straight • upright • righteous

newsletter of  The Mussar Institute


February 2013




“Character requires habituation, and habit rules all things, and all beginnings are difficult.”
— The Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (1720-1793)

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Through a Mussar Lens: Tree of Light

Avi FertigA few weeks ago a sudden power surge ended the life of the light fixture in my study. Although the study is in the middle of our apartment, right off the dining room, the small room also serves as our bomb shelter. For the past 15 years, Israeli law has required that every new apartment be built with its own bomb shelter. The walls are especially thick and reinforced with steel beams. I’m lucky that mine has a large window, closed in with two heavy metal doors, to maintain the secure nature of the room. Without my light fixture, I was forced to slide open those heavy doors each day so that the sunlight could illuminate the room.

Being without my light got me thinking. When I was a young boy, my mother took my siblings and me to the laboratory of Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb, among hundreds of other inventions that have changed the world. I recall the large facility, with its odd smell, the thousands of glass flasks of various sizes and shapes, the jars filled with strange powders and chemicals, the Bunsen burners, and the many other unique objects that filled the room. I imagine the scene that took place in that very room when, after thousands of failed attempts, Edison and his crew looked on as he pulled the lever sending the current to the bulb that finally took and glowed with light. Can you imagine the excitement?

Something new had entered the world and it would never be the same. The irony, though, is that Edison’s discovery has eroded our sensitivity to the changes that happen all around us—daily between day and night, monthly with the changing phases of the moon, and seasonally. Day bleeds into night without our even noticing; the changing length of daylight hours is no longer the defining structure of our lives. Extra effort is now required to reawaken ourselves to newness and change.

Habit, acting without thought, by rote, is an obstacle to our spiritual growth. I’m blessed to be around my children and my students who look at life through the tender eyes of the young. But now that I am firmly planted in middle age, I’ve noticed that to a large degree I’ve become, to quote a popular song, comfortably numb. My relationships are stale; my daily rituals have lost much of the meaning they once held for me. Change and newness require that we leave our comfort zone—something that becomes harder as we get more accustomed to life and our place within it.

Over the past few months I’ve been reflecting upon what has felt like spiritual malaise, and I realized where a renewed focus was needed. Mussar study and practice have long been a part of my overall spiritual regimen, but my commitment and my practices were beginning to wane. What Mussar seeks to accomplish is to counteract the pernicious effects of habit as it slowly creeps into our spiritual practices. Rav Yisrael Salanter defined Mussar as the Torah’s antidote to what he called timtum ha’lev, the closed heart that is no longer sensitive and supple. Mussar is meant to re-awaken us to the truths we know well but have “forgotten,” as they have become habitual features of our day. He wasn’t interested in introducing anything new as much as he wanted us to remain sensitive to what we already have.

The numbing effect of habit comes from the physical aspect of our beings and the physical world in which we live. The Hebrew word for habit is hergel, related to the word regel, meaning foot. The foot represents our physical nature—the lower half of our bodies. Walking is perhaps the most habitual thing we do. We never stop to contemplate the myriad processes that must come together perfectly so that we can take the next step. The nature of the physical is that it gets old, moldy and stale. Habit is when our hearts and minds are closed and we are governed by the lower half, the “foot,” so that we go through everything in the way we walk, devoid of conscious thought or focused will.

In contrast, the nature of the spiritual is freshness. It is the salt that must be applied to everything physical to maintain freshness, to infuse meaning, and not let the things we do become mere habit. As life goes on and we become more rooted in the physical ground, we must constantly infuse everything in our lives with the spiritual.

And this is exactly what the holiday of Tu B’Shvat reminds us to do. Tradition teaches that the New Year for trees is the 15th day of the month of Shvat, celebrated this year on Jan. 26. It is the time when the sap of the new growth has begun flowing and the dormant tree is waking from its winter slumber. Newness and re-growth are the lessons of the day.

The Torah compares people to trees (see Deuteronomy 20:19, based on Ibn Ezra). Trees are rooted deeply in the ground, but their branches extend toward the heavens. Trees remind us that even though we may be rooted deeply in the physical, we must constantly infuse our lives with meaning by reaching upward. On Tu B’Shvat we look to the trees, as they renew the process of growth and produce fruit, to remind us to refocus, renew, and to infuse our seemingly mundane world with the spiritual. When we refocus on adding meaning to whatever we do, nothing can be stale or habitual.

There is a widespread custom to eat the fruits of trees on Tu B’Shvat. Through this ritual, we infuse the mundane act of eating with meaning by connecting it to HaShem and to our holy purpose in the world. We look to the magnificent trees, whose roots may be earthly but whose branches are extended toward the heavens. We take the luscious fruit they bear and appreciate the gift that HaShem has bestowed upon us. We bless and remind ourselves to eat not solely for our physical enjoyment but so that we will have energy and strength to bring holiness to our lives and the lives of others.

When we elevate the physical things we do, when the world and everything in it become a means of forging closeness to our Creator, nothing is mundane, nothing is ordinary and nothing becomes stale. In the words of the RaMChaL (Derech HaShem 1:4:7), when we fuse the two dimensions of physical and spiritual, we “elevate ourselves and the world itself.” We become partners in the creative process that reveals HaShem’s glory for all to see.

Last night I finally replaced the light in my study. But the experience of the days without it, when change and newness were visible, palpable, stays with me. I’m grateful for the opportunity that increased involvement with The Mussar Institute brings to my life, to be among a community of individuals striving for growth, and I feel especially blessed to be sharing this wonderful process of renewed vigor together with you.


Newsletter Home
Through a Mussar Lens: Tree of Light – by Rabbi Avi Fertig
Welcome – by Jason Winston
Around the Mussar World: AishDas Society – by Rabbi Micha Berger
My Mussar Journey – by Nancy Weiss
February Special
The Practice Corner

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