Thursday, May 13, 2010


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The entire purpose of man's existence is to purge every negative trait from his heart. (Ohr Yisrael)

Mussar is the study of purging our negative character traits. This is a process of continuous change that requires daily practical application. Through the study of mussar in our vaads, we have discovered how to change. And because of it, we are actively in the process of purging ourselves of our negative traits. It's a liberating and joyful experience!

So many situations in our lives require change. It's most evident in our closest relationships; husbands with wives, parents with their children, older children with their elderly parents, sister, brothers, friends, work associates with co-workers, and also with their bosses. Change is everywhere. Yet, change is complex.

First, let's discuss the most difficult and challenging aspect of change; the desire to change others. As parents we have a responsibility to change certain undesirable behaviors in our younger children. But, as our children age, we know that changing their behavior becomes a frustrating and impossible task. In marriage, we have a list of undesirable behaviors in our spouses that we would like to change. As they probably have a list of behaviors they would like us to change.

The work environment may be the only area that has a slight possibility of bringing about change in a person. At work a person is performing tasks for the benefit of the company and receives a salary. The employer has specific job requirements for each position. The employee is required to perform these tasks or he may lose his job. Therefore, the only people we may possibly change- are the ones we employ.

Since our marriages, parent to child, sibling or other close relationships are permanent due to bonds of the heart, we must discover how to coexist peacefully; when others don't change the behaviors we want them to change. Since we are the ones working through the mussar process, we working to improve our own character traits, not the character traits of others. The task is ours.

Second, the next aspect of change is to identify the type of conduct that requires change. There are severely negative behaviors that are damaging and harmful to relationships and to individuals; e.g., drug, alcohol, food addictions, verbal abuse, physical abuse. Or there are the daily undesirable behaviors that exist in relationships; e.g., negative speech, anger, messiness, tardiness, disorganized, forgetful, harsh tone of voice and more.

The first group- the most serious and harmful- should be treated by professionals in their specific field (however, the application of mussar knowledge in addition to professional help is extremely beneficial). Once the type of conduct that requires change is identified, one can categorize whether it requires professional help or if it can be managed within the relationship. The second group is the one we're working on.

The third and probably most important aspect of change- is motivation. Most people want to change their ways but aren't motivated enough to do so. Something seems to be holding them back. Usually, the only thing that causes change is an awakening; a realization that one is causing serious harm to the relationship or themselves. This causes a change but, it's usually difficult to sustain.

The desire to change is obvious. We don't want to hurt the ones we love nor do we want to be hurt by the ones who love us. Harmony in relationships is a joyous experience. There is no doubt that it feels much better to be connected and in sync than in conflict and dissatisfied. Yet, something is holding us back. Something anchors us down and shackles us. We yearn for change yet feel frozen at the same time. As much as we may desire change, the cynical side of our minds (or the minds of others) tells us we won't succeed. Old habits, life patterns or historical baggage won't allow change to take place. We are prisoners of our past.

text: THE FORMULA from the RAMBAM
The secret to freeing ourselves from remaining prisoners of our past is presented to us in this lesson. The Rambam (Maimonides) gives a three step formula that illuminates the path to renewal. It lifts the anchor, frees us from the past and allows us to propel ourselves forward. Regardless of your past, you can emerge as a powerful spiritual force and elevate yourself higher each and every day through this formula.

Firstly, a person should tell himself, “I am now a different person. I am not the same person who acted improperly.” Secondly, he should rectify his conduct in the specific area of focus. Thirdly, he should change his place, meaning he should change his perspective so that he sees life differently.

The first step is the key. From the moment one sincerely desires change, he can separate himself from his past. He is free to become different and change an undesirable behavior. The sincerity of his desire becomes a catalyst that causes a spiritual change. This powers the whole process of teshuva (repentance). Sincerity is based in goodness. This comes from the heart and it touches the soul; the essence of your nishama... your goodness. At this time, the goodness is awakened and if the next two steps are followed, permanent change can take place. You are severed from your past and your slate is wiped clean. (accountability for past misdeeds will be discussed in another lesson). Free yourself from guilt and shame.

The next step is to rectify one's conduct in the specific area. Once the sincerity touches the goodness of the nishama, the previously sealed chambers that locked in the old behavior, suddenly open up. The new behavior must take the place of the old behavior. The sincerity is in the intellect (thoughts), the emotional (feelings) and the spiritual (soul) but it must be bound together and united as one to become permanent. This is done through continuous and repeated practice of the new behavior. Use your "mistakes as the light to the future" (Rav Yisrael). START ANEW.

The Zohar (according to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) tells us that the first verse of the Torah states, "In the beginning, Hashem created Heaven and Earth." The Torah starts with the letter ב which means "in" and it also means "with." The Zohar is telling us that Hashem created the world with endless beginnings. Every second gives us the opportunity to become new again.

The third step is the final seal. This is the time to completely change your life perspective. The Torah gives you permission to do so. As distant as this may seem, it is evident in many situations. One example is when people become baal-teshuva (become religious and return to a Torah lifestyle). They completely change their entire life perspective (the way they dress, eat, pray and live with different values according to Jewish law). Others have converted to Judaism. And many have overcome a life of addiction to drugs, pills, food or alcohol. It is definitely possible to change your entire life perspective. When you do, you probably won't even recognize the person you were before.

The homework for the week is to practice (at least once a day) visualizing Bereshis (in the beginning).

Picture the world before Creation.
No life exists. Imagine the oceans connected as one.
Gradually, picture the oceans parting.
The continents emerge. Life springs forth.
Everything becomes fresh, clean and new.
Imagine endless beginnings.

Chag Shavuot Sameach!
This Tuesday night begins the holiday of Shavuos. It is the holiday that commemorates when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Together, we stood united, "eish echad, lev echad" (one man, one heart). For those of us who study mussar, it is a special time to appreciate the mussar wisdom we receive from the Torah weekly and that we benefit from daily. With sincere gratitude to Rabbi Zvi Miller for teaching us Torah.

May Hashem bless us to continue to receive the mussar wisdom of the Torah for many years in happiness and peace, united as one.

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