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 " ").
Machrio L'Chaf Zechut translates as "influencing others to virtue," or "judging others favorably." Machrio comes from the root chaf-reish-ayin and means "to bend." L'chaf zechut means "to a scale of merit."
"The Talmud says that we should always judge other people favorably. We must also judge ourselves favorably". (R. Nachman of Breslav)
R. Nachman's words in our Text point out the importance of giving people, including ourselves, the benefit of the doubt when judging human actions. He explained that if one judges someone who has erred, harshly, that individual is at risk of feeling so despondent that s/he may find it pointless to even try to change.
To illustrate this point, a comparison is made between a person and a soiled garment. A person may have a garment that is so thoroughly soiled that it cannot be cleaned. On the other hand, a fine garment that has a stain can be cleaned and restored to beauty. This metaphor suggests that no one is so bad (soiled) that s/he cannot change (be cleaned and restored to beauty). If an errant person is encouraged to see him/herself as fundamentally good, s/he will strive to be the good person s/he has the potential to be. (Twerski, Wisdom Each Day, p.321)
The Talmudic sage, Joshua ben Perahiah, said: "When you judge anyone, tip the scale in his/her favor. Judge the whole of a person favorably." (Pirkei Avot 1:6) Jewish tradition instructs us that when we judge another person, we are to put their misdeeds on one side of a scale and their virtues on the other side of the scale. If the scales are balanced, then we should tip them towards merit. Therefore, when you assess another person, begin with her/his virtues.
Steven Spielberg produced a movie called Schindler's List in which he told the story of Oscar Schindler, a non-Jew who repeatedly risked his life and used his extraordinary ingenuity to save some 1,150 Jews who otherwise would have been murdered by the Nazis. Following the release of the movie, a magazine article appeared that was primarily critical of Schindler, focusing on his reputation as a womanizer. In addition, it pointed out that prior to WWII, Schindler was known as an unscrupulous businessman. While these negative qualities were all genuine, his actions during WWII certainly should tip the scales in his favor.
Jewish ethics also dictate that when you know a person to be largely good, and subsequently learn that he or she has done something wrong, you should not rush to condemn that individual. Rather try to understand why the person acted as s/he did, and consider possible excuses for her/his behavior. If you cannot come up with a logical excuse, then your first reaction should be to judge the wrongful act as an aberration rather than view it as characteristic of the person. (Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, p.36)
To Talk About
- Why do you think R. Nachman thought it necessary to instruct us in the Text regarding how we judge other people? Why do you think he also included direction on how we should judge ourselves?
- The Talmudic sage, Ben Ezra, wrote, "A man should be judged by what he meant to do, not by what he did." Explain how Ben Ezra's advice follows this middah (virtue) of machrio l'chaf zechut (influencing others to virtue). Do you agree or disagree with this advice? Why?
- Rabbi Abraham Twerski writes, "Wise people judge themselves favorably not to excuse their mistakes, but to realize that they have the ability to correct them. " (Twerski, Wisdom Each Day, p.321)
- It is a natural tendency for people to be critical of others and to focus on their negative qualities. The biblical commentator Rashi implied that a person who judges others favorably would be judged favorably in the Heavenly Court. Why do you suppose Rashi felt it was necessary to make such a statement?
- According to Jewish ethics, how should we respond when a friend disappoints us? Have you ever found yourself in such a situation? How did you respond? Now that you have learned about the middah of machrio l'chaf zechut, would you respond differently? Why or why not?
"R. Nachman of Breslov suggests that even if one seems to have no redeeming qualities, search further. " (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.26-7) Think about someone you know who does not appear to have any redeeming qualities. It may be someone who goes to your school but is not one of your friends. It may be someone with whom you work or it may simply be a person who you don't know very well but who has a bad reputation. Now follow Rav Nachman's advice and make it your mission to find at least one good quality about that person.