Rabbi (Rav) Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) was a renowned Litvak, Talmudist and founder of the Mussar movement, mentored by Rabbi Zundel. They both lived very modest, humble, minimalist lives. Rav Salanter was appointed the head of a yeshiva in Vilna, where he acquired his own following.
In 1848, the Czarist regime built a Rabbinical School and offered Rabbi Salanter a Professorship in Talmudic studies. Fearful of the Czarist agenda, he declined the offer and moved to Kovno, where he founded a Mussar yeshiva and continued to live very humbly by choice, unconcerned with material status. It’s said that he did not own books and his religious garments were threadbare. His teachings and means to convey them were his riches.
There’s no greater disease than the loss of hope. There’s no greater illness than discouragement. Scriptural study is not the end to itself, it must be accompanied by ethical study and conduct. Promote yourself, but do not demote another.Rav Yisrael Salanter
By 1939 Mussar was well-established in Eastern European yeshivot until the teachers and practitioners were murdered in the Holocaust.
Today, Mussar is experiencing a resurgence in all branches of Judaism.
Mussar means moral conduct, instruction, correction or discipline.
Mussar practice advocates a three step approach to cultivation:
1) Start your day by audibly stating your Mussar intention.
2) Actively practice a Mussar middah (character trait) of the day.
3) Keep a journal of your progress, thoughts and feelings.
Mussar focuses on achieving a balance between mindfulness towards others and self-mindfulness. It’s imperative to identify that which diminishes your Divine light, while not diminishing the Divine light of others.
There are 48 Middot in Mussar literature. Rav Salanter emphasized 13 Middot — Humility, Gratitude, Patience, Honor, Generosity, Kindness, Strength, Tranquility, Trust, Enthusiasm, Order (everything has a place), Awareness and Truth.
The following are eight of eighteen middot explored in “Everyday Holiness” by Alan Morinis.
The meanings attached to the Mussar Middot (character traits) below are imbued with my own understandings and contemplations.
Hitlamdut: Self-Reflexive Torah Learning
A Mitlamed is a person who practices Hitlamdut. Hitlamdut is not recitation or memorization of scripture, it’s internalized learning with a beginner’s approach akin to the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin (beginner’s mind), even when one is at an advanced level. A Hebrew word for GD and Torah is Mayim Chayim (Living Waters). We are to flow like living waters, not get stuck in the muck of own heads.
Anavah: Humility / Modesty
A person with humility doesn’t always need to grab the limelight and take up more space than needed to self-actualize. A modest person has a healthy degree of self-value, while holding space to shine a light on the gifts (wisdom and knowledge) of others.
Everyone should have two pockets, each containing a piece of paper. On one it should be written, “The world was created for me” and on the other “I am but dust and ashes.”Rabbi Simcha Bunim
Savlanut: Patience / Forbearance / Tolerance
This word translates to “carry a load; to endure; to suffer.” A related and interconnected Hebrew word is sivlot, meaning ‘burdens.” In Shemot/Exodus 6:6 God says “I will free you from the burdens (sivlot) of mitzrayim.” Mitzrayim means a narrow, constricted space.
A Hasidic commentary interprets Shemot 6:6 as “I will free you from the tolerance of mitzrayim.” This implores us to understand the harm done when we are taught to tolerate mistreatment, marginalization and ‘smallness’ (constriction). Patience is a virtue, but misguided tolerance can be detrimental to our wellbeing.
Chesed is a supreme mitzvah in Judaism. The Talmud teaches that GD created Repentance before creating the physical universe (Nedarim 39b). Loving-kindness cannot exist without repentance and atonement to people you have wounded with or without intent. Sometimes kindness is a simple act, other times it requires courage, accountability and creativity.
Kavod: Honor / Dignity
We can see how honor and dignity are interconnected in the term kavod habriyot (human dignity). Kavod habriyot is an interactive mitzvah of utmost importance. In what ways can you honor others as well as yourself? In what way is human dignity lacking in your relationships or community dynamic? Relationships cannot be healthy without human dignity as the foundation.
Shtika and Shmirat HaLashon: Contemplative Silence and Mindful Speech
Contemplative silence (Shtika) and guarding the tongue (Shmirat HaLashon) is not about repression. It’s about knowing there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. It’s important in every interaction to know when it’s your time to speak and when it’s your time to listen. When speaking to another or others, it’s equally important to be mindful of your words and tone. Silence can be mindful or it can be detrimental. Plato and other great philosophers, equated silence with acquiescence and accordance. The silence of family and friends can cause irreparable harm.
“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is an act.”Deitrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident
Bitachon: Trust / Confidence / Security
Bitachon represents qualities that are foundational to mental health and healthy relationships. We must feel safe with a person for a relationship to be trustworthy and non-toxic. We must feel safe in our religious and interpersonal environments to thrive and feel good about our contributions to the world.
Emunah: Faith / Trustworthiness
Emunah is typically translated as “Faith,” yet it also means “Trustworthiness.” A lack of trustworthiness can cause a crisis of faith. Have you ever lost trust in a friend, close family member, clergy-person or religious community? Faith and Trustworthiness are interdependent experiences.
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I often use GD as my version of G-d, a traditional spelling in Judaism that is used outside of prayer.