Visualize the flame of a match touching a fuse. See how the flame moves to touch off the fuse. Now, in your mind’s eye, imagine the flame moving more slowly toward the fuse. Next, try to picture yourself in control of the flame, in charge of how quickly, or how slowly, the flame will ignite the fuse. You, and you alone, can control when the explosion will occur.
The flame represents your anger. The explosion is your anger engulfing those around you. You, and you alone, can control how and when your anger will affect yourself and other people.
Recently, I was challenged by a situation of escalating anger to the point where in the past I probably would have exploded and unraveled a very long friendship. My friend and I went to a concert that meant a lot to me—one I had waited a very long time to attend. About ten minutes into the performance, my friend began to complain about the venue and the music and insisted we leave. We got up, and as we were walking out, I felt my anger welling up. I began to visualize the match and the fuse…and soon calmed down. My friendship was more important than a concert. I could always go to another concert.
This is an example of how practice of a simple Mussar exercise over time can modify behavior, emotions, and relationships.
I lead a life which many Americans can relate to: married, raising children, demanding job, many bills—tiring and stressful. Though I love my life, sometimes I find it difficult to cope, to control my temper and rein in my emotions. Mussar exercises have strengthened my self-discipline, allowing me to recognize and control those parts of my character which otherwise make daily life more difficult or uncomfortable. When I feel myself becoming angry, I visualize the match touching the fuse. Just the act of creating this mental picture is often enough to slow me down, buying me the few seconds I need to think before I allow myself to react.
Mussar teaches that most responses to emotional triggers are automatic. If those responses are destructive to myself or others, they can be transformed into actions more likely to produce positive results.
I had always been interested in spirituality and as such attended synagogue services regularly and enjoyed Torah study. Yet, for a long time I felt the need for more spiritual fulfillment and a Jewish context in which to give meaning to the hustle and bustle of daily living.
Then, several years ago, my wife Jean took a course on Mussar as part of her earning a master’s degree in Judaic Studies. Energized by the way Mussar integrated Jewish spiritual study with practical, daily work to change people’s lives, she encouraged me to explore it, too. Guided by my teacher, Alan Morinis, I began identifying my character strengths and weaknesses through journaling, prayer, meditation, and participation in weekly telephone conferences with other Mussar students. Together we also studied traditional Mussar writings, Torah, and other Jewish sources. I was fascinated by the Mussar perspective that all human qualities exist on a spectrum. Some people behave by facing problems, others by running away. One person sweats the small stuff; another is easygoing. The gamut runs from kindness to selfishness, greediness to generosity, alacrity to laziness, and so on. When too extreme, the character trait, or middah, tends to cause pain and create problems. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and other Mussar masters well understood the many ways humans can stray from the spirit of Torah, even while abiding by the letter of the law. Mussar exercises are designed to restore our character traits to the proper balance, enabling us to live more whole, peaceful lives.
No two people have the same strengths and weaknesses. Mussar sets each of us on our individual path in an effort to find a balance, but we do not travel this path alone. The essentially Jewish method of study and self-improvement requires the input of a larger community. We need others to hold up a mirror so that we can more clearly see our inner selves.
Our study group, or va’ad, meets every other week, enough time for us to integrate and adjust our practice according to what we’ve learned. We take turns leading the discussion so everyone is an equal partner in the group. Every other week I also work with my chevruta, or single study partner, for more intensive work. We begin with special readings that offer a deeper look into the assignment of the week. Though I have been studying Mussar for only two years, I act as the guide and mentor for those in our va’ad who are less experienced. Each of these encounters helps me grow in different ways. Seeing what other people experience helps me to view the middot I’m working on from their perspectives. It also allows me to look at myself as if I’m looking in the mirror.
While I prefer face-to-face meetings with study partners, the method of communication is less important than the quality of interaction, by which I mean honesty and openness. Sharing what we are feeling and have experienced during our journaling provides a starting point for discussing what is in our hearts.
In this work focus is key. For me focus comes through meditation and morning affirmations—sayings from our tradition focused on the particular trait we are studying. For example, when I worked on the middah of generosity (nedivut), my morning affirmation was a repetitive chanting of words from Pirkei Avot: “The generous heart gives freely.” When something would come up during the day which touched on this middah, I would repeat the affirmation again, helping me to meet the challenge head-on. Eventually, just recognizing the challenge was enough to help me cope with it.
Self-assessment is a skill that, like a muscle, becomes stronger and more efficient with use. At first the process of daily journaling to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses felt intimidating and unnecessary. I resisted. But I’m an adult, I kept wanting to say. I know all about myself. I don’t need to do this….Besides, there’s nothing that bad about me! But once I stopped fighting it and began writing down my thoughts and perceptions honestly and discussing them with another person, something wonderful started to happen. A more nuanced, less judgmental picture of myself came into focus—not all good, not all bad. That knowledge is a powerful thing. I wanted to plunge further. I wanted to know more.
I have now made Mussar study a lifetime practice. It is the missing piece I was always looking for, a path grounded in my Jewish heritage that connects my inner soul to the outside world. Mussar has given me a better understanding of my place in the world. I feel better, calmer, and happier by far.
Still, I am not walking around with rose-colored glasses. Mussar allows me to face life’s challenges in a more controlled and balanced way. Those around me have noticed the change in my behavior and have themselves changed as a result. I have become an exemplar.
In my experience I have found this to be true for everyone who studies Mussar. It’s the Jewish way to become that ideal good soul, a real mensch.
Henry Wodnicki is a surgeon and member of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, Florida.