One of the many things that draws me to study and practice Mussar is an affinity I have for being alone and engaging in introspection. For as long as I can remember, I have enjoyed taking walks alone in nature and spending quality time with my inner self.
We know that falsehood [שקר ] in speech or action has a destructive effect on our relationships. But we perhaps do even greater harm to our spiritual lives by speaking and living falsely or with inconsistencies and without integrity. Why do we lie? Why do we live with inconsistencies? There is certainly no one answer.
Unbeknownst to me, my Mussar journey began in October 2003 when I heard Alan Morinis speak at a Jewish healing conference in the Bay Area. I remember being impressed by his story and his approachability, but I did not consider pursuing the practice of Mussar because I was overwhelmed at that time.
Living at the end of a very long peninsula can sometimes be isolating. You can drive most of the day and still be in Florida. When I was recently in the Northeast, I realized just how isolated we are in our little paradise. In three or four hours, you can be in Boston, or New York, or New Jersey, or Philadelphia, or Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. All of those communities boast a strong Mussar presence and many students of The Mussar Institute.
The word “transition” makes me think of a major life transition — marriage, divorce, birth, death, job loss, or move of the kind that has a major impact on our lives, whether positive or negative.
But the truth is that transitions need not be major. They are happening all the time. Less monumental transitions occur each year, month, week, day, and moment. Every time we face a choice about what to do, it is a point of transition, what might be called a choice point. We can choose to move ahead on a project with joy and enthusiasm or we can hold back in fear or lose energy along the way. We can start with great intentions and find out that we didn’t pay sufficient attention to detail.
One effective way to ensure that what you speak is truthful is suggested to us in a poem by the medieval Spanish Jewish poet Shmuel Ha’Nagid, who writes:
Delay your speech
if you want your words
to be straight and free of deceit—
as a master archer
is slow to take aim
when splitting a grain of wheat.
The practice, then, is to pause a beat before saying something, and in that instant to assess whether your words are “straight and free of deceit.”
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