When my children were born, all I knew is that I wanted to be a good mother to them— create a safe and loving home, expose them to their Jewish heritage, and help them to develop into human beings with a sense of purpose. Little did I know that this desire would lead me to immerse myself into Judaism in unexpected ways.
By the time my daughter was in the peak of her teen years, I felt totally in over my head. How was I supposed to navigate this period as a mother? How was I not to react to her “moods,” not to take it personally when she pushed me away, not to be worried when she went out (in cars) with friends I didn’t know? How was I to give her the space to be independent without being negligent, and to set limits with her without being overly controlling?
It was about this time that I received an unexpected email about an online class on Mussar (something I had never heard of). Mussar, the sender wrote, “provides venerable tools-for-living that help you find and navigate your own personal path of growth, with a special emphasis on preparing for the times you will be tested.”
I knew the time was now.
My first chevruta (study partner) lived in the next state over. We didn’t have much in common other than we were both drawn to Mussar and we lived in close proximity. Still, during each conversation I learned something new about myself or about the soul trait we were studying, and that learning blossomed the following week when my va’ad, or group, and I met to deepen our understanding of the same soul trait. During our study about generosity, for example, I talked with my va’ad about struggling with whether or how much to give to homeless people who approached my car when I was stopped at a red light. I always felt better about being generous when the person I gave to was appreciative as opposed to when I felt taken for granted—like when a beggar didn’t say “God Bless” after I gave him money. My va’ad stressed the importance of concentrating on feeling good about the giving rather than on what I didn’t get back in return. I also learned from another member’s experience that enhancing gratitude practice facilitates generosity. Reminding myself how fortunate I am to have a home, job, car, and family made it easier to give to the person on the corner standing out in the cold with all his belongings in one small backpack.
Soon, my family, too, became Mussar coaches. At key moments they would remind me of a teaching I had shared with them. One of these reminders came when my son told me an hour before his band concert (which I had learned about that afternoon) that he needed to wear a new white shirt for the concert. Without thinking I started muttering my displeasure with him for not having let me know about this sooner. My daughter intervened. Reminding me that this was a good opportunity to practice patience, she said gently, “The past is behind us. Why don’t you relax and focus on getting Jer the shirt that he needs.” I thanked her for the reminder, took a deep breath, and focused on gratitude—being grateful that we were able to find a shirt at the first store we went to, that my son was talented enough to play in the band, that he told me about the shirt soon enough to get to the concert on time. Responding in this way was much better than the alternative—staying angry the rest of the evening.
Studying the middah (soul trait) of compassion also enhanced my parenting. A few months later, shortly after my daughter left for college, I found myself continually annoyed by my son’s behavior, and frankly he was continually bothered by mine. In my heart, I didn’t want to be feeling and acting this way toward him, but I wasn’t sure how to make a shift. The answer came during one of our va’ad study sessions when I read a Mussar quotation (paraphrased here): For our response to be truly compassionate, we must not just feel with another person, but also try to see things from the other’s perspective. So I asked myself: If I were a 16-year-old boy, how would I want my mother to relate to me? Suddenly I became more understanding of the challenges faced by a 16-year-old who had just become an only child at home when his sister went away to college. I found myself lightening up, using my humor, expressing more appreciation when he was helping out or sharing a little of what was going on in his life, and being a lot less judgmental. He, in turn, softened, and related to me in kinder ways.
Along with developing compassion, I also needed to strengthen my ability to trust. Mussar taught: You cannot love those whom you cannot trust, and when we cultivate trust, we inevitably loosen the grip fear holds on our heart. I had to trust that my children would find their own paths in life, to accept that it was not my job to insulate them from adversity and suffering. Mostly, what they needed from me was to show up, love them, and guide without controlling. To do this, I needed prayer—to learn to lean on and be guided by God.
A few months ago my va’ad and I started the third level of training: “Mussar In Action.” In addition to studying a different middah, or character trait, every two weeks, we were to take on a service project to help us cultivate several middot that are at the forefront of our soul curriculum, where we as individuals most needed to grow.
Part of me dreaded this assignment. I already do enough service in my life. I already put out so much to others. I’m too tired. I don’t have any extra time to take on another project. When I started exploring different possibilities—being a volunteer at a local nursing home, offering spiritual direction services with the homeless at a nearby church or with battered women at a shelter—the very thought of doing these things made me feel even more exhausted.
Then I received a mailing from our temple Sisterhood looking for volunteers to knit teddy bears for African children with AIDS as part of the Mother Bear Project. I’d just learned how to knit a few months earlier…this, I decided, would help me cultivate generosity, gratitude, and joy—three middot on my curriculum.
Well, what started out as a way to fulfill a class assignment turned out to be much more. I’ve grown very fond of my fellow knitters, who range in age from the 20s through the 70s; and I feel more connected to my grandmother, who knitted throughout my growing-up years (in fact, I now use her knitting needles). When we knitters get together, we talk about life and Judaism, about the children who will be recipients of our bears, and about other groups all around the country who are knitting bears as a result of one woman’s mission to make sure that these African children know they are not alone. And I started feeling so good about the knitting project, I began looking for other ways to make a difference for others. I served breakfast at 6:00 A.M.on one dark, extremely cold winter morning to homeless families spending the night at our synagogue. It gave me joy to teach one young boy the airplane game (food on the spoon that flies into the mouth) I used to play with my own children.
With each act of service I wanted to do more: visiting my yoga teacher in the hospital after she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, paying a shiva call to a neighbor who lost his father, turning in a lost mitten I found in the JCC parking lot, bringing chocolates to a friend recently diagnosed with cancer, being extra patient with the new employee in an optical store who had just started her job and didn’t know how to get me the contact lenses I needed for my son. Serving others no longer leaves me feeling depleted and burdened. Instead, I thank God for making it possible for me to open my heart even wider in order to make a difference.
Mussar has helped me stay steady during the most challenging times of my life, providing a cushion of compassion when I struggle, and a compass when I feel lost and without direction. It helps me to open my heart, to feel a connection with each person I meet, and to be mindful of my blessings, even on the most difficult days.
I feel more ease in my life.
Fran Zimmerman, a psychologist and spiritual director in private practice, belongs to Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.