Immersed in Israel with TMI
By Elizabeth Eastman
When signing up for The Mussar Institute’s Israel trip, I knew that it might be hard to be away from my husband and our 13-year-old twins. But I also knew that this trip presented a rare opportunity for me: to study with Mussar people, many of whom I had met at Practice Retreats and the Kallah, to room with my friend and chevruta, and to spend time with and learn from Alan Morinis and Avi Fertig, as well as other well-respected and beloved teachers. I had been to Israel once before, just last summer, and the idea of returning to Israel for the sightseeing, food, shopping, and culture was also appealing.
Although those aspects of the trip were enjoyable, it was the interactions that had a bigger positive impact on me. Being with the group almost 24/7 was, at times, challenging, and it presented all of us with opportunities to practice the middot of patience, chesed, and honor, among others. More significantly, though, the intensity of the experience bonded us in a positive way. Friendships developed or deepened, and we supported one another when needs arose, whether someone was struggling spiritually with a teaching, having emotional needs come up, or needing help physically. It is said that one way to build trust in a relationship is to take risks together and then “to be there” for the other on an emotional level. What I saw was that, very naturally, we took risks, such as opening up to the teachings and sharing from the heart. We were there for one another, and trust developed or deepened.
Some experiences were simply joyful, such as going to the home of Avi and his wife, Esti, where they and their children hosted us for dinner and for a teaching from Rabbi Yaakov Haber. That evening stands out for me as one of the happiest; it clearly was for others as well.
What was truly remarkable were all the teachings. I returned with many “take homes” to apply to my spiritual life. Following are some, which, as we learned, are not new, but may remind us of what we already know.
- The purpose of Mussar, Alan taught, is to become exquisitely sensitive (to the needs of others and self) and flexible. Alan reminded us that Rabbi Salanter taught that Mussar is for women as well as men—
- When there is resistance to doing a practice, that is the place to work: do the practice as an opportunity for growth.
- Avi taught that prayer is the combination of having thoughts about God along with a desire to connect with God.
- Alan taught us about holiness: We are all whole, made in the likeness of God. The goal is for more holiness to come out through us and into the world. Mussar is the process of uncovering the holiness.
- Micha Berger taught that in order to have a feeling of calm on Shabbat, we need to experience the calm in a small way, and then notice we are experiencing the calm. Then we can replicate the experience more easily.
- Working on restraint requires willpower and the limiting of desire. Motivation can be asking, “What do I want my kids to be like?” If I do this practice with good intention, eventually it will become part of who I am.
- When feeling angry or resentful towards someone, doing acts of lovingkindness for them can help change our feelings towards them, giving us a feeling of being invested in their well-being. (How fortunate I was to have had Alan’s wife, Bev, as a model of lovingkindness.)
- Rabbi Haber made three points: make it a practice of finding one good thing in everyone we meet; in choosing between two seemingly equal mitzvot, choose the one that is harder— to train us, to help us discipline ourselves; when someone is doing something wrong/
bad, push them away with your left hand and pull them with your right, and you will turn them around.
- It is possible to learn to stop getting angry, Rabbi Kaplan taught. Saying several times a day, “Anger gets me nothing but anger” will lessen anger in time.
- What Rabbi Wolbe wanted from his students more than anything else, Alan taught us, was that they teach themselves from their own experience. If transformation is my goal, then I need to be curious about my own experience and ask myself, “What am I learning about myself? What am I internalizing?”
- The changes we gain in Mussar are not ours to claim as our doing. We are like a hamster on the hamster wheel: our job is to keep running, and we get fed, Alan taught. A good reminder for humility and yirah.
I am grateful that I got to go on this trip, for the experience and for all the teachings. It was challenging but worth it—
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