About Mussar and Middot
The Hebrew word "mussar" means moral conduct, instruction, or discipline. The Mussar Movement arose in the 1800’s in Lithuania and encompasses a range of spiritual practices, focusing on the individual’s personal characteristics, traits, or virtues, which are called middot (in Hebrew, singular: a " ").
Essentially this middah means "to concentrate on one's studies." It may be translated in several ways, each having related meanings, but presenting a unique facet of understanding. These different interpretations will be presented in the commentary section.
"Who studies gladly for a single hour will learn vastly more than one who studies glumly for hours on end." (Hayyim of Valozhin, a Lithuanian talmudist of the 18th century)
One of the 48 qualities needed to acquire Torah is the ability to concentrate on one's studies. Concentration is focusing one's undivided attention for a particular purpose.
As mentioned in the translation, there are several different interpretations of this middah. In Midrash Samuel, the commentator understands this middah to mean "thinking deliberately in one's study." This means that the learner studies in a composed and steady way rather than quickly and haphazardly. The commentary Tiferes Yisrael characterizes the learner in this middah as one who thoroughly prepares before giving a Torah lecture or presentation. The competent scholar prepares not only content but also the style of presentation. The commentary Sfas Emes translates this middah as, "ne whose heart becomes composed by Torah study." This describes the individual who, though beset by problems, is able to subdue them by deep, concentrated Torah study. The Chofetz Chaim understood this middah to say, "one's heart derives the lessons of one's learning." Simply put, the learner internalizes the lessons of the Torah and lives his/her life completely by them. ( Pirkei Avos Ethics of the Fathers, p.422)
Reuven Bulka taught the following interpretation of this middah,
"One may be involved with the destiny of others, but is still important to concentrate on Torah by being studious in learning, by recognizing that even though one has reached the point of being able to teach others, nevertheless, it is still important to continue being a student oneself." (As A Tree by the Waters, p.258)
In each of these instances, the commentator is describing the way in which the learner approaches Torah, the intent with which the learner studies and how that study manifests itself in the learner. All of these take concentration and focus which is reflected in this text: "Who studies gladly for a single hour will learn vastly more than one who studies glumly for hours on end." In other words, concentrated learning for one hour is more effective than several hours of uninspired learning.
The Talmud says, "If you see a student who finds it as hard as iron to study, it is because his/her studies are without system." (Ta'anit) We affect our own ability to concentrate, to focus and to learn. There are all sorts of ways to create your own system of study. Some learners thrive in study groups, others need to read in isolation, some learners take notes or make outlines. Some learn best by hearing a lecture or presentation others by a hands-on experience. Each of us as a learner is unique and we each must find our own way to concentrate and learn.
To Talk About
- There are several different interpretations given in the commentary on this middah. Which one is most meaningful to you? Why?
- What helps and or hinders your concentration and focus? Think of what you need in your physical surroundings, your own mental/emotional state, what you might need from others, etc.
- In the commentary section, there is a teaching from the Talmud that states: a student without a system of learning finds study difficult. Do you have a personal system that you use to help you in your studies? If you have one, share and describe it.
- Judah Lowe of Prague, a 16th century rabbi taught, "Each morning the devout Jew recites the following benediction: "Blessed are You Adonai our God, who commanded us to occupy ourselves with the words of Torah." Lowe pointed out that the form of the blessing is not 'who commanded us to study the Torah' but rather 'occupy ourselves with Torah.' What does it mean to occupy oneself with Torah? How is that different from studying Torah? Does it require a different kind of concentration or focus? Create your own explanation of Rabbi Lowe's teaching.
Choose something new that you would like to learn about, create a personal system for learning it, then concentrate and go for it!