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 " ").
Aymah translates as "fear," "horror," or "panic." It comes from the Hebrew root, aleph-yud-mem, meaning "to threaten" or "to intimidate."
"My heart shudders within me, and the terrors of death have befallen me. Fear and trembling penetrate me, and I am overcome with horror." (Psalms 55:5-6)
These words were spoken by King David. David's son, Absalom, posed an enormous threat against him, for Absalom had organized a revolt. He wanted to overthrow David and gain the throne. David's friend and adviser, Ahitophel, had defected and joined forces with Absalom. Faced with this situation, David spoke the words, "My heart shudders within me, and the terrors of death have befallen me. Fear and trembling penetrate me, and I am overcome with horror." (Psalms 55:5-6). David retreated to Transjordan with Absalom in pursuit. King David, while clearly distraught by the situation, maintained an unwavering faith that God would enable him to prevail (The Stone Edition of the Tanach p. 1483). Ultimately David's forces overcame those of Absalom.
The virtue in aymah is not in our ability to incite fear or horror, but rather in our capacity to be horrified by conditions or circumstances in the world. Judaism demands that we respond to evil and injustice. Our system of mitzvot, or commandments, teach us how to react. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "We are taught to be mitzvah-conscious in regard to the present moment, to be mindful of the constant opportunity to do the good thing." (God In Search of Man p. 363) Despite the horrific conditions in which David was pursued, he was still able to give attention to his faith.
The Psalmist wrote, "Depart from evil and do good." (Psalms 34:15) Mitzvot can be interpreted as the Jewish response to problems and evil in the world. Among the mitzvoth, we are instructed to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, make peace where there is strife, be kind to animals, visit the sick, honor the elderly, prevent accidents, not to steal, not to take revenge, not to gossip, not to lie and to do tzedakah.
There are many evils in the world; consequently the list of mitzvot is long. Jewish tradition had an understanding of this centuries ago for as Rabbi Tarfon said, "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it." (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
There is a midrash that talks about an unlearned individual who goes to the house of study to request instruction on how to succeed in Torah study. He is told to begin with Bible then go on to Mishnah and Talmud followed by Midrash and Aggadah. Discouraged, he announces, "How will I ever learn all of this?" So he leaves the house of study as he came. What the unlearned person does not understand is that Torah is like water. Drop by drop it accumulates. Day by day effort will yield prodigious results (Devarim Rabbah 8 as found in The Stone Edition of the Tanach p. 125)
The same can be said for responding to evil; each decent action, however small, accumulates into a stream of good. Heschel taught, "We do not know how to solve the problem of evil, but we are not exempt from dealing with evils. (God In Search of Man p.377)
To Talk About
- Heschel wrote, "Evil is not only a threat, it is also a challenge." In what ways is evil a challenge? When you are faced with a challenge, how do you respond?
- As noted in the Commentary section, Heschel taught that we are to be mitzvah-conscious. What do you think that means? How could one work to raise one's mitzvah-consciousness? How could we do that for the broader society?
- Discuss the kind of mitzvah-consciousness you want in your own life.
- Collect a variety of weekly news magazines and daily newspapers. Identify one evil or challenge in the news source that needs to be addressed. What is the Jewish response to that evil? What does that situation demand?
One individual who is busy tracking down people who are mitzvah-conscious is Danny Siegel, once described as "American Jewry's leading expert in micro-philanthropy." Read one of Danny's mitzvah books: Munbaz II and Other Mitzvah Heroes; After the Rain: the Book of Mitzvah Power for Adults and Teens; Good People.