One of my earliest spiritual guides was a meditation teacher who began and ended his lessons with the same encouragement: “Do spiritual practice now,” he would say, “so you will have it when you need it.”
That idea is very central to Mussar as a spiritual discipline. It shows up in the distinction that can be drawn between Mussar practice and Mussar work. Practice is what we do when we study Mussar texts and engage in contemplative methods such as meditation, chanting and visualization.
Being exposed to Mussar practices and teachings has brought me greater awareness of Jewish traditions I never learned as a child. We celebrated Pesach each year, but there was no discussion of the counting of the Omer and nary a word about Shavuot.
This month’s theme of Preparation links to the upcoming counting of the Omer and the giving of the Torah (not to discount the amount of preparation needed for Pesach either, mind you). While these ancient practices might be new to me, I appreciate their value in helping me focus my Mussar practice as well.
I have a Hebrew class each Friday morning. One recent morning as I prepared, I was steeling myself for a fellow student who annoys me quite a lot. She does no homework (she declares that; it’s not a mean thing I’m saying). She takes up a lot of class time asking questions, despite her policy of not doing homework. She takes up a lot of class time derailing the discussion, from grammar to the weather or more personal topics. She gives me lots of practice each week with patience.Read more
by Rabbi Avi Fertig
Not long ago, I began a webinar for the founding members of TMI by saying, “good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, whatever is appropriate in your time zone.” It’s always exhilarating for me to know that through our activities, seekers of Jewish wisdom and practice are being brought together from “Around the Mussar World.”
Traditionally, one who studies and practices Mussar is referred to as a ba’al Mussar. The term literally means an “owner” or a “master” of Mussar. I don’t know about you, dear readers, but when the term is applied to me, I cringe.
The word bareich, usually translated as “Bless!” is actually rooted in the word bereicha, which means “pool.” Technically speaking, a bereicha is a pool that receives the water of a ma’ayan, a spring or well. Water emerges from the earth through a ma’ayan and pools together in a bereicha.
A beracha, then, while usually translated as “a blessing,” is actually a place where certain spiritual energies and resources pool together. When we say a blessing over an apple, for example, we are calling for the Source of All Energy to gather some of that energy into this apple.
A Mussar practice to prepare for situations of test involves visualizing yourself in that situation.
First, identify a negative choice you are prone to make, or a temptation you are likely to give into that you know you should not. Call to mind images of yourself after the fact, and especially the emotions you felt. Regret? Guilt? Shame?
Then, visualize the counterpart situation, in which you made the choice that leans in the direction of the holy and the good. Feel the accompanying emotions—of satisfaction, relief, gratitude or whatever is true for you.
Make those images and emotions real for you. Visualize yourself in the very situation making both the negative and positive choices, with the feelings that come from each. This is how Mussar practice prepares you for the real work of Mussar, in moments of test.
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