Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Mussar Time of Year

The Jewish calendar year presents us with a fascinating opportunity. A special mussar opportunity that is more prevalent now, than any other time of the year. It is a time that is actually designated for us to look deeper into ourselves to take a personal inventory and strive to become our holy best, as we are created in the image of Hashem (tzelem Elokim).

Shortly, we will be entering that special time, the month of Elul. It comes right after Tisha B’Av and right before the High Holidays. Since there is nothing in the Jewish calendar that is haphazard or without meaning, we need to take a closer look.

Tisha B’Av was the time of the destruction of the Temples. We are taught that this event occurred as a result of the people acting and living with baseless hatred. Directly after this historical and destructive event, we go into the month of Elul, the Days of Awe, the time for preparation to face the upcoming judgment of Rosh Hashanah and even more so, to prepare for Yom Kippur. As we follow the path of the calendar, we first see the destruction of the Temples in the month of Av. This event caused the Divine Presence (that was visible and present in our lives) to disappear completely. We learned that the holiness that was within our souls, the pure goodness that was clear and evident to all who entered the Temple, vanished. We lost the ability to see the good in ourselves and in others. We lost the ability to see clearly and feel connected to the Divine Presence, which guided us through our lives. Something, that is still absent in our lives today. We are completely lost. We are lost to the holiness of ourselves. We are distant from the close connection to the holiness of the Divine Presence in our lives. The good news is we don’t have to stay lost.

As the calendar continues to forward after the month of Av, we are presented with the month of Elul. During this month, we are to take a personal accounting, a self-inventory before the High Holidays, the Days of Judgment. Mussar makes this accounting possible and rewarding. Rabbi Salanter has provided us with the gift of mussar wisdom that illuminates the path for us to find our way out of the darkness. Rabbi Miller takes the teachings of Rabbi Salanter and provides us (the vaads) with contemporary lessons that are applicable and practical to our daily lives. The lessons are available for us to improve our lesser character traits. They teach us to live all day attached to our inner goodness and to live connected to being created in the image of Hashem. We all possess a pure holy goodness that we were created from. Sadly, we have become far removed from our holy goodness. The work in the vaads, at this very special time, is a precious opportunity for us to attach to our holy goodness and bring out the best in all our situations and in all our relationships.

Let us use this meaningful time of year to journey on the illuminated path of Mussar to help us find our way out of dark. We live in a darkness that eclipses our soul and keeps us from seeing the pure goodness in ourselves, in others and of course, in Hashem. This is the purpose of our work in the vaads. The most amazing result that is reported (by those of us who are working in the vaads) is how good it feels to come out of the darkness. We didn’t realize how dark it was until Rabbi Miller lit the way for us (with Rabbi Salanter’s teachings). We were merely fumbling around, trying to find our way through our situations, feeling lost and not so pleased with the results we were receiving. Until now! Once we were brave enough to open our hearts and souls to see our flaws, we were completely enlightened and blessed with these magnificent lessons. Each weekly lesson provides us with wisdom that illuminates our souls to shine brighter and stronger. As we venture deeper towards our goodness, we learn that we too can illuminate the souls of others. Let us use this meaningful time of year to take a personal accounting and learn how the wisdom of mussar teachings can help us to become our holy best.

Pirkei Avos 3:16/ “Greet everyone person cheerfully”
The first lesson for us to learn and apply, right after Tisha B’Av is merely to smile. Last Thursday on Tisha B’Av, we mourned and re-experienced the loss of the Temple due to baseless hatred and this week's lessons tells us- all we have to do is smile. How simple is that? We just realized how the Temple was destroyed due to a character trait that still haunts us today. We are aware of this negative trait that steers us. We can actually see the yetzer hara or ego reaction when it happens. We clearly see how our initial reaction is always a negative one. We realize that we live in fight mode and that we frequently “attack others and defend ourselves”. We know our thoughts are consumed with judgments and criticisms of others (which causes the most harm to ourselves). And now all we have to do is just smile. What a beautiful and simple request of us…. smile??? Yes, it’s true. That’s all we need to do.

We need to realize that each moment holds a precious opportunity for us to connect to our “inner goodness.” Just one little smile can do that. As we finish the month of Av and realize how much baseless hatred we still live with, it’s that simple- all we have to do is practice smiling. A smile greets someone with happiness. It says, “it’s so nice to see you.” A little smile can make someone feel so important and cared for. And most important of all, think of what it does for you. When you put a smile on your face, you have a pleasant thought in your head about the person you are looking at. Your thoughts are smiling, too. You may think that the person you are smiling at is the one receiving the benefits, in actuality; you are the one that is benefiting the most!

It’s easy to smile when we feel like smiling. But, what about the times when we are not up for a cheerful greeting? Maybe, we are consumed with our own problems, worries or concerns. Are we able to smile and greet someone cheerfully when we don’t feel like it? Can we bring ourselves away from the telephone to take time to greet our loved one at the door when they enter? Is it possible to take a moment away from what we are involved (that we want to stay involved in) to greet someone cheerfully, when it’s not really what we want to be doing? That’s the challenge of this text. It sounded fairly simple when we began. Now, we can see how important all of our actions, thoughts and speech are. How we view each situation, not only with a smile on our face, but a smile in our thoughts- makes all the difference for us. If we greet each situation with a smile in our thoughts (a positive cheerful vision of each person in each situation), then we are guaranteed to bring a smile into our actions. This then becomes a smile that shines brightly through in our words. And there it is…. the magical power of mussar occurs! All we need to do is stay in mussar mode, keep our personal inventory, stay aware and keep focused on using this precious time of year to help us to become the best we can be… as we bring out the best in others and stay connected to acting "tzelem Elokim."


One of the members reported that she has made a special time for greeting her husband when he arrives home from work everyday. She greets him outside the door, so she can be alone with him. No children, no distractions. All she wants to do is make him feel, for those few precious moments, how special he is, how happy she is to see him and how much she cares for him. He enters the house feeling like a king. This ripples throughout the family and the night, resulting in a pleasant, enjoyable evening for everyone. Just a few precious moments can do so much good, for so many people.

A funny thing happened:
Today, as my husband and I were sharing a quiet lunch at a local kosher Chinese restaurant together, we sat chatting about this lesson and the importance of a smile. It was enjoyable and meaningful to be sharing mussar teachings together. It is certainly a lesson that everyone can relate to, enjoy and benefit from. We had a long discussion about how important a cheerful greeting is. We shared stories of how we each were touched by or touched someone else with a smile and a cheerful greeting. After the meal, we received the check and of course, the fortune cookies. There were 4. My husband took 2 and left 2 for me. The first one I opened was a sweet little sentence. Then, I opened the second one and it said…. Smile, it makes the world a brighter place!

Blessings for a cheerful, happy and smile-filled week.

Post a Comment