept of emotional health from religion. Once it’s a pursuit of emotional health rather than holiness, it’s self-serving, as Rabbi Becker said, and no longer enables us to transcend our earthly nature. At other times, working on a mental health issue seems to jump-start a mussar growth-spurt. The mental health issue could have been getting you stuck, and working on it (no matter what your motive is) clears the way for real growth. If we are discerning in how we read these books, and take the tools but leave the hashkafah behind, then it will always be to our advantage to add these tools to our repertoire.

    Rabbi Becker, do you agree with my conclusions? I’d love to hear your insights into my thoughts.

  15. E.D.Becker says:

    As the years go by, I’m sure that each of our thoughts on the relationship between Mussar and Psychology develops and matures. I have come to see the notion of being a “mentch” – a “yashar” – is a process of (re)aligning oneself with good and straight values and behaviors in order to set the gears in motion so that Mitzvos and Torah are able to engage seamlessly. In other words, the Torah’s definition of a developing human being is one who is integrated and adjusted in such a way as to allow them to wear the crown gifts of Mitzvos, and above those Torah, naturally. It is a simple test of royalty that those who are properly crowned are those who carry the crown with dignity; they are the ones upon whose head the crown seems to properly fit. Analagously, the developing person is one who is increasingly suited to those crowns. If a person feels that those crowns have to be forced on himself with all sorts of strict rules, then he has probably not yet done the most crucial work of personal growth – becoming a straight mentsch. While there is nothing wrong (and indeed there is much good) with making guidelines for oneself, but those are the steps that we take to achieve that which fits us, not the crowbar to force on a crown where the bearer does not yet have the dignity to wear it.

    Psychology, it seems to me, does not concern itself with the majesty of a person, and certainly not with the emerging majesty which would allow one to regally bear the crowns of Mitzvos and Torah.

    Again, just some thinking as these topics evolve.

    Thanks so much for sharing – I hope that you’ll continue to do so.

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