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 " ").
Mitrachayk Min HaKavod translates as "distance yourself from honor." Mitrachayk comes from the Hebrew root reish-chet-kuf which means "to keep far away" or "to distance yourself." Kavod means "honor."
"Ben Zoma said: Who is honored? Those who honor others." (Avot 4,1)
Our Jewish sources are extremely clear on the question of honor, as revealed by our Text. We are reminded that we should focus our energies on honoring others, rather than ourselves.
It is natural for people to seek honor from their fellow human beings. However, the rabbis consistently warn that honor cannot be acquired by one who pursues it. In fact, the sages warn that if you pursue honor, it will flee from you. (Midrash Tanhuma) They also offer the opposite maxim that if you flee from honor, the honor pursues you. (Exploring Jewish Ethics & Values, p.98)
The story is told of Rabbi Avigdor Halberstam who was once a guest for Shabbat in the home of a wealthy Chasid. The custom in that house was to give a distinguished guest the honor of tasting the cholent (a stew of meat, beans and potatoes) and then serving portions to everyone else. When the cholent was brought to R. Avigdor, he took a taste and then another taste and yet another, finally finishing the contents of the large serving bowl down to the last bean. "Is there more?" he asked. He finished every morsel of the cholent, leaving nothing for any of the shocked people at the table. Later, when it was discovered that the cook had accidentally used rancid oil in the cholent. R, Avigdor preferred to appear as a glutton and suffer personal embarrassment rather than allow the cook to be humiliated in front of the others. He thus honored others at the expense of his own prestige. Is there anything more honorable than that? (Pirket Avos Treasury, p. 216)
We all know people who seem to need a great deal of attention and recognition, sometimes at the expense of others. The Talmudic rabbi, R. Yose son of R. Hanina, issued a warning to people who behave in that way. He cautioned: "Those who endeavor to gain honor at the price of another person being degraded have no portion in the world-to-come." (Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1)
There are many individuals who have been very successful in business and who choose to donate large sums of money to support various projects in the Jewish community. Sometimes they donate these funds in honor or in memory of someone else. Sometimes, they donate these funds anonymously. What a wonderful example of mitrachayk min hakavod (staying far from honor)!
To Talk About
- Read the Text again. Do you agree with Ben Zoma that if you honor others, you are more likely to experience honor in return? Explain. What if you don't receive honor from others? Would that change how you behave toward others? Why or why not?
- There is a Ladino proverb that says, "Honor is more appropriate for those who share it than for those who hoard it." (The Jewish Moral Virtues, p. 145) Explain this in your own words. Do you agree or disagree with this proverb? Think of an example that supports your opinion.
- In the story of Rabbi Avigdor, how did he bring honor to others? What would you have done if you had been Rabbi Avigdor? Why?
- Someone once complained to his rabbi that he flees from honor and yet it does not pursue him. The rabbi explained, "The problem is that you keep looking over your shoulder to see if the honor is following." What lesson was the rabbi trying to teach this person? What advice would you give to the person who complained?
- Shimon bar Yochai said, "To honor one's parents is even more important than honoring God." Can you explain what he meant by this statement? What are some ways in which you honor your parents?
The next time you are at Temple, pay attention to the plaques that identify objects, rooms or buildings that have been donated by different people. Notice how many of these donations have been made in honor or in memory of someone else. Look for plaques that identify the donors as anonymous. Choose a fund or a charity that you would like to support and make a donation in honor or in memory of a loved one or do it anonymously. When you perform this mitzvah (commandment), remind yourself of Ben Zoma's words!