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Through A Mussar Lens

By Alan Morinis

We are now between the festivals of Pesach and Shavuot, a period during which it is traditional to study Pirkei Avot [The Chapters of the Fathers]. Pirkei Avot focuses on spiritual ethics and character, and has been selected for study now by our sages because it provides just the help we need to ready ourselves to be worthy to receive the Torah, as we do on Shavuot.

I’d like to learn just one mishnah from Pirkei Avot with you (2:13). I see this one as a very important Jewish teaching because it expresses a fundamental principle of spiritual living for us to consider and embrace.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students, “Go out and find the straight path – to which a person should devote himself.” Rabbi Eliezer said, “A good eye.” Rabbi Yehoshua said, “A good friend.” Rabbi Yosi said, “A good neighbor.” Rabbi Shimon said, “To foresee the outcome of your actions.” Rabbi Elazar said, “A good heart.”

Rabbi Yochanon responded, “I prefer the view of Rebbi Elazar, for all of your words are contained in ‘a good heart.’”

Lovely, no? The straight path to which we should devote ourselves is defined by “a good heart.” To be good-hearted is fundamental, and all the other suggestions of the rabbis stand on that foundation. If you have a good heart, you will have a good eye (which means that you will judge others favorably), good friendships and the wisdom to see what will come about as a result of what you do today, whether favorable or negative.

But think about it for a moment: how useful is that teaching? I have to say, not very. Just pointing out that good-heartedness is the key inner trait to which we should aspire has almost no effect on generating that good-heartedness. It’s like being told what your ideal blood pressure or cholesterol should be. That information is important, but in reality it has zero direct impact on the level of your blood pressure or cholesterol.

This is why Mussar exists. The sages of the Jewish tradition set the ideal for us, but we need help to make that ideal a living reality in our lives. Otherwise, the guidance of the sages remains intellectual and theoretical and has no real effect on our lives. Mussar steps in at this point to answer the question, “How can I develop a good heart?”

Cultivating the heart involves spiritual growth and even transformation. The Alter of Novarodock, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, gets us started in the right direction on this task by pointing out that the intellect is not a very useful tool when it comes to spiritual growth:

If he knows all this only with his mind and not with his sense, he will find that his mental effort yields only a mental [i.e., abstract] result, not a sensory [i.e., actual] one. Even though the mental effort enables him to quiet the ferment of human nature and evil attributes while he is speaking of moral ideals, he cannot at all master his predilections and forgo his passions and rejoice in the verdict of God. This is so because his effort was not to educate himself to actually put things into practice, but only to mentally comprehend the proper worldview, the whole way of life, the ‘how, what and where.’ (translated by R’ Elyakim Krumbein in Musar for Moderns)

Applied to our mishnah, the Alter is saying that knowing how important it is to have a good heart is only theoretical knowledge. That knowledge itself doesn’t produce a good heart. For that, we need to go beyond the intellect.

The Alter would not deny that it is important that we understand what a good heart is because this is how we define the target toward which we can aim. There are, of course, many interpretations of what it means to be good-hearted. One that particularly appeals to me is that of the Maharal (in Tiferet Yisrael), who says that having a good heart —in Hebrew, lev tov—means acting for the benefit of others in a joyful way.

This is a beautiful and far-reaching ideal for us to bring into our lives. The good heart will cause us to be willingly and joyfully generous to others. We will rejoice in their success and happiness, joining our hearts to theirs. We will delight in the opportunity to sustain them however we can, whether emotionally or financially, with our words or with our possessions.

OK, that sounds like an ideal that is worth pursuing. It surely defines a situation that is different from how most of us ordinarily respond to other people. Far from rejoicing in the opportunity to benefit others, it’s much more likely that we will be envious of them, blame them for their misfortunes, cling to our resources for our own needs, or even wish ill on others. Our untrained hearts slip much more easily into judgment, envy, selfishness and hostility than the goodness that shows up as joy in being helpful and generous to others.

So how in reality can we become more good-hearted than we already are? What is going to touch the heart to bring about a lasting transformation? The Alter has provided us with a guideline, which he derives from his own teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, when he points to “sensory learning” as the answer. Learning with the emotions touches the heart in a way the intellect can’t. As Rabbi Salanter said, “The biggest distance in the universe is the distance between the head and the heart.” We need to learn of the goal but not stop there. We shouldn’t think that acquiring that information will have much impact on the heart itself. 

The Mussar way to cultivate a good heart requires that you practice in a way that brings your emotions into play, in order that “sensory learning” can take place. A classic way to do so is to repeat a phrase to yourself, over and over, allowing your emotions to infuse the recitation with passion. This is the Mussar practice known as hitpa’alut or hispailus.

The practice involves repeating a phrase to yourself, whether in English, Hebrew or any other language. On the topic of a good heart, there is a phrase that shows up frequently in the liturgy, in which we ask God to purify our hearts: V’taher libeinu, which literally means, “and purify our hearts.” This is a good phrase for the task, though I suggest you alter it slightly to the singular from the plural, so you will be addressing your own spiritual heart:

Repeat to yourself, preferably aloud:

Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart…

Taher libiTaher libiTaher libiTaher libi

Bring real feeling into each repetition. The emotion you bring to your chant sweeps clean your heart, sweeping out the envy, anger, hostility, judgment.

Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart…

Taher libiTaher libiTaher libiTaher libi

Feel the purity you seek and chant with that cleansed quality in mind. Experience the purified heart you seek.

Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart… Purify my heart…

Taher libiTaher libiTaher libiTaher libi

Chant for as long as the emotion will build and sustain, then allow it to settle and calm, and complete the practice. Daily repetition of this practice, say, for 10 minutes, will infuse your heart with the energy of purification. The passion you bring to it will etch a lasting trace on your heart itself, in a way the intellect never can.

We learn the goal of good-heartedness in Pirkei Avot, and the Mussar masters show us how to reach the goal. Each instance of passionate practice leaves its trace on the soul, because we will have had a real, bodily, emotional experience, and that’s what brings about change. In the terms of psychophysiology, each episode of practice like this will cause a set of neurons to fire in sequence. In time, that repeated triggering of brain pathways will cause “the neurons that fire together to wire together.” Through practice you will bring about a rewiring that will rework the pathways of your heart, in a lasting way. A good heart will be yours, and we will all thank you for that, because you will be a blessing in our lives.

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