Last night I announced that I planned to dedicate the remainder of this year’s High Holy Day sermons to a sharing of some of the potentially life altering lessons of Mussar. And so I shall. But before I can do that, an introduction to Mussar itself is in order so as to put these lessons into an understandable context. If you wish to enter into a deeper exploration of Mussar – and I hope you will – then I cannot recommend highly enough the book EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis. It has inspired me and I know it will inspire you.
The word Mussar literally means “correction” or “instruction” and also has become one of the more popular words that is used today for “ethics.” Back in the second half of the 19th century, in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter started a movement of Jewish study which centered upon examining our ethical values and how they can influence our behaviors and therefore our lives, especially our spiritual lives. That movement came to be called the Mussar Movement, and it remains alive and well today.
Rabbi Salanter came to understand that Halachah – Jewish law – could only take us so far in our quest to develop healthy spiritual lives. For Halachah addresses our behaviors; our actions and our restraint from actions. It calls upon us to adopt a system of Mitzvot – a discipline of sacred behaviors – which can have the effect of raising us up to a higher spiritual plain. But the performance of Mitzvot, as he and all of us have observed, can easily devolve into become a mechanical and meaningless routine. Therefore there needs to be something deeper within us, which drives the Mitzvot and keeps them alive, fresh, and meaningful. And this is precisely where Mussar comes in, for while Halachah addresses our behaviors, Mussar addresses the underlying attitudes which inform our behaviors. And for Mussar, our attitudes are fundamentally a function of our souls.
In order to better appreciate Mussar you need to understand Mussar’s approach to the soul. First of all, in Mussar we do not possess a soul, as if it were something apart from us that could be surgically removed like a kidney, but rather we ARE a soul. It is our soul which makes us into distinct individuals. All our physical attributes can change, and many do. My hair is growing gray. I used to have a 28” waistline. Yet we remain the same people. Even identical twins possess their own individuality. It is the soul and not the body that is the seat of our individuality.
While the soul is one, it does have three aspects to it. That is just like us. Each of us is one individual but still, there are many different aspects to who we are. For example, I am a rabbi, a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a teacher, a community volunteer, an American, a Jew, etc. So it is with the soul. The three aspects of the soul, as identified by our tradition, are the Neshamah, the Ruach, and the Nefesh. The Neshamah is the inner core of the soul. It is the very essence of the divinity within us. Therefore it is inalterably holy and pure, and that can never change. The Ruach is, for lack of a better term, the life force within us. It is the Ruach that animates our body and impacts, and is impacted by, our physical condition. Then there is the Nefesh. The Nefesh is the center for our personality traits and our attitudes. The nature and condition of our Nefesh can be altered by the choices we make and the actions we take. It can be stained and it can be cleansed. You could compare the relationship between the Neshamah and the Nefesh to that of the sun and the weather. The Neshamah is like the sun, always radiating light and heat, and the Nefesh is like the weather, sometimes letting the holy light and heat of the Neshamah into our lives and sometimes blocking it out.
It is with the nature of the Nefesh that Mussar is most concerned, the goal of Mussar being to help us develop a healthy Nefesh, so that each of us can reside, so to speak, in the spiritual Sunbelt.
Mussar calls the character traits of the Nefesh, Middot – Middah in the singular. Middah literally means a “measure” and in this context, it is the measure of our attitudes. It is our attitudes which inform our actions. If we embrace one attitude we will act in one way but it we embrace another attitude, we will act in quite a different way.
Mussar envisions our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity. Both ends of such continuums can be equally destructive. So, for example, excessive greed can cut us off from all human relationships while excessive generosity can lead us to giving everything away to the point that we can no longer survive. What we need is to find some sort of combination of both extremes, where they each moderate the other in such a way as to establish the ideal mix. So, for example, that we become generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate yet remain greedy enough to restrain our altruism in such a way that we keep sufficient means to sustain and maintain ourselves and our families. Achieving such ideal mixtures is the function of the Middot.
The principle which governs how we determine where along the continuum the Middah should reside is to be found in the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon. It comes from LEVITICUS, chapter 9, verse 2, in which God states, “You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.” The proper mix – the Middah – is the one that leads us best to a high state of holiness; to spiritual self-improvement; to a cleansing of our Nefesh and a release of more sacred light into our lives from our Neshamah.
Now we are ready to examine our first Middah; the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut. This Middah seeks to help us grapple with the issue of trust in our lives. Trust, like all the other attitudes as viewed by Mussar, exists along a continuum. On one end of that continuum is a trust which is so absolute that how can we consider it anything other than gullibility? Those individuals who live on that end of the continuum believe everyone they meet and everything they hear. As such, they are forever ripe targets for those who seek to take advantage of them. On the other end of the continuum is such an absence of trust that it is nothing less than paranoia. Those people believe no one they meet and nothing that they hear. So Mussar, tells us that somewhere in between those two extreme is the ideal balance of absolute trust and absolute distrust. That meeting place is the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.
The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut deals particularly with the level of trust we invest in our fellow human beings. This is not just a challenge for the gullible and the paranoid among us. This is a problem each and every one of us faces. I suspect that for most of us, hardly a day passes when we do not find ourselves in situations which call upon us to make judgements about other people. And if we were to be honest with ourselves, how often it is that we find ourselves all too ready to jump to our own conclusions, most of the time thinking the worst of others; we are so ready to embrace the negative. We are so ready to ascribe an evil or selfish intent upon the actions of others. “They wanted to hurt me!” How we can savor a juicy piece of gossip! The darker the rumor, the more ready we are to believe it and how ready we are to pass it on to others. Our tradition even has a name for this. We call it Lashon HaRa – “the Evil Tongue”, and of it the rabbis said that it is a sin worse than murder, for the murderer only destroys one soul but the purveyor of Lashon HaRa destroys three – his or her soul, the soul of the subject of the tale, and the soul of the one who listens to it.
But don’t feel too bad, don’t beat yourself up about it, for just this summer I found out that it’s not all our fault. It turns out that there is a whole branch of psychology called Evolutionary Psychology. Science Daily describes Evolutionary Psychology in this way: “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.” In other words, there are certain aspects of the human psychological makeup which have become almost instinctual within us as a product of the process of evolution. Our readiness to think the worst about people is part of that phenomenon. Our brains are hotwired to expect the negative and that tendency can be traced back to the earliest days of human history when the world was a very hostile place and we always needed to be on our guard if we were ever to survive. That is why, still today, it is part of our makeup that our anger tends to linger while our gratitude quickly fades. We tend to cling to the memories of how others have hurt us and suppress those memories of how they blessed us. We are so ready to forget and throw away all the good times because of one bad time.
That being said, our Judaism has always taught us that we are much more than our instincts. There are times when we need to transcend our instincts – rise above them – in order to make of ourselves better people. And this issue of trust is one of those times. And that brings us right back to the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for that is precisely what this Middah calls upon us to do; to rise above our instinctual urges to assume negative intent in the actions and the words of our fellow human beings. For Dan L’Chaf Zechut literally means “Judge others according to a scale of merit,” or in more colloquial terms, “Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt.” In spite of our psychology, and maybe even our biology, we have to get over our instinct to rush to judgement and assume the worst of others.
We have to stop ourselves from automatically thinking negatively and say, at least to ourselves, and even better to others as well, “Wait a minute! I know this person. And knowing what I do know about this person, do I really believe that this person was capable of doing that or saying that? Do I really believe that this person intentionally wanted to hurt others? Could it be that this report is faulty or exaggerated, or some of the facts are missing? You know, generally speaking there are two sides to every story. I sure would like to hear the other side before I am ready to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.”
Overcoming this instinct of ours to generally think the worst is a real challenge. In fact, there are very few people I have known who have ever become masters of it; who somehow inoculated themselves from such massive negativity. One of them was my mother, and another was a person who lived in this community and has since passed away. Many of you knew her. Martha Stone.
For many years, our adult education program included a Wednesday morning book study group. We called it “Sefarim” which is Hebrew for “Books.” Among its members were Martha and Alex Stone. From 10:00 to 11:30 every Wednesday morning we gathered in the Temple Library and seriously studied books of our choosing. Of course, as is common in study groups that have met over time, and in which the participants get to really know each other more than just in passing, there were mornings when book talk was sidetracked by community talk, particularly about this or that hot button topic. Invariably, when one person or another, in a fit of aggravation, complained, “Did you hear what so-&-so did or said?” and then went on to recount the offensive remarks or actions, Martha was always quick to jump in and say “Wait a minute. Maybe that person was trying to say X instead of Y. Maybe that person was trying to do A instead of B.” She always gave people the benefit of the doubt. She always assumed that their intentions were good, and not evil, and she always tried to make others see that as well. She always chose to see the good in people rather than the bad. She was the personification of Dan L’Chaf Zechut. And how I admired her for it. How I always wished that I could be more like her.
Martha clearly understood what we all need to understand. People aren’t throwaways. Every human being is both precious and fragile. Except for the relatively few truly evil people in the world, the vast majority of us are spending our lives, trying to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as we see it. Granted that sometimes we get so lost in our pursuit of our version of the right, that we wind up doing the wrong thing; the wrong thing for what we believe to be the right reasons. We all, every once and a while wander off the path. We all can miss the mark. That is why our tradition uses the word Chet as one of the words for “sin” for “Chet” literally means “missing the mark.” But at the end of the day, right or wrong, we are trying to do the best we can. This is why the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut is so important. For in this imperfect world populated by imperfect people, if we are going to measure each other, we need to measure each other on the scale of merit rather than on the scale of demerit. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt or we will wind up tearing each other apart. Only then can we raise ourselves up to a higher spiritual plain as we begin to heal the world rather than destroy it.
One last thought. For those of you who have accompanied me for all or a good part of my 32 year Quad Cities journey through the High Holy Days, you know that it has been my tradition to focus my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon on some lesson we can draw from the Torah portion – the Akedah – the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. I would be remiss if I were to abandon that tradition this year, of all years, for my last Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon before you. So consider this.
Today’s Torah portion presents us with an Abraham who also could embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for even though he had to check and double check God’s instructions about offering Isaac up for a sacrifice, in the end he did not resist it nor did he turn his back on God and walk away. He planned to go through with it. Why? Not because he was an unfeeling father and not because he did not love Isaac dearly. But rather because, based upon his knowledge and experience of God, he trusted God implicitly. Knowing the type of god God is – living in a world that was filled with those who believed in many harsh and brutal gods – when it came to his God, Abraham was trusting and faithful enough to embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut. Knowing that his God is a God of justice and compassion, he gave God the benefit of the doubt, truly believing that everything would work out for the best. And it did. Maybe one of the reasons that we read this story as we begin the new year is because, perhaps in this coming year, we will learn to become more like Abraham, trusting in the good of others and every ready to offer them the benefit of the doubt. Dan L’Chaf Zechut.
 So much of my knowledge of Mussar is drawn from my studies of Alan Morninis’ book, EVERYDAY HOLINESS, and the book TEACHING JEWISH VIRTUES: SACRED SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, by Susan Freeman, that I am no longer certain where their teachings take off and my “original” thought begins. I share this with you in the spirit of the Middah, B’Shem Omro, “Giving Proper Acknowledgement of Sources of the Knowledge We Share With Others”.