The Mussar Institute

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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 Pazi

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.



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".


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, 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.


The distinctive coloring and balance of the soul traits comprising the nefesh in each one of us are what make us each unique. In Hebrew, the word for these traits is middot. Mussar offers us the valuable insight that each of us is actually endowed at birth with every single one of the full range of the human traits of character. What distinguishes one person from another, though, is the degree, or measure, of the traits that live in each of our souls, and, while the word middot is almost always translated as "traits of character," literally it does mean "measure."

The angriest person, for example, has an excess of the anger trait, but Mussar insists that there is still some degree of calm within that raging soul. The stingiest person still possesses at least a grain of generosity, and even the most dishonest or lazy or arrogant individual will have some measure of the opposite within. It's not whether we have the traits—all of us have them all—but where we fall on the continuum that gives us our distinctive personality, our way of being in the world.

The Mussar texts are full of guidance for our understanding of a variety of inner states - love and hate, pride and humility, mercy and cruelty, joy and worry, as well as many other familiar human traits - but in fact the lists given in these books aren't meant to tell us everything we need to know about the middot. They are provided simply as starting points for our own personal inner investigations.

The levels of the middot in each of us are set at birth, and then, as we go through life, every deed and every thought—whether from experience or, more deliberately, from spiritual practice—comes to be "inscribed" in the soul, and, in consequence, the levels of our middot are raised or lowered. Mussar calls on us to focus attention on just those middot that are problematic in our personal lives and that prevent the full light of our neshama or holiness from shining through.

For that, there is Mussar practice.

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