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 " ").
Ohev et HaMaysharim translates as "love of being straightforward." The word ohev comes from the Hebrew root aleph-hei-vet, and means "to love." The word maysharim comes from the Hebrew root yod-shin-reish and means "a correct path" or "a straight path."
"What is the straight path a person should choose? That which does him/her honor and wins him/her the esteem of others." (Avot 2,1)
This middah reminds us that we are constantly required to make choices related to our behavior. It encourages us to develop a love for doing things in a straightforward way. Our text, taken from Pirkei Avot, offers us some guidelines for making those choices based on honor and esteem.
The commentators of this middah propose that it refers to the way in which we interact with people. It encourages us to deal in a straightforward fashion with the hope that others will respond in the same fashion. Midrash Shmuel suggests that an authentic student of Torah loves straightforwardness and does not flatter others. Flattery is considered a distortion that undermines the intellectual honesty needed for success at learning. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.420)
Jewish tradition offers many warnings about dispensing compliments or flattery. As the Talmud teaches, "A person should not [excessively] compliment another [who is not present], for though he will start by speaking positively, the conversation could soon turn to the person's negative traits." (Bava Bathra 164b)
Another explanation offered by Midrash Shmuel for ohev et hamayasharim is that it refers to someone who loves straight thinking. The rabbis argue that convoluted logic does not lead to clear conclusions in the study of Torah. (Pirkei Avos Treasury, p.420)
Rabbi Susan Freeman points out that how we use language should be intentional, something we control. The goal is to choose deliberately how we speak and what we speak about. (Teaching Jewish Virtues, p. 149)
Politicians are notorious for 'beating around the bush.' When they are asked a question that they do not wish to answer, their response is often a rambling, unfocused attempt to avoid the question. It is often difficult to get a straightforward answer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why some people find it difficult to trust certain politicians. The same holds true for personal relationships. How often have you become frustrated because you've asked someone a direct question, and you can't seem to get a direct response?
To Talk About
- What advice does the Text offer regarding how a person should choose the straight path? What do you think that means? What are some of the ways you could behave that would do you honor and would win the esteem of others?
- The Talmud suggests, "People should say good-bye not with chatter, nor with senseless joking, nor with silliness, but rather with words of wisdom." (Tosefta Berachot, Lieberman 3:21) What is the connection between this advice from the Talmud and this week's middah?
- The Bible warns us, "Flattering lips work ruin." (Proverbs 24,28) Discuss the meaning of this admonition. Think of some examples in your life where flattery, either on your part or on the part of someone else, has caused problems. Are there times when you think it is acceptable to use flattery? When and why? Write a modern version of this admonition.
- Sometimes it's difficult to deal with sensitive issues in a straightforward and direct way. Think about a time when you had to approach a friend or colleague to deal with a serious issue. Were you able to be straightforward or did you 'beat around the bush'? How did the other person respond? Do you think you showed ohev et hamaysharim in your dealings? Did the other person? What might you, or the other person do differently if this issue arose again?
Our tradition has a special way of acknowledging people in the synagogue who do things well. We say yashar koach. Yashar comes from the same root as maysharim and koach means "strength," suggesting that the person has used their strength to do something in a straightforward or correct manner. The next time you are at Temple, listen for these words.
Make a special effort to be straightforward in all of your interactions with others. If you find yourself having trouble, remind yourself of the advice of the sages, "Wisdom is known by utterance and intelligence by the answer of the tongue." (Ben Sira 4,23)