Spiritual growth and development are essential to Judaism. Mussar offers a pathway. To learn more, go to mussarinstitute.org
It is said that we humans can’t understand the meaning of our lives any better than fish in an aquarium can understand their own. Confined to our own environment, we cannot escape to an outside vantage point from which to look onto and make sense of our existence. Still, we humans do have an advantage over the fish. We come equipped with another way of knowing: through the heart.
By attending to the lessons of our hearts, we can glean insight into the meaning of our lives.
In Jewish thought, the heart has many functions. Kohelet Rabbah (the rabbinical commentary on Ecclesiastes) explains that the heart sees and hears, stands and falls, feels and knows, breaks and heals. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873–1936), the late spiritual supervisor of the Mir Yeshiva, says the heart is like a seismograph, recording every tiny tremor that passes through us, even if our conscious minds remain unaware of the impact.
But if the heart is recording every fluctuation, how can we possibly focus on the particular lessons the heart can teach us about life’s meaning?
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells of a powerful king who can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without restraint. What lesson has this king learned after a lifetime of pursuing wealth, possessions, pleasure, and other worldly goals? The answer appears in the last line of the book: “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, yirah God and keep His* commandments, for this is the whole of the person” (12:13).
Understanding the use of the Hebrew word yirah here provides the key to accessing the heart’s wisdom about the meaning of life.
This word appears 41 times in Torah. Often it carries promise. In Psalms, for example, the promise is happiness: “Happy is the person l’yirah the Lord” (112:1). In the Book of Job the promise is wisdom: “Behold, the yirah of the Lord is wisdom” (28:28). It can also connote reverence, as in Leviticus 19:3: “Every person shall yirah his mother and his father.” Another understanding is awe, as we see in the story in the Book of Kings I, when Solomon determines which of two women is the real mother of a child by watching how they react to his threat to cut the baby in two. The verse says, “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they had yirah of the king, because they saw that he had wisdom from God.”
And, sometimes, yirah means “fear,” as in the last line of the Adon Olam prayer: “God is with me, I will not yirah (fear)” or Psalm 27:1: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I yirah?”
But yirah can mean much more than promise or reverence or awe or fear. To get a real understanding of what yirah means, imagine yourself in the following situations:
You stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, looking down into a vast, deep, magnificent chasm. At one and the same time you may feel dread at the sheer drop into the yawning abyss, astonishment at the beauty of the immense gorge, and perhaps a sense of the divine majesty in our world.
You gaze upon the night sky and behold the millions of glimmering stars that reach billions of light years into the past. You feel terrified by your smallness and vulnerability in this expanse and simultaneously awed at the immensity of space, and perhaps a sense of reverence for the mysterious source of this unfathomable universe.
The Book of Jonah describes such a yirah experience. The prophet is sleeping in the hold of a boat when a great storm blows in. “Then [the sailors] had yirah for the Lord exceedingly” (1:16). If you have ever been engulfed in a great storm, you know how terrifying it is—you fear for your life—as tumultuous forces of nature thunder around you. Yet at the same time, you may feel awe for the astounding power of nature and its Source.
Can you think of times like these in your life—when you felt so overwhelmed by power and mystery that it triggered awe, fear, and reverence in one intertwined experience? Perhaps when you gave birth to a child? When you drove through a blinding snowstorm? When you held the hand of a loved one whose soul was departing?
I’ve come to believe that every human being has yirah experiences to one degree or another, because, strange as it may sound, I think that God and Costco had the same idea. How so? At Costco you can find free samples in almost every aisle. In the same way, each of us is given free tastes of all the important spiritual traits as we pass through the avenues of our lives. If it weren’t for the free samples, how would we know what love is, or kindness, compassion, generosity, or indeed yirah—the most important spiritual traitof all, for it is the beginning of wisdom, the source of happiness, and “the whole of a person”?
Just as a bolt of lightning briefly lights up the dark world, offering a glimpse of reality we do not ordinarily see, an experience of awe-fear-reverence can draw back a habitual curtain to unveil the precious holiness that is the essence of all life. It is when our hearts are spontaneously overtaken by yirah that we taste and feel that which is profoundly and eternally real and always present before and within us.
Once we have tasted this free sample of profound holiness, how can we bring it home and make it part of our lives?
One means is Mussar, an ancient Jewish tradition that teaches us the importance of cultivating ideal inner traits and then shows us how we can do that in our lives. Mussar practice helps us to identify which of our inner traits impede our spiritual insight and growth, and provides a method for recalibrating those inner traits so we can approach the world with a more open heart and more spiritual awareness. Mussar guides me in my efforts to open my heart to yirah and to become more adept at connecting to the transcendent in any of life’s timeless moments—beholding a flower, the flow of traffic, the beat of a drum, a stranger’s face, the flight of a bird….
To cultivate this capacity, Mussar stresses that we must first recognize any internal habits such as impatience, laziness, worry, and greed that are sure to block our access to deeper truths. If we devote ourselves to overcoming those inner impediments, then we will succeed in circumcising our hearts, which is how the Torah describes the inner sensitivity that makes possible our experience of yirah (Deuteronomy 10:16). From the Mussar perspective, these habits aren’t just quirks of character or weaknesses; nor are they necessarily anyone’s “fault.” But they are barriers to our spiritual growth and they keep us disconnected from other people and from God. If, through journaling and discussions, we can become aware of which traits operate as barriers in our lives, we may see patterns of anger we might not have noticed before, be surprised at how often we become impatient, or see how habitual our tendency to worry has become. Then we can begin cultivating the opposite tendency. If we are angry we can foster equanimity, if we are impatient we can work at patience, if we are worried we can practice trust, and so on.
The second stage to developing a greater capacity to experience awe-fear-reverence—and, in so doing, to learning its lessons—involves making the effort to stop and pay attention to the profundity of this very moment—every moment—recognizing that if we do not, its deep truth will escape us. To do this we need to take conscious steps to free ourselves from excessive involvement with the ferociously invasive clutter of life. Unending fixation on communication devices, trivial news, and our hectic schedules stand in the way of spiritual awareness. Only by forcing back relentless engagement to clear some open space in our lives can we be present to the moment enough that it will yield up its deeper truth.
Leading a frantic life gives rise to another, internal kind of busyness that also cuts us off from the present moment. The ceaseless chatter that possesses the mind allows us only a superficial experience, remote and disconnected from the profound life lessons available to us, if only we would touch inwards, deeply.
Sometimes when I am giving a talk, I ask the audience to tell me which film won the Oscar for Best Picture two years ago or which team won the World Series that same year. Most people have no idea. At the time of these competitions, the airwaves are filled with every detail of who wore and won what, but it is soon forgotten. This is in itself a lesson about spending less time on the trivial and more on the words, thoughts, and deeds informed by the spiritual depths present this moment, every moment. This is the beginning of wisdom and the source of happiness to which the ancient texts point.
Jewish tradition underlines the importance of yirah experiences because they are the great teacher, helping us to understand the meaning of our lives with a steadfast conviction. These lessons are learned not through our mind, but through what our heart has come to know through experience.
Because I so value the lessons I learn from my own heart’s yirah experiences, I have restructured my life so I am as available to it as it is to me. Recently my cell phone broke, and when I went to replace it I told the clerk I expressly did not want a smartphone because I did not want my email accessible to me all the time. Rather, I choose to carve out quiet, uncluttered, open time, so I can welcome the expansive and tender yirah experience into my heart.
Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, interprets the same last verse from Ecclesiastes—“The end of the matter, everything having been heard, yirah God and keep His Commandments, for this is the whole of the person”—to mean that yirah is in fact the purpose of a human being. Purpose arises from encountering all of the moments that make up the life each of us has been blessed to have in this world.
*The gendered translations from the Tanach in this article do not reflect the theology of the author or of the Reform Movement.
Alan Morinis, author of Climbing Jacob's Ladder and Everyday Holiness, is founder and dean of The Mussar Institute, which provides courses on developing and improving inner life traits as spiritual practice.