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 " ").
Simchah translates as "happiness," or "joy." The word "simchah" comes from the Hebrew root samech-mem-chet which means "to rejoice," or "to be glad."
"So shall all those that take refuge in You rejoice,
They shall ever shout for joy,
And You shall shelter them;
Let them also that love Your name exult in You." (Psalm 5:12)
Our text comes from the Book of Psalms, which is a collection of beautiful poems that are over 2,000 years old. While the exact authorship of all the psalms is not known, tradition states that King David is the author of the Book of Psalms. For this reason, many of the psalms begin with "A psalm of David." Several of the Psalms, including this one, are psalms that emphasize types of behavior that please God and proclaim the joy (simchah) that comes from loyalty to God's will.
Simchah can have many meanings, ranging from the act of rejoicing on special occasions, to happiness as a general state of being, to the appreciation of small pleasures, to the sense of well-being we experience through acts of righteousness and ethical living.
Special occasions, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, are times when we experience great joy and happiness. In fact, one of the seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) that are recited at a Jewish wedding asks God that,
"the sounds of joy and of happiness (simchah), the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem."
Many of the Jewish holidays that take place throughout the year are filled with opportunities for joyful celebration and we look forward to those occasions with great anticipation. We read in the Midrash that,
"The appointed seasons were given to Israel for no other purpose than for them to enjoy themselves. The Holy One said: If you enjoy yourselves [this year], you will do so again the following year, as is said, when thou keepest this ordinance in its season, then from year to year: - you will be given the opportunity to do so from year to year." (Tanhuma, B'reishit 4)
Many of our ancient sages wrote about the importance of studying Torah with a positive attitude and a sense of joy. The great biblical commentator, Rashi, suggested that the Divine Presence does not reside with a person unless that person is joyous in fulfilling God's will. Since Torah study is regarded as one of the most intimate encounters with God, it requires joy.
The Talmudic sages teach us that one can merit a close relationship with God only through the joy of mitzvot. The ancient rabbis wanted to make sure that the commandments were never to be seen as heavy burdens, but rather as great opportunities to nourish the soul. The rabbis coined an important term related to the way in which a Jew was to observe the commandments. The phrase, simchah shel mitzvah literally means, "the joy of the commandment." It was meant to emphasize that the commandments ought to be performed with a joyous and uplifted heart. (Rabbi Ronald Isaacs, Mitzvot: A Sourcebook for the 613 Commandments)
To Talk About
- In Ruach Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Volozhin's commentary to Pirkei Avot, he wrote "A person in a joyful mood can learn more in an hour than a depressed person can learn in many hours." Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Have you ever had an experience that proves or disproves this statement?
- The Talmud tells us that, "the Holy Spirit rests only on one who has a joyous heart." Explain this in your own words. Read the story in Genesis 18 about Sarah hearing the news that she is going to have a baby. Do you think Sarah had a joyous heart? Can you think of another story in the Torah in which someone exhibited "a joyous heart"?
- Midrash Shmuel notes that joy is a prerequisite to Torah study since, if one does not enjoy it, he will not have the tenacity of spirit to toil at the task. On the other hand, if one approaches Torah joyfully it will respond in kind. (Pirkei Avot Treasury: The Sages' Guide to Living) What kind of attitude do you usually have toward Torah study? Does your attitude help you or hinder you in your study? There are times when we resent having to study. What are some things you might do to develop a more positive attitude toward Torah study?
- "I forgot what happiness was" (Lam.3:17) refers, said R. Isaac Nappaha, "to a beautiful bed and the beautiful spread on it." (B. Shab 25b) What lesson is Rabbi Nappaha trying to teach us in this statement? Give some examples of simple things in your life that make you feel happy.
- There are many mitzvot that we are encouraged to do on a regular basis, including performing acts of loving-kindness. When was the last time you fulfilled this mitzvah? Did you do it enthusiastically or out of a sense of obligation or duty? How did you feel afterwards? Talk about your experience in relation to the concept of simchah shel mitzvah.
In the Daily Service found in the Gates of Prayer, the following mitzvot are listed as obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure:
To honor father and mother;
To perform acts of love and kindness;
To attend the house of study daily;
To welcome the stranger;
To visit the sick;
To rejoice with bride and groom;
To console the bereaved;
To pray with sincerity;
To make peace when there is strife.
And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all. (p.52-53)
Carry this list around. Each time you have the opportunity to fulfill one of these commandments, ask yourself how you might carry out the mitzvah with a positive attitude and a real sense of joy. (Remember that the rabbis tell us that the joy in carrying out a mitzvah is even more acceptable to God than the mitzvah itself!)