Mr. Goldberg, a Middle Aged overweight man, visits his doctor for his annual checkup. The doctor tells him, “You’re not doing too well. Your cholesterol level is high and you have gained 10 pounds since the last time I saw you.” To this Mr. Goldberg says, “Doctor, I don't understand this. My wife and I joined a nice upscale gym last year, we pay the dues and we have even paid our building fund assessment in full.” The doctor turns to him and says, “It is not enough to belong to the gym, you actually have to use it. Do you ever go to the gym?” Mr. Goldberg responds, “Sure, I go all of the time. You see, they have these great Kids exercise programs and we drop the kids off every Sunday morning, the cafe also has great food and the smoothies are delicious, and I love the music that they play during the exercise classes, so I like to poke my head into the last few minutes of the exercise class. And doctor, could you believe it, after all the time, I spend in the gym, my health isn't getting better?”
Now Mr. Goldberg was having his annual physical checkup. We are all here today on Rosh Hashana to have our annual spiritual checkup. And many of us are probably wondering why our Judaism is not as strong as it could be. We pay our synagogue dues, we invest 20 – 60 K in our children's day school education, we come to shul on shabbat and for other programs, but something is missing.
And the answer is the same answer that we would all give to Mr. Goldberg. If you want to be in good physical shape, you have to put in the hours doing exercise. You have to sweat and work hard. Spiritual health is the same. We have to put in the hours, we have to sweat we have to work hard in order to see results.
In Judaism, there are a number of different paths, a number of different ways to work on our spiritual health. There is davening, studying torah, acts of chesed, But the path that I would like to focus on this morning is the Path of Mussar.
What is Mussar? Mussar is beautifully describes by a contemporary student of Mussar, Dr. Alan Morinis in the following way (I have slightly adapted this definition):
We all have our actual selfs and our ideal selfs. The actual self is the person I am right now, with all my moral failings and shortcomings. The ideal self is the version of you that you would like to become, the best version of yourself. Mussar is the path to get from your actual self – to your ideal self. It is the path that allows you to become the best version of yourself. It doesn’t lead to perfection, but it can get you closer to your perfect self.
Before I explain how mussar can help you become the best version of yourself, I would like to set down some of the history of the Mussar Movement. While the texts utilized by the Mussar Movement are ancient, the Mussar Movement as a movement is only about 150 years old. In the 1850's Judaism was going through lots of turmoil. Traditional Judaism confronted the Haskalah, the Nascent Reform Movement, Secular Zionism and all of the other isms that were forming in the 19th century. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement, discovered that as a result of all of this, there were many jews who were jewishly knowledgeable but leaving the life of mitzvah observance.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter therefore founded the mussar movement to encourage people to work on their character and development.
Something very interesting happened in the development of the mussar movement. When Rabbi Yisrael Salanter first proposed the study of mussar, his intended audience was not the yeshiva students but the general population. He proposed the creation of a mussar shtibl, a room for people to gather on shabbat afternoon in groups and “In the quiet of reflection, in reasonable deliberation, each will strengthen his fellow and cure the foolishness of his heart and eliminate his lazy habits. It was on Shabbat afternoon because this is when working jews would have the time to do mussar.
However, Rabbi Salanter failed. He was not able to get the average Jew to take on the path of mussar. It was too difficult. So he changed his focus. The study of Mussar moved away from the synagogue and the common folk, to the Yeshiva and the Yeshiva students. It was believed that only the yeshiva students had the time and spiritual will to perfect their middot, their soul-traits. And from the 1860 on, Mussar was primarily something that only was studied by yeshiva students.
Why am I giving you all of this history? Because an interesting twist has happened. In the last 10 years, there has been a renaissance of the study of mussar, not only by yeshiva students, but by all Jews. One observer of the contemporary Jewish spiritual scene, referred to Mussar as the “New Kabbalah.” (I am not confident that we will soon see Madonna learning mussar, but it is becoming more and more popular amongst jews who are discovering its spiritual power and potential for self-transformation).
So now that I have given you some of the historical background, I would like to explain how mussar works and why I believe it is so important that I am dedicating my Rosh Hashana sermon to it.
I already mentioned that Mussar is the path from one's actual self to one's ideal self. It is the path that leads to the best version of yourself. But how does it get us there?
Let me explain this by introducing two Mussar Terms, #1 – Tikkun Ha-Midot and #2 – Cheshbon Hanefesh. Tikkun Ha-Middot means to fix the traits of the soul. Soul traits. What are these traits (middot)? They include things like, patience, humility, equanimity, generosity, compassion, gratitude. Tikkun HaMidot simply means improving these traits. So if your ideal version of yourself is more generous or if your ideal self would not get frustrated as much or have more patience, or be more satisfied with your lot, Mussar is the path for you. How does it work? That leads us to our second term, Cheshbon Hanefesh, which is a method of keeping track and working on your traits. There are many different approaches to Cheshbon Hanefesh. Some require keeping a journal, others require forming a mussar vaad, which is a group of people who work together on their traits and there are many more tools which I would like to explore with you this year as I hope some of you will join me in creating a mussar vaad so that we can help each other become the best version of ourselves.
We are about to begin Mussaf of Rosh Hashana, one of the most powerful tefilot of the year. The mussaf has three themes; Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar blasts. In the middle section of Rememberance we declare, “Everything is revealed before G-d.. everyone's deeds, accomplishments, thoughts, schemes and motives.” So when we say that G-d remembers, this means more than the fact that G-d does not forget. It means that G-d penetrates into the depths of our minds and souls and judges us. We can fool others, we can even fool ourselves, but we cannot fool G-d. Perhaps we can take G-d's penetrating insight and use it as a mirror so that we can see into our own minds and souls. For one day a year, we can be honest with ourselves. Who are we? What do we need to become? I therefore encourage us all during mussaf, especially during the zichronot section to do the first step of mussar, which is to become a little more self-aware. What is our ideal self, and where are we holding right now. Because the first step in closing that gap is becoming aware that the gap exists. And I would like to suggest that during mussaf we come up with one Middah, one trait, that we would like to work on this year. So next year, when we come back for our annual spiritual checkup we will we healthier. We will be closer to our ideal self, to the best version of ourselves.
I would like to conclude with two stories about Rav Yisrael Salanter that illustrate two of his wonderful traits and what the path of Mussar can do for you.
Story #1 - When Rav Yisrael was trying to spread the mussar movement he realized that nobody in Lithuania would take his seriously unless they knew that he was a Talmid Chacham. So he went from town to town delivering amazing lectures on complex talmudic topics. He was once in a town and he was going to give a shiur on shabbat afternoon. On Wednesday, he posted a sheet of 50 Maareh mekomos (listing of 50 sources) on the bulletin board so people could prepare for the lecture. There were some troublemakers in the town and they decided to do a prank and they removed Rav Yisrael's list and replaced it with a different source sheet of 50 other sources. On Shabbos afternoon Rav Yisrael arrives, the beit midrash is packed, and he goes up to the bimah and asks the Gabai to bring him the list of sources. He gets the list and his face turns white. He sits down for 10 minutes and everyone is waiting. Finally he gets up and gives a brilliant lecture based on the new sources which he had not prepared. In a moment of candor, he explained to his students why he waited 10 minutes. It wasnt because he needed 10 minutes to prepare the lecture. He could have done it right away. But he had an internal battle going on. Should he give the class with new sources and risk displaying his genius and compromise his desire to be a humble person. But on the other hand, if he would admit defeat, he would look like an Am Haaretz (ignoramus) and it would compromise his ability to spread the mussar movement. This story is an amazing illustration of Rav Yisrael's humility and how self aware he was and this of course was because of mussar.
Story #2 – When Rav Yisrael was a Rosh Hayeshiva he was once visiting the wealthiest jew in town to collect money. The Jew invites him in and invites him to join him for dinner. Both the Rich Man and Rav Yisrael go to wash their hands netilat yadayim, and the rich man notices that Rav Yisrael only washes his hand up until the knuckles and not until the wrist which is the preferred way to wash one's hands. After they make Hamotzie, the rich man turns to Rav Yisrael and says, “If I can be so bold let me ask you a question. You know that I am very wealthy and that I lack nothing so why were you being so stingy with the water? Rav Yisrael responds, it is true that it is halakhically preferable to wash until the wrist and when I am home and using the water that I drew from the well, I wash until the wrist. But now that I am in your house and I know that the maid had to shlep the water from the well, I am not going to be machmir on Netilas Yadayim on the shoulders of the maid.” She is the one who will have to do more work, for my chumrah.” This story beautifully illustrates the middah of compassion. Not many of us would have been thinking about the maid in that situation.
We are probably never going to have as much humility and compassion as Rav Yisrael, but through mussar, we can become the best versions of ourselves. And if we commit to working on ourselves this year, then I am willing to guarantee that next year Rosh Hoshana, at our next annual spiritual check up, we will be healthier than we are this year, we will be closer to the best version of ourself. And in that merit, may we all be inscribed in the book of life for a year of prosperity, a year when only good things happen to us and our families. A year of physical health and a year of spiritual health. Shana Tova.