Once in awhile, a lesson is so challenging that Rabbi Miller suggests we learn it again the following week. That's what we are doing with this one. Once again, we are trying to learn the lesson of "perceiving disrespect." It's a tough one.
As I've stated so many times before, the beauty of learning mussar is that it is Torah wisdom that we can apply to our daily situations, in all our inter-personal relationships. We can actually live these lessons. The first thing to remember is that we are in a process of slowly building ourselves up from the inside.
The study of improving one's character and purifying one's negative traits is different than all other areas of Torah study and wisdom. The intellect functions to uncover the hidden secrets of wisdom. It stimulates man's knowledge and council to seek and inquire (Mishlei 1:4) and to clarify matters that are in doubt. The emotions serve to open the sealed chambers of the heart and pour waters of understanding upon it. We begin to understand that which we know intellectually, but that which has not entered the heart. Man's mastery of Torah knowledge is enough for him to acquire perfection and conduct himself according to his Torah knowledge. Such is not the case with character rectification and the purification of negative emotional forces. Acquiring knowledge does not help a person to conduct himself in an upright fashion. Rather, the principles one learns must be inculcated within the heart then, bound and joined so that they are united as one.*
(from Ohr Yisrael, pg 331.)
In other words, knowledge is wonderful and can be satisfying and helpful when it comes to clearing up situations that are doubtful, but emotions are connected to the heart. Knowledge alone doesn't change one's character traits, getting that knowledge into the heart and keeping it there is what causes the purification of character traits. The knowledge must be learned and then instilled into the heart. This is the process of transformation through mussar.
Knowledge and practical daily application = transformation
As we were learning the lesson this week, one of the members from the first vaad, said something quite profound . She said, "your perception becomes your reality." Think about it. It's so true and that's what this lesson is all about. Our perception does become our reality. We make it happen that way. We cause our perceptions to become our reality. We can get ourselves started on a "movie in our mind" or a "story in our head" and we can go from there. AND, can we go far with it!! We create all sorts of scenarios. We are expert screenwriters and storytellers. We can create characters, we know what everyone is feeling, we create situations, we build plots, we weave tales, we foresee outcomes... all from one thought, our initial perception! And then these movies and stories become reality. How is that possible? We make it happen!
Looking in the Mussar Mirror
The lesson is about "perceiving disrespect." The text is based on a commentary from Reb Chaim Voloshin. Reb Chaim says that in relationships there is a mirror imaging that takes place. What we see in the mirror, reflects back at us. The secret code here is.... what we see. What do we see when we look at others? According to the text, we see that "it is human nature to assume we are not getting the respect we deserve." So, what do we see when we look at others? We see that we are not going to get what we want. We expect that we are going to be short-changed. We expect less than we had hoped for. We know that the situation probably won't go our way. Then, this becomes our reality! We believe it. We live with it and we act according to it.
When we look in the mussar mirror, we can assume that we are receiving the honor we deserve. Reb Chaim says, we should go a step further. We should assume that "even if they are giving us a small measure of honor, you should consider it as if they honored you beyond the norm." It sounds deep and complicated, but basically.... once we have an awareness of how we expect negative responses and then respond back with a negative response, we realize we have entered into the "movie in our mind." We take off from there and on it goes. Thanks to mussar wisdom, we can now look in that mirror and realize what we give out, is what we'll get back.
If we can change the way we see others and realize they are thinking of us with honor and respect (even when they don't), we adjust our human lens. Once we do, we will have fulfillment, harmony and peace in our relationships.
Think of it as building "spiritual armor" around yourself. You are surrounding yourself in Tzelem Elokim, in the Image of Hashem. You are protected in holy armor from what you could perceive as wrong. By adjusting your human lens to see only good, you are acting holy. Just imagine, someone saying something to you that could be perceived as harmful, yet it bounces off you because you perceive it as good and you reflect back to them only good! That is certainly mastering your emotions!!
Now, we have to open up those sealed chambers of our heart and let this wisdom in. Take a quiet moment with your thoughts and see if this is applicable in your relationships. Mussar is a process of self-awareness. We are not trying to make you see negative events (G-d forbid) in your relationships if they are not there. But, what usually happens, is that we develop an awareness through de-coding the mussar secrets. We gain the knowledge. The daily application comes into our lives through the avoda (homework). And then, our character traits can become purified. Our relationships become enriched. We feel better and we are acting Tzelem Elokim (in the Image of Hashem)!
Lessons from the Torah
In last week's Torah portion (Vayigash), we see that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. After all the harm they caused him, all Joseph did was to tell them it was "min ha-shemayim." It was from Heaven. He tells his brothers (who sold him into slavery) that they shouldn't be angry or upset with themselves that they sold him. He said HaShem sent him ahead of them to save them, to ensure their survival and to sustain them. It was all from HaShem! Imagine something so incredible. Joseph completely removed the guilt from them. He was able to re-frame all the harm that was caused to him and saw that it was all from HaShem. Joseph was able to turn it all around and realize that whatever harm was done to him by his brothers, was all for the good. He didn't want his brothers to feel angry or upset with themselves.
The lesson we learn from this is that we have to be so quick to be able to turn around situations when we feel harmed by others. We have to say those words to ourself. Chazal say, this is the key to bring peace into relationships. We have to learn to strengthen ourselves and be positive in all situations, even when we are harmed by others' actions towards us.
If we don't manage to do this, we venture down a path of self-hatred. We end up causing so much unnecessary harm to ourselves. We become miserable. We punish ourselves with constant negative thoughts and statements. The "movie-in our mind" becomes a reality. Our mussar task is to keep the focus, be positive and keep goodwill flowing into the relationship constantly. Practicing this in all situations will help inculcate into your subconscious and then when the time comes, it appears! It is so important to constantly remind ourselves.... it's all for our benefit.
Insight from the Lesson
Rabbi Miller tells a story of a great Baalei Mussar (Master of Mussar) who was once talking to a man who had just returned from the store. The man soon realized he was short-changed at the store. "They cheated me, they are crooks," he said. He continued to rant and rave about how incompetent the store clerk was. The great Baalei Mussar says to him, "why are you hurting yourself like this? You are torturing yourself over this. It is a type of self-hatred."
The insight is that if we don't learn to live with this lesson, we can so easily go down that negative path. Our negative perceptions show that we don't love ourselves. We can bring ourselves down, (G-d forbid), very far down. We harm ourselves, our chance to experience richness, fulfillment, peace and joy in our relationships and our lives. The prescription for healing this is to remember to look at that other person as a mirror image and remember that what we give out is what we get back. Next time you look at that special someone, don't forget to look at them.... with mussar vision.
Our avoda this week is to read the words of Joseph, as he responded to his brothers. Think about how he was able to re-frame the whole situation of harm caused to him, completely removing the guilt from those who harmed him and to practice using those thoughts, by making that the new "positive movie in your mind."
For those of you that don't have the Torah portion, here are the words:
He said, "I am your brother, Yosef, who you sold to Egypt. But now, don't be upset or angry with yourselves that you sold me to this place, for G-d has sent me ahead of you to save your lives. For it's two years now that there's been a famine in the land and there won't be any plowing or harvesting for another five years. G-d sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you (your families and your flocks) with great salvation. It was not you who sent me here, but G-d.
1) We must be the first to give it.
2) We must perceive it all as good.
3) Practice to master this (and it's a lot!)
4) Internalize it! (think it, believe it, write about it, live it).
5) Enjoy your improved relationships.
We are working on improving our character traits, not the character traits of others.
Note: It is important to keep in mind when learning mussar, that one specific lesson is not the answer to one specific problem you may be experiencing. When in a situation that needs resolution, customize it according to all of your mussar knowledge and wisdom that you have been learning. One specific lesson is not the answer to one specific problem.
May we all be blessed with a peaceful week filled with positive vision as we look at others!
Please remember that in all our mussar lessons, we are learning about normal inter-personal relationships. The lessons are not related to serious situations or extenuating circumstances (harmful, dangerous or abusive relationships). In those situations, please consult a professional therapist, counselor, doctor or Rabbi.