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What is Mussar?

 

THE MUSSAR WAY
“By this time I had already come to see myself as a soul. That’s one of the first things any student of Mussar needs to understand and acknowledge, deeply and clearly. Each of us is a soul. Mostly we have been told that we “have” a soul, but that’s not the same thing. To have a soul would indicate that we are primarily an ego or a personality that in some way “possesses” a soul.

The first step on the path of Mussar is to unlearn that linguistic misconception and to realize that our essence is the soul and that all aspects of ego and personality flow from that essence. At its core, the soul is pure, but habits, tendencies and imbalances often obscure some of that inner light.

The lessons of Mussar are all intended to help us correct whatever shortcomings may be preventing the light of our soul from shining through.” —Excerpt from Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

 
WHAT IS MUSSAR?
Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.

The Jewish community spawned Mussar to help people overcome the inner obstacles that hinder them from living up to the laws and commandments—the mitzvot—that form the code of life. That community tends to see Mussar as inseparable from its own beliefs and practices, but the human reality Mussar addresses is actually universal, and the gifts it offers can be used by all people.

 
MAP OF THE INNER LIFE

“The soul fills the body, as God fills the world. The soul bears the body, as God bears the world. The Soul outlasts the body, as God outlasts the world. The soul is one in the body, as God is one in the body, as God is one in the world. The soul sees and is not seen, as God sees and is not seen. The soul is pure in the body, even as God is pure in the world…” Rabbi Simeon Ben Paz

The inner life that we experience, and the roots of thought that reach down into the darkness of the subconscious, are features of the life of the soul.

 
ASPECTS OF THE SOUL
Neshama

Neshama is the most elevated and purest aspect of soul and it shines at the deepest core of our being. “In my body he has kindled a lamp from his glory,” begins a poem by Moses ibn Ezra, referring to the light of the neshama. In the morning prayers it says “God, the soul [neshama] you have given me is pure”.

 

Ruach

The next dimension of the soul that Mussar identifies is called ruach, that aspect of the soul that is the source of animation and vigor – no more, and no less, than the “spirit of life.”

 

Nefesh

Nefesh, the third level of the soul is the aspect that is most visible and accessible to us. It includes all those inner aspects that link us to our lives on earth, including the physical body, so that body and soul are, in fact, a single, indivisible whole. Without the soul, the body is dust. Without sensation and the play of physical forces, the soul has no connection to the earth. It is the union of body and soul that gives rise to human experience.

The nefesh is the seat of all our emotions and appetites, the realm of personality and identity. If our nefesh is clear and unblemished, the light of the neshama will shine through without obstruction; if it is foggy, the light will be obstructed. Just as clouds determine how much sunshine makes it to earth, the nefesh acts as the “atmosphere” of our lives. The features of the soul that connect us to this world – personality, character, appetites, aversions, strengths, weaknesses – determine whether the holiness that is there at our core shines out or not, or to what degree. The goal of Mussar is to help us build up, or reduce, or balance the features of our life that cause the light within to brighten or dim, and so it focuses our attention on the nefesh.

 

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