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 " ").
In Hebrew the word lev means "heart" and the word tov translates as "good." "Lev tov" simply means a "good heart."
"A good person will bequeath to grandchildren." (Proverbs 13:22)
Judaism values the goodness of an individual. Our goodness is to be reflected in how we behave, speak, conduct business, as well as study Torah. The connection between a lev tov and the first three pursuits seems obvious. Why, however, would an individual need a lev tov (a good heart) to study Torah? Midrash Shmuel talks about the constant battle for a person's heart between good and evil, "To become a fitting receptacle for the Torah, a person must banish evil leaving only a purely good heart." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, ArtScroll, p. 416) This commentary suggests that the way in which we incline our hearts prepares us for the most sacred of tasks and that is Torah study.
In the commentary Avot d'Rabbi Nathan, it is written "a person with a good heart has the ability not to begrudge others' success at Torah study. A true Torah scholar is as joyful about others' success in Torah as he or she is about his or her own." Rabbi Reuven Bulka has written, "It is important to have a good heart, to rejoice when someone else makes a noteworthy achievement in Torah study and advances understanding, because everyone is the beneficiary of such insight. (As A Tree by the Waters, p. 255) In other words, lev tov allows one to grow both emotionally and intellectually. By possessing a lev tov we improve our own disposition as well as our knowledge of Judaism.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that a person who has a good heart is one in whom envy, jealousy and hate can gain no access." (Chapters of the Fathers p. 106) Another explanation of a lev tov found in the commentary Tiferet Yisrael states, a "good heart" includes a soft nature and the ability to act joyfully for the benefit of others."
The text states, "A good person will bequeath to grandchildren." The text is not referring to the wealth or property that a person leaves to a descendant but rather the moral legacy of a person who lives with a good heart. In his work, The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin reminds us that a parent's fundamental task, in addition to providing a child with love and proper physical care, is to teach one's child to be a committed Jew and a kind and moral person (p.334). We are to live with a lev tov and work to instill a lev tov in our children and our children's children.
To Talk About
- Respond to the following: If someone is described to you as having a lev tov (good heart) what image does this inspire?
- Rabbi Nathan explained that a true Torah scholar (see Commentary) rejoices in others' success. Can a lev tov function in our competitive world? What about in school or the business world? Would a person with a lev tov be a winner or a loser, a success or a failure? Discuss.
- Create an image of a lev tov. On a large sheet of construction paper draw a large heart with the phrase lev tov in the center. Write synonyms for the concept of a lev tov. Display this on your refrigerator or family bulletin board.
- Who in your life would you describe as possessing a lev tov? What qualities or deeds made that person a lev tov? How has this person's life influenced or changed the way in which you behave? Explain.
- What do you think matters most to a parent(s)—that one be successful, popular, musically or physically talented, or good? (from a question used by Dennis Prager, Jewish lecturer as found in The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, p. 335) If you are a parent, honestly share what your priorities are for your child. If you are a child, share your responses with your parent(s).
Complete the following: "I am demonstrating a lev tov when I___________."