Sunday, July 5, 2009

Listen to Your Soul

As we work through the lessons each week (provided by and taught to us by Rabbi Miller), we can slowly begin to see and feel the benefits of all our hard work. The text provides us with concepts that are new and foreign to us. Certainly, they are all challenging and against our pre-Mussar way of thinking, acting and speaking. What is the benefit to us as we learn to adopt, practice and inculcate into our subconscious these very challenging new behaviors? What attracted us to this in the first place? What made us want to participate in a vaad? We all know the answer. The beauty and the wisdom of mussar touched our souls. Our souls know there is something mystically magnificent to this age-old method of personal excellence. That is what keeps us on our path. Once the soul is touched, there is no turning back. The lessons are challenging as they teach us to act in a way contrary to our current behavior. Yet, as we read them and learn them together in the vaads, we can feel our souls become touched by the mystical power in each one of the lessons. There is a beauty to each one that can’t be described. Each one is difficult and challenging yet, so appealing and heart-warming. We learn of behaviors that may be foreign to us in our lives, but it seems that our souls recognize them and feel a desire to bring them into our day. Our souls tell us to stay on this path, work through
the difficulties and the challenges but we are not exactly sure what the reward is.

As we spoke about previously, in “the Gift of Calm” (blog-6/14), there is a tremendous reward waiting for us as a result of all our hard work. That is why we all began, our souls recognized and were touched (and continue to be touched by) the wisdom of Rabbi Salanter. With the most sincere gratitude to Rabbi Zvi Miller, we are able to understand these lessons and practice them daily. We can make sense of them as we explore them together in our vaads. We decipher the hidden codes and try to understand how this seemingly difficult lesson is a behavior we should adopt and practice. It’s not that each lesson is so hard to understand… it’s just that each lesson is so hard to apply. Yet, we must listen to our souls. They are trying to tell us to continue on our path, to continue moving forward and to continue learning for there is a tremendous reward waiting for us, once we make this applicable to our lives.

There is a calm beneath the storms. Challenges and difficulties will most probably, still be a part of your day, but beneath the surface, your soul remains calm. Imagine it as a boat in a storm. Before Mussar learning, when there was a storm in our lives, we were on a rocking boat, constantly swaying back and forth, trying to ride out the waves as we were being tossed around. We struggled on hold on tight, we felt unsure and frightened, not knowing how we would return to our destinations safely. After Mussar learning, when there is a storm in our lives, we are on a boat in calm water. The storms are raging above us, but now, our boat is on smooth, calm, glassy water. We sail along smoothly under the storms, as they swirl above us. The storms are there but we are not pulled in by them or harmed by their fury. We simply continue to sail smoothly on the calm waters beneath them. Mussar is the light and Hashem is the lighthouse (the wisdom of Mussar and the Presence of Hashem) that guides us through the darkness and the storms. If we follow the light in the lighthouse and stay on the path it provides for us, we will remain calm through the storm and travel safely to our destinations. If we just continue to follow the light through the darkness, instead of trying to navigate on our own different path, we will be rewarded with safety, calm and the comfort of knowing we are now, on the right path. This is what our soul is telling us. Our soul knows… all we have to do is listen.

Before we started learning Mussar, we were all faced with personal challenges and difficulties. Each test made specifically for us (our Torah teachers say). In order to navigate through our challenges, most of us sought the advice of a professional in the counseling field, many self-help books or a Rabbi (or a combination of all three) to help us cope with our situations. We learned to modify our behavior and possibly, found that helpful. Mussar is different. In Mussar, our external behavior affects our internal nature. It is a how-to system that teaches you to transform your nature, not only modify your behavior. It’s probably hard to imagine that this is possible. Yet, it is! Many of us are experiencing the transformation. The application of Mussar teachings is the key. We are trying to rid ourselves of negative character traits that are detrimental to us and in all our inter-personal relationships. We do this through the application of the weekly lessons. We work on specific character traits that interfere with our pathway to inner peace. One can never achieve true inner peace and joy, if one is carrying around heavy baggage filled with negative feelings and thoughts. Once we realize that every negative character trait we possess is self-detrimental, we will be able to move away from the negative traits by accepting the Mussar teachings and by applying them in all our inter-personal relationships. One can achieve true happiness through Mussar application. The process of working through real-life situations, with a Mussar perspective, affects the soul and
begins the process of releasing the negative character traits. These traits slowly transform
into positive traits as we slowly begin to feel the soul become peaceful and calm.

MUSSAR INSIGHTS (text from Vayechi/Torah portion)
The text teaches us about giving of ourself to honor others. The story tells us of Yaakov on his death bed sitting up to honor his son, Yosef (the King). This courageous act was self-detrimental because it disguised the seriousness of his illness. Therefore, others could not pray for him as seriously, as was needed. The Talmud says, that when a person leaves this world, he is asked if he honored his friend as if he were a king. This lesson teaches us that to honor our fellow man should outweigh any of our personal needs and honor. Of course, many vaad members (as I’m sure many of you) are not so easy to accept this as a “happy” way to live. What are the Mussar teachings trying to tell us through this lesson, which seem so difficult to accept and apply? The first lesson is the recognition of our unhealthy society that has taught us to always consider ourselves first. This has perpetuated a negative character trait that has caused us to be ego-centered. We have developed the “me first” style of thinking in which our worlds (all our relationships and situations) revolve around our agendas, scripts and dreams. We have become so lost in our ego that we don’t respect the needs or differences of others, if they don’t fit into our plans or scripts. We have become lost in ourselves. We become hurt, disappointed and angry that others are not responding in the way we would like them to. Do we ever stop and take a minute to think of how the other person might be feeling in the situation? Or are we only judging them as they are in relation to our agendas? The Mussar lesson in this text teaches us to take a moment and instead of thinking of ourselves first, make a conscious effort to take the time to recognize others and how they contribute to our lives or what they might be feeling. (It may even be that possibly, some of what they are saying may be true). Once we do this, we may be able to recognize that this person is worthy of wearing the crown of a King. Our job is to see this and imagine that we are the ones placing the crown on their head. Once we do so, we can realize that we are acting “tzelem Elokim,” in the image of Hashem. We are actually elevating ourselves. It takes a person of honor and dignity to place a crown on the head of another. When we can give honor, respect and dignity to another human being, we are actually the ones acting with honor, respect and dignity. As we elevate others, we are in actuality, elevating our self.

We can then realize, that we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a reciprocal world. We are so used to taking others for granted that we don’t recognize others for who they are and what great value they are to our lives. Once we place the crown on the head of another, we can release the negative character trait of ego-based judgment and criticism towards others. Then we can receive the gift of the Mussar character trait of “positive vision.” We can recognize others for how much they contribute to our lives. We can value their good traits and appreciate them for their goodness, as we see them from our goodness.

The avodah was to literally imagine and visualize placing a crown on the head of a family member or friend. As we realize through Mussar, in relationships there is a tremendous exchange of energy. What we feel, greatly affects those close to us. We live reciprocally. We learn that “people become what we see.” The way we treat others is the way they start to feel about themselves. We have tremendous power to lift others with our heartfelt words. When we transform our negative vision into positive vision, we see others in a brighter light. Then we can start to feel the transformation in our nature, deep in our souls, taking place. The holiness of our soul, our true goodness, tzelem Elokim, illuminates through… only then, can we experience the joy of inner peace.

A wife was expected home at 6:00pm to prepare dinner for her husband. (A loving, hard-working man who doesn’t ask for much but greatly values a home-cooked meal at a specific time). As she became over-involved in shopping with her daughter, she realized it was 6:20. She called her husband but he didn’t answer the phone. She arrived home 10 minutes later and started to prepare the dinner (which would take about ½ hour more) making her husband wait 1 hour past the time he expected her. Of course , you can imagine, that by now, the husband was angry, disappointed and hungry. The wife quietly acknowledges her husband’s emotional state. His comments are hurtful as he points out her irresponsible behavior and her inability to manage her time efficiently. Of course, the wife becomes hooked by her husband’s disappointment. Since she is a hard-working member in a Mussar vaad, she quietly “pauses’ and continues to make dinner while all the negative reaction thoughts about her husband are floating around in her head. “Why didn’t he call me, can’t you take something to eat while you wait, what’s the big deal so I’m a little late, and on and on the negative thoughts go swirling around in her head. As she stirs the soup, she turns her heart towards her inner goodness. Each rotation in the pot becomes a turning in her heart, away from negativity towards goodness. Slowly, it starts to happen. Then, she realizes… she was late! She was not acting from kindness, she did become over-involved and she completely disregarded the needs of her husband. She stopped stirring and walked over to her husband, who was sitting and reading. As she went close to him and looked him right in the eyes, she said, “I feel bad. I should have been home on time. I completely disregarded your needs and I am sorry.” It was completely heart to heart and soul-to-soul. Her husband was shocked. He said, “that was the sweetest thing you have said to me in years.”A night that could have been filled with conflict and stress turned into a lovely evening filled with honor, respect, dignity and peace. The wife took responsibility for not paying attention to her husband’s needs (as she would also like her needs paid attention to) and went directly, face to-face and heart-to -heart, to express the words that came from her soul.

*if you can’t relate to this exact situation because you don’t have a hungry husband or you aren’t a hungry husband, simply replace it for another situation in which one may disregard the needs of another. Turn it around, take responsibility, come from goodness, treat yourself with honor and dignity then… place a crown on their head. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to see how good it feels. Soon, you will realize you are also wearing a crown.

May we all be blessed with a beautiful week of treating our loved ones as Kings and

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