In 2004 a dear friend asked me to join a Mussar group she was forming. Frankly, I was reluctant to embark on something new because I had become an expert at finding distractions to keep me from completing my dissertation. But I’m a “junkie” for Jewish text study and for exploring spiritual practices.
I took to the material right away, though I had no thought of making Mussar “my practice.” As a sophisticated system of human psycho-spiritual development and practice, it was intellectually satisfying. I was also drawn to the idea of the middot (character traits) being God-given, and that even the so-called negative traits had positive aspects when applied appropriately and in balance. And as an educator I appreciated the combination of text study and journaling with chanting to heighten daily mindfulness. These practices were not new to me, but now I had a container that held them together in a meaningful Jewish way.
Beginning my practice, I identified my “soul curriculum,” i.e., the character traits—humility, patience, and trust—that were out of balance in my life and repeatedly arose in challenging situations. Choosing an appropriate phrase from Hebrew Scripture, Talmud, or other writings, I then chanted it with kavanah (attention and passion) for several minutes every morning. Focusing on bitachon (trust), I’d chant Barukh hagever asher yivtach b’Adonai v’haya Adonai mivtacho (Blessed is the person who trusts in God, and God is [the source of] his trust) (Jeremiah 17:7). Chanting these phrases planted them in my mind, so that when a challenging situation arose, so did an applicable phrase, giving me a moment to pause and contemplate a less habitual and more appropriate response.I also performed a kobboloh, a task designed to practice strengthening the given middah. For the middah of bitachon, I asked God for help with something every day, and thanked God for whatever happened. Other traits naturally showed up, such as hoda-ah (gratitude) and hakirat et ha-tov (recognizing the good), since I had to reflect honestly that I had lacked for nothing in my life, making me realize that God has been helping and sustaining me all along. Come evening I did a heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, by recording my observations and any related thoughts in a journal. And every two weeks I discussed texts related to the trait with my hevruta partner, who was working on the same trait.
During the first couple of years of this practice I did not have much in the way of a revelation or even a deepened understanding of myself. Because my health was deteriorating I did not regularly chant or keep a journal. I hung in there, though, and kept returning to Mussar. By year three I had reached an important threshold: I was able to see my own struggles in the context of the human condition—and, with that understanding, was better able to take things less personally.
And this past year, after almost four years of practice, I made a breakthrough!
The biggest changes came during the two-week period I was working with the middah of menuchat hanefesh (equanimity). My chanting phrase for this middah was “Gam zu l’tovah!” meaning “This, too, is for the good”—the idea being to look for the good that can come out of any situation and refrain from adding “fuel to the fire.” Well, afriend and I were driving to a spirituality workshop in another city on the topic of "surrender." We’d left plenty of time to get there, but the map we had was confusing and we drove around for twenty minutes looking for the right street. We even stopped to buy a local map, but soon found out that it was the wrong map, and my friend’s unsuccessful attempt to get her telephone GPS system working only added to my frustration. I crumpled up the map in anger and threw it down, even as I knew this was a good opportunity for practicing menuchat hanefesh (equanimity). Except for crumpling the map, though, I wasn’t doing too badly—I wasn’t taking my frustration out on my friend. To distract myself and calm down I grabbed a book on Jews and spirituality. Opening it to the page where I had left off, I read that the spiritual path is "long and arduous, full of surprises, difficulties, and dangers."
That’s when I had an epiphany. As a text-study and spiritual-practices junkie I knew all about the nature of the spiritual path. What I had missed was the understanding that THIS APPLIES TO ME! I am a human being subject to human nature, the human condition, and the laws of the universe! Somehow I had believed unconsciously that I was exempt from the difficulties and dangers of the spiritual path because I was a “good student” and worked hard to be a “good person.” My learning and hard work had actually gotten in the way of my spiritual growth, leading me to the false notion that I would be spared from life’s challenges. I was relieved to finally understand that learning and hard work are only tools for helping me accept and navigate life with as much humility and gratitude as possible.
We finally found our way to the workshop, and it was very good—but the process of getting there was worth the price of admission! I had never been so aware of and responsive to the various middot— acceptance, patience, gratitude, and humility—at the intersection of a difficult situation.
When the workshop broke for lunch I noticed in the nearby gift shop a display of beautiful olive wood pendants carved in the shape of doves. I decided to buy two: one for myself and one for my sister, who has always been my “hot-button” person; together we are like gasoline and a lit match. When I worked on the middah of savlanut (patience) some weeks/months earlier, I’d focused on our relationship, chanting the phrase “b’tzelem elohim bara otanu,” “God created the human being in the Divine image” (Genesis 1:27). My intention was to look for the good in my sister by listing her admirable qualities in my journal each evening, such as being a hard worker with an exceptional sense for organization and aesthetics. I realized that, like everyone else, she wants to be praised for her good qualities and accepted in spite of those qualities that may be less admirable. It was time to make peace. When I saw the dove necklace I thought, “My sister will appreciate receiving this symbol of peace from me.” In fact, she was very touched by the gift, and we have gotten along fairly well since.
Now, with several years of practice behind me, I see how each year my practice deepens in a self-perpetuating way. The middot work together, reinforcing each other, and I find myself surprised at how differently I respond to situations that used to set me off. The biggest surprise of all is that it seems to happen in a natural, organic way. Not only have I been working on Mussar; Mussar has been working on me.
Debra Cohn, a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles (MAJE 1986), has worked in Jewish education since 1979, most recently teaching adult and adolescent bar and bat mitzvah students at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California.