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 " ").
The word samayach comes from the Hebrew root sin-mem-chet and means "happiness," "joy," or "contentment." The word chelko is based on the root chet-lamed-kuf and means "portion," "lot," or "piece." The phrase samayach b'chelko means "contentment with one's lot" or "contentment with one's portion."
"Ben Zoma said: Who is rich? Those who are happy with their portion." (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a also found in Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Being content with one's portion is an age-old Jewish concern. In the book of Proverbs, we read, "A joyful heart makes a cheerful face; A sad heart makes a despondent mood. All the days of a poor person are wretched, but contentment is a feast without end." (Proverbs 15:13 and 15)
To be truly joyful with one's lot in life is wise advice. It is a wonderful way to live, but how easy is it to adopt this attitude? How many of us are truly satisfied with our portion? How do we recognize our own good fortune? All around us the world advertises the goods and services we all seem to "need." Our world is characterized by material acquisition, and to paraphrase a popular game show who 'wouldn't' want to be a millionaire?
This obsession with our "needs" is not just a contemporary concern. Solomon Ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Spanish poet-philosopher taught: "Who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has. Seek what you need and give up what you need not. For in giving up what you don't need, you'll learn what you really do need." (Mivhar Hapeninim 155,161 as found in The Jewish Moral Virtues, Borowitz and Schwartz, p.164)
This is the challenge—balancing what we need and what we want in order to become samayach b'chelko—satisfied with our portion.
Several commentators have suggested a variety of reasons why one should be samayach b'chelko - satisfied with one's portion. Reuven Bulka has written, "Whatever bounty and good one is given in life should be greatly appreciated. Unlike affliction, which one lives with by almost ignoring it and transcending it, that which one has been granted which seems to be beneficial should be accepted in joy." (As A Tree By The Waters p. 256)
As it relates to acquisition of Torah, Midrash Samuel states, "…one must be happy that one can be involved in the study of God's word."
Our personal attitudes affect how we study and what we acquire through our studies. According to Machzor Vitry, if a person spends time worrying and brooding over one's portion of this world's pleasures (i.e., material possessions) one cannot concentrate on learning.
The Ruach Chaim explains that one's lot means one's ability to learn and comprehend. A person should not be dissatisfied if he or she cannot live up to one's ambitions or the standards of others with greater ability, one should do one's best and constantly review until the learning is mastered. In the end the individual will succeed and even excel. (The Pirkei Avos Treasury p. 418)
Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that just as we should be satisfied with our portion of earthly goods, so too should we rejoice in the measure of intellectual talent we have been granted. For one should derive satisfaction from the knowledge that one has faithfully used one's abilities for the advancement of one's skills and learning, for God evaluates the achievements of each of us solely in terms of the extent to which one has made good use of one's intellectual abilities. (Chapters of the Fathers, p. 107)
Simply put, we are to be samayach b'chelko—satisfied with our portion from the effort we expend in life whether it is in acquisition of material possessions or acquisition of skills and knowledge not the number of possessions we have or the level of learning we achieve. It is in the doing, not the acquiring, that satisfaction and happiness are to come.
To Talk About
- Compare this middah—samayach b'chelko—with the verses from Proverbs and with Solomon ibn Gabirol's teaching found in the Commentary section and answer the following: Can a poor person be content? What does the Text by Ben Zoma add?
- Make a personal accounting of your goods and possessions. Are you satisfied with what you have? Would you like more or less? What drives or motivates you to either acquire or deny yourself material possessions? Would you be happier or more satisfied if your portion in life were bigger or smaller?
- What do you treasure as your portion in life? Why? What satisfies you in your life and why?
- Review the teachings found in this Commentary on the acquisition of Torah. In your own words explain why a person would have to be samayach b'chelko—satisfied with one's lot in order to acquire Torah.
- Consider and discuss: if one is content with one's lot in life, does one risk becoming complacent or resigned to one's life situation? What about personal drive and ambition? What would Samson Raphael Hirsch say? See the Commentary section for other opinions.
Read the Jewish folktale, It Could Always Be Worse, retold and illustrated by Margot Zemach. It tells the tale of a man's shortage of living space and how he became samayach b'chelko—satisfied with his portion.