1. “Plow the fields first,” says Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, California. Pre-Rosh Hashanah is the perfect time to start laying the groundwork. “On the High Holidays rabbis can introduce a specific middah (character trait) such as achrayut (responsibility), and then use it in sermons and articles,” says co-spiritual leader Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen. Also, remember, says Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, Arizona, “most folks don’t know what Mussar is. So speak from the bimah about it often.” The Mussar Institute (www.mussarinstitute.org) can help you with this and most steps that follow.
2. Create an adult discussion/study program around this Focus section. Alan Morinis, founding director of The Mussar Institute, has created a Discussion/Study Guide to this material that will delve deeper into some of the issues raised in these articles, offer text study, and suggest practices each individual can do to increase awareness and taste some of the fruit of applying Mussar to his/her own life and relationships. Download a free copy of this Discussion/Study Guide.
3. Offer an adult education course—at the right time, and with a catchy title. Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen engaged moms in a 10-week “Mussar for Moms” class course right after they dropped their children off at day school. Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen called his men-only course “Spiritual Growth for Guys: Mussar for Men.” The name “makes it accessible,” he says.
4. Teach character traits in religious school. Tell stories and distribute handouts to be taken home and discussed with parents, says Rabbi Nancy Wechsler-Azen. One she’s used involves the middah of hit-cahyvute, or keeping commitments, with God’s name as a witness: “Judaism tells us that when we make a promise, it needs to be a promise that we keep…even little things like following through on homework or setting the table.” She emails her teachers a middah of the week along with a short lesson and concrete examples each Monday for use the following Sunday.
5. Promote Mussar through your bulletin and website. Besides advertising Mussar events, consider following in the “websteps” of one of Rabbi Cohn’s congregants (at her former temple, Emanu-El in San Francisco), who developed a website featuring the middah of the week. Rabbi Cohn also advises sending temple members a brief teaching about the current middah and a weekly link to the site.
Leonard Felson is a writer based in Hartford, Connecticut.
10 TEACHINGS TO LIVE BY
1. “A good Jew is not one who looks out for another person’s soul and his own stomach, but rather the other person’s stomach and his own soul.” —Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810–1883), founder of the Mussar movement
2. “A person’s primary mission in the world is to purify and elevate the soul.” —Rabbi Yechezkiel Levenstein (1895–1974), Mussar supervisor of the Mir Yeshiva
3. “Take time, be exact, unclutter the mind.”—Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (1824–1898), founder of the Kelm branch of Mussar
4. “When one thinks deeply about the world, one understands everything differently. One sees that one’s purpose is to elevate oneself and thereby the entire world too. Contemplation can transform a person!”—Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953), Mussar supervisor of the Ponevezh Yeshiva
5. “The person of understanding will always search for [wisdom] to the best of his abilities until he uncovers it, reveals it and draws it out of this heart, like one would to get at water in the depths of the earth.”—Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, author of The Duties of the Heart, written in 1040
6. “As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that he is remote from true service.”—Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
7. “The Maharal of Prague [Rabbi Judah Loeb, d. 1609] created a golem, and this was a great wonder. But how much more wonderful to transform a corporeal human being into a mensch!”
—Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
8. “How are our personalities, which need so much rectifying and setting straight, going to be rectified and set straight if we do not apply ourselves to the task with a great persistence?”—Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746), author of The Path of the Just, written in 1740
9. “The problem with people is that they want to change overnight and have a good night’s sleep that night too.”—Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz (1849–1919), founder of the Novarodock branch of Mussar
10. “It is the work of a lifetime. And that’s why you were given a lifetime in which to do it.”—Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv