For many years, I’ve heard from my Jewish friends and colleagues that Judaism just isn’t the spiritual practice they seem to be longing for — that they practice the religion because it’s part of their tradition, or because they don’t want to be responsible for “ending the line,” but that, in reality, being Jewish just doesn’t seem to offer much on a personal level.
And it doesn’t seem to help them out in their day-to-day lives.
I, too, have always wanted my Judaism to be relevant. I want it to make a difference in the way I live and how I treat others. I don’t want it to just be there for the three days a year that I go into a synagogue, re-evaluate my life and try to turn myself into a more loving and compassionate person.
I want to — maybe I even need to — have a daily practice to guide me. It’s important to have a way to remind myself of whom I want to be in the world. It’s even important for me to know I’m part of a deep connection to something bigger than myself, something that makes my small contribution matter a bigger way.
That is the gift that Mussar has brought into my life.
I’ve been studying and teaching Mussar for the last 10 years as part of Mussar Leadership at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City and it has transformed who I am and how I make my way in the world.
Mussar, which was developed in 18th century Eastern Europe, literally means “discipline.” It is a daily spiritual practice based on an ethical concern for others. The work is hard. I sometimes refer to it as the “spiritual Marines.” It requires daily study, a weekly group session and text review with a partner. But, most importantly, it requires a daily accounting of my soul — known as cheshbon hanefesh. It’s a process of raising my own consciousness to truly understand the impact I am having on other people and to make that impact as caring and compassionate as possible.
Cheshbon hanefesh asks me to take responsibility for my actions. Everything counts because every action I take truly does have a ripple effect on others. Mussar, quite simply, puts me on the hook for my behavior. I learned that I am not “entitled” to my anger or my impatience. It’s harmful to me and to others if I throw up my hands and act like negative feelings just happened to overwhelm me. I no longer accept that I was justified in hardening my heart toward another.
With the study of Mussar, I have come to believe that there are no victimless crimes. When I roll my eyes, sigh loudly and convey my exasperation at waiting in line at the store, the truth is that I have affected the cashier and possibly the people in line ahead of me and behind me. And that might mean that the cashier will be nastier to the next person in line, who is impatient with his or her child, who annoys the teacher, who is cranky with a fellow professional … the ripple is endless.
Through the practice of Mussar, I review my interactions with others through the lens of a particular middah, or value, such as patience, order or humility. I look at my encounters to see if I have made space to acknowledge the concerns, feelings, needs and burdens of those around me. Or did I have a day where I was simply too expedient or too scared or too self-concerned to do anything but try and get heard, ignoring the needs of others?
Mussar brings me beyond repentance to action. I’m not simply feeling remorseful. I have taken up a positive path of action, which always focuses on my unending responsibility to others. The questions always right in front of me are: “What is this person’s burden? And how can I support him or her?”
In the text Mesillat Yesharim, the author puts it this way. If I owned a business, at the end of every day, I would account for my efforts. Did I make a profit? Break even? Surely, he suggests, I should do the same thing for something as important as how I am living my life.
As in most spiritual traditions, Mussar does take practice on a daily basis. I am asked to act in a positive way even when I may be in inner turmoil. And it does get easier.
This accounting is our work as Jews during the Days of Awe, but here it has been extended to 365 days a year. We have the opportunity to see where we missed the mark, went off course and change the way we might respond the next time. With increased mindfulness, we have the opportunity to positively change the way we are in the world.
And to that, I say, “Amen.”
Miki Young is a madrich, or facilitator, of groups and a founding member of Mussar Leadership. Mussar Leadership groups are held around the area and throughout the country. For more information, email [email protected]  or call 215-735-5148.