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by Ellen Berk

Ellen BerkRecently, my son’s best friend, who is not of drinking age, decided to help himself to a bottle of vodka with another friend and my son while we were having dinner with his parents—a “thank you” dinner for taking the boy with us on a ski trip. Discovering the empty vodka bottle which this boy had left in the kitchen, I asked him: what happened to the vodka?

It was a very uncomfortable situation. His parents seemed to diminish the seriousness of drinking an entire bottle of vodka under our noses.

In the past I might have yelled at them. I might have also walked away from the situation teeming with fury at their questionable parenting styles and values. But I have since cultivated a greater amount of compassion for struggles that are not my own. Now I routinely put time between my initial thoughts/feelings and my response. So, later, I was able to tell the mother that I had concern for her son’s well-being. I was able to talk to my son about his conflicts with a friend who was changing because of alcohol consumption.

Mussar helps me to turn potentially hot situations into workable situations. Through my Mussar practice I am cultivating another eye for observing my emotions rather than allowing them to run wild.

A related gain has been my increased flexibility in how I view myself and others. My favorite meditation for humility—the first soul trait to be studied as a Mussar student—is Rabbi A. Kook’s saying, I take no great pride at being praised, nor offense at being insulted. More than several times over the five years of my weekly study and practice, I have felt offended by someone else. I have repeated this wise meditation so many times, it is now an automatic thought: these words, implanted in my heart, arise within just enough time for me not to react to most verbal provocations. Then I strive to apply generosity of understanding and forgiveness to the “offender,” remembering that if someone insults me, he/she must not like him/herself. Another powerful lesson: A person can be insulting and not have power over me anymore. To permit disrespect of any person, including oneself, is to collude in the dishonoring of the Divine.

The practice of Mussar has taught me to honor the image of God within me and around me.

Ellen Berk, a licensed clinical social worker and author of The Happtitude™ Perspective: The Right Attitude for a Good Life, belongs to Congregation Emanuel in Denver, Colorado.


Union for Reform Judaism.