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First Explorations in Musar
Kol Nidre 2008

It’s July 21. I’m sitting in the Toronto airport having just visited my mother who lives in Toronto. I’m waiting to board the airplane back to Bradley and, of course, there is a delay. I’m actually not too bothered. For once, I’m not rushing back to a meeting. But not everyone else is quite so calm. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice someone stepping back from the desk at the gate. I hear her say, “First, they didn’t have my name on the passenger list. Now they’re late. I’m so angry I could shoot that woman at the gate.”

And you won’t believe what happened next!

Actually, nothing.

Everyone ignored the angry lady. I went back to my reading although a small bit of my mind continued to jangle with the vibrations of that anger.

Some time later we did board the plane – a little Air Canada jet that seats 40 people. Then we waited again until an attendant walked over to the woman in front of me and told her they were removing her luggage because the plane was overweight and her bags were the last to have been put on board.

What do you think happened? My fellow passenger went “ballistic.”

Five minutes later the attendant returned and asked a gentleman towards the front (a fairly large man) if he would leave the plane because that would reduce our weight enough for takeoff. I don’t have to tell you how the man reacted. In fact, by this time almost everyone on board was getting angry.

And me? Well, I was reading a book about something called MUSAR, which is the name of a Jewish spiritual tradition concerned with refining character. And because Musar (spelled M as in Mark, u – s – a – r) teaches about the many ways in which our anger and anxiety get us into situations we regret, it was as if I had someone sitting with me (in this case, the book in my hands) telling me to step back from the emotions in the cabin.

The book about Musar primed me to be watching behavior – mine and that of others. So, in this case, I didn’t get involved in the anger. I didn’t take the bait. On the contrary, I observed. I wrote down what was happening and how it felt as a kind of case study in emotions gone wild.

Musar taught me something about being a person last summer.

This Kol Nidre evening Musar can do the same for all of us.

On an evening when “sin” will be one of our central categories, I’d like to introduce you to Musar because Musar has something to teach us about elevating character. We are here because in one way or another each of has sinned this past year. We have fallen off track, and we need this Yom Kippur to help us acknowledge how we lost our way and help us resolve that we can do better.

It’s just that sometimes sin is a difficult word for us. It sounds harsh. It sounds so black and white. This word “sin” too easily brings to mind threats of hellfire and brimstone, which I am quite sure are not the way we understand our life issues.

This evening we can place ourselves in a stronger mood of repentance if we move from “sin” to a broader Musar kind of conversation. Let’s talk about the human quality of anger.

Looking back over this last year, lots of us got angry. Witness the plane incident I described. Or take a look at yourself stuck in traffic and fuming, standing in line at the bank behind someone who is telling his life story to the teller, trying to set up your new computer which the teenager sales person at Best Buy guaranteed was as simple as pie, waiting downstairs for your spouse who was supposed to be ready 10 minutes ago, or maybe you’re searching for the cell phone you misplaced. “It has to be somewhere here! How could I do anything as stupid as lose that phone, and it’s turned off so I can’t even call it and hear the ring!”

Lots of us are agitated and cranky. And it’s this very set of traits which gets us in trouble. Sure, we want to follow the commandments: honor your mother and father, be respectful of others, and love your neighbor. But when you’re short tempered or carrying a grudge or a wound from another time and place, it’s awfully hard to do the right thing.

You tell yourself you won’t lose your temper, but when your child forgets his homework for the third time this week and you have to turn the car around to get it from home, you do tend to fly off the handle.

Along comes Musar – this Jewish spiritual practice – to say: Maybe you’ll do better at the game of life, if you step back, take a second look at yourself, and then get back in the game of life.

Musar is like “time out” for grownups.

But where does Musar come from? What does it mean?

Musar is one of the best kept secrets in Judaism.

During five years of rabbinic school, it was hardly mentioned. I had barely read about Musar until this past summer. That is because over the centuries Judaism has inclined toward a model of behaviorism. We Jews have literally counted the commandments. Our sages identified 613 in the Torah, and Jews have spent much time refining and magnifying the commandments and making sure that people followed the do’s and don’ts. Fortunately for us, the process kept Jews together during centuries of persecution, and we are here as the beneficiaries of that orientation.

But the news for tonight is that, going way back, there has been another “stream” flowing alongside the Mississippi River of standard Judaism. This stream comes alive in a fabulous text from the end of Pirke Avot. (You’ll know Pirke Avot as the book that, among other things, gives us Hillel with his teaching - “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.”)

Anyway, in Chapter 6 of Pirke Avot the rabbis ask what it takes for someone to acquire Torah. They answer that a person becomes a follower of the Torah if he or she develops the middot, or in English, a set of proper virtues.

The rabbis say real Torah comes to a person who: is a good listener, downplays prestige, enjoys his lot in life, limits his words, does not thrive on personal power, and gives others the benefit of the doubt. Torah is acquired, they say, if someone lives with awe, humility, patience, and joy.

All in all, the rabbis list 48 virtues as the ingredients of a proper life.

The idea that these human qualities are the basis of the good life floats down the river of Torah and finally surfaces in the 19th century. A rabbi by the name of Israel Salanter, living in Lithuania, revisits the idea of developing human virtues and creates a movement called MUSAR. Musar means “ethics.” In our 21st century parlance, Salanter taught that in order to be ethical, a person has “to get his act together.” A person needs to refine his or her virtues.

If Pirke Avot (and later books too) teach that humility, open-heartedness, and joy are worthy virtues, Musar says: Let’s highlight those virtues. Let’s find those traits even if they are pretty well hidden inside most humans. And let’s polish them up to shine as they should. That’s what being Jewish is all about!

The best way to understand all this is to return to that very human trait of anger. Let’s do something about your anger. Or on this great night of community, let’s do something about our anger.

According to Musar, the first step in refining character is to pay attention to what are called “points of choice.” If we’re talking about anger, you know exactly what I mean. Think about that woman in the airport who shouted she was going to shoot the Air Canada attendant. If she had been paying attention to her own “points of choice,” somewhere along the line I suspect she might have realized where she was going. Maybe she began to tap her foot while waiting for the attendant to speak to her. Maybe her heart began to pound just a bit faster. Maybe she started to lose her temper the first time she looked at her watch while waiting. Maybe it was the second time.

To capture what happened to her and what happens to us, visualize the flame of a match approaching a fuse. See how the flame gets closer and closer to touching off the fuse and the explosion that follows. The flame represents your anger. The explosion is your anger threatening to engulf you and others. On many occasions, the flame gets to the fuse faster than you realize. Fire breaks out. You’ve overreacted and the game is lost.

There is, of course, another way for it to work out.

Picture the flame getting close to the fuse, but imagine the flame moving more slowly toward the fuse. Picture yourself in control of the flame, in charge of how quickly or how slowly, it approaches the fuse. You can let the flame get there. That’s your anger. An explosion will follow. Or you can stop the flame, hold it or slow it down. You’ve got a choice. Musar would say that paying attention to our pulse, our tapping feet or fingers, and our heart makes the difference. If we are aware, we can open up a little space between our angry match and the fuse. We can hold off the fireworks.. There’s more to the process because Musar isn’t only in the business of extinguishing negative traits. It’s actually in the great business of enhancing positive traits. In the case of anger, Musar would say the next step for you and me is to cultivate some patience. Or better still, Musar says there is a virtue called menuchat hanefesh. Menucha means “rest,” nefesh means “soul.” A “resting soul” is how we might define the wonderful English word “equanimity.” Musar’s goal is to help us develop the ability of maintaining calm in the midst of a storm.

Remember that choice point and the idea of holding the match back from the fuse for an instant? In that instant Musar advises taking a second look at the situation. In the airline terminal, ask yourself who that attendant is and what his or her intentions are? Is the attendant purposely holding up the plane? Is the airline doing it with malice? Is there any way in which the plane delay is really a personal assault on you?

You’re waiting for your spouse to get dressed? It is aggravating, but will your anger make a difference? Is something wrong upstairs in the bathroom? More importantly, how truly critical is it anyway to leave for where you need to be in the next minute or three or five minutes? Think more broadly. Over the course of next week or next month, how much does the delay right now matter? Alan Morinis is a contemporary teacher of Musar. He suggests going from the image of flame and fuse to another image. Think of yourself in life as a surfer. Your job is to ride the waves on an even inner keel. As the waves rise and fall (so many opportunities to get angry), the calm soul rides the crest, staying upright and balanced. Equanimity (calm in the storm) is the quality of being centered in yourself, always aware of the forces around you, but focused still on moving forward around and through the waves that crash in on every life. (Everyday Holiness, page 100)

But how do you get from the “flame and fuse” to being a “surfer” through life?

Musar has a program. You’re advised to choose a phrase that embodies the virtue you want to develop. In the case of cultivating patience or equanimity, your phrase could be something as simple as “Ride the wave.” Every morning you’re invited to recite that phrase several times. You might even make it your computer’s screen saver.

During the day, watch yourself. Stay on the lookout for break points, and since you are paying attention, search out situations when your patience or calm would be an asset. Watch other people deal with their anger and respond without getting drawn in. At night keep a journal. Take five minutes to record what you saw and felt that day.

There you have it! One good week of this process and you should pretty much have found the calm in your soul. Goodbye anger and on to your next project.

Or probably not. Definitely not.

One of Musar’s great teachers, Rabbi Yosef Hurwitz, wisely comments on the way many people want to approach life. He says, “The problem with people is that they want to change overnight and have a good night’s sleep that night too.” In other words, I’ve made the process too easy. In fact, if it was that easy to get around anger and locate equanimity, most of us would have done it long ago. Plus our therapists would all be out of business.

Musar isn’t some storefront therapy. It doesn’t deal with issues that require therapy. It rather works with you and me who carry with a certain amount of neuroses but have pretty functional lives. Musar is for when you are able to run your life, but you know you could do better.

Musar is, in other words, a perfect complement to the work of Yom Kippur: not so much to remake ourselves in 24 hours, but to stretch ourselves and to take at least one step towards reaching a more vital life.

I love what another one of Musar’s founders said with all modesty and honesty about making our lives work. “Musar is the work of a lifetime. And that’s why you were given a lifetime in which to do it.” (Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv)

Actually, Musar advocates that every interested soul choose more than one virtue to cultivate. For many of us, perhaps that first virtue would be the opposite of anger. That is patience or equanimity. Other virtues to explore might be trust, enthusiasm, humility, contentment, or joy.

Here’s what I would like to do because Musar is so new to me. Starting a week from now, on Saturday, October 18, I would like to devote the 9 a.m. hour on Saturday mornings to exploring virtues. I’m setting aside ten Shabbat mornings to see what Judaism teaches about some of the great virtues such as patience, humility, enthusiasm, and silence. I don’t know half of what I’d like to know about Judaism’s wisdom on these matters and without committing myself to the full Musar program I’d like to start learning.

Depending on how it goes, I even have a plan for Fall 2009.

In the Musar spirit, I plan to come back and teach the same virtues for ten weeks one year from now. During the year, I’ll do some more study myself. I’ll read some of the great Musar works, think, maybe keep a journal, then return and invite you to do the same.

I know some of you won’t be able to join this journey. Some of you may feel the whole process sounds a bit too touchy/feely. But let me tell you why I think Musar is so very important. It’s important because it is different. It’s not the Judaism you learned in Sunday School. It’s not the aspect of Judaism that requires you to perform this mitzvah at that exact time. This aspect of Judaism is not about what somebody else expects you to do.

It’s altogether personal. It’s about you and whether you are happy or satisfied, whether you are calm and at ease, whether you are the kind of human being you want to be.

I’m interested in Musar and character because I know many of you are looking in Buddhism and the self-help aisle at Barnes and Noble when the insights you want may already be at your fingertips in Judaism.

There is Torah about you and your life!

So I do invite you to take a new journey with me this year.

It will be about character.

You can read more about Musar in the latest issue of Reform Judaism magazine. Or just drop by in the next several weeks, and we’ll learn together.

I know the process is worth it because of one other incident.

As I told you, I was doing my first learning about Musar this summer. It’s because I had read about breaking points that I was able to see the whole airport incident unfold without getting sucked into the anger myself. At one point, because I was feeling calm, I even told the attendant that if he did need to get about 155 pounds off the plane, I was his man.

Meanwhile, it was four weeks later when my wife Marsha and I were in Portland, Oregon, waiting for a bus that I knew Musar was something worthwhile. You see, Musar’s gift to me was helping me see things better. Helping me stand back and almost see life go by in slow motion.

I think it’s because I was in that Musar frame of mind that I saw something one day in Portland that no one else saw. Waiting for the bus, I saw a young man approach in a wheel chair. He got to the handicap ramp and got stuck. He tried several times, but just couldn’t get himself up what was a tiny ramp. Everyone waiting for the bus was wrapped up in conversation and or otherwise distracted. No one noticed - except for me because I was in that Musar frame of mind simply paying attention. That’s why I was the one who was able to slide over and give him a slight push up the ramp.

Not much, but if Musar got me to pay attention for that one moment, it’s enough for me. One moment. One gesture. One word. One hug.

Riding that wave life in calm.

We’re not required to finish all the work of the world, but getting started is certainly on the agenda tonight and this coming year.

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