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 HaMakom translates as "loving God." The word ohev from the Hebrew root alef-hei-vet means "love." Ha in Hebrew means "the," and makom from the Hebrew root mem-kuf-mem means "existence" and is one of the names for God.
"You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." (Deuteronomy 6:5)
You may recognize this Text from the siddur or prayer book. It begins the paragraph immediately following the Sh'ma, the prayer commonly known as the V'ahavta. This biblical text commands that we are to love God. Several questions immediately come to mind: Is it possible for one to be commanded to feel a specific emotion? And is this command to love made all the more difficult because we are being commanded to love that which is invisible, not a tangible thing that can be held?
Placing this verse into the context of the siddur, the ancient authors of our prayer book showed some extraordinary wisdom. In the morning service the prayer Ahavah Rabbah precedes the Sh'ma. It reads,
"Deep is your love for us, Adonai our God and great is Your compassion. Our Maker and Ruler, our ancestors trusted You, and You taught them the laws of life…."
In the evening service we read Ahavat Olam, before the Sh'ma. Its first line states,
"Unending is Your love for Your people, the House of Israel: Torah and Mitzvot, laws and precepts have You taught us."
In both prayers we are reminded first of God's deep love for the people of Israel. This declaration of God's love is then made tangible through the gift of Torah and mitzvot. We respond to Ahavah Rabbah and Ahavat Olam with the Sh'ma, declaring that Adonai is our God and Adonai is one. It is only then that we are commanded to "love God with all of your heart, all of your soul and with all of your might." The authors of the prayer book wanted to remind the people of the reciprocal nature of the relationship between Israel and God. God loves us as demonstrated through the gift of Torah and mitzvot and we love God back by loving the Torah and showing that love by fulfilling the mitzvot.
Loving God is included in the 48 middot (ethical values) necessary for the acquisition of Torah. Midrash Shmuel teaches,
"One who loves the Ruler (i.e., God) occupies himself or herself with the Ruler's most valuable treasure. Diligent study of Torah is therefore an expression of a love for God. Through study, one learns to recognize the Godly path and express one's love of God by emulating God's ways." (The Pirkei Avos Treasury, ArtScroll p.419)
To Talk About
- If an individual is unsure about belief in God, how can they observe the commandment to love God? Do you think it is important to love God? Can a person still be a committed Jew and not believe in God?
- Either from memory or by examining a siddur, find the prayer or song which most closely reflects your beliefs and/or thoughts about God. Share and discuss your selection with others.
- How do you think loving God would help you acquire Torah?
- In this commentary several ways are given to show one's love for God. Reread the commentary and identify them. What behaviors, attitudes, and practices do you already engage in which reflect your love for God? Name additional things you can do that would further demonstrate your love for God.
- From the Pirkei Avos Treasury it states that one expresses one's love for God by emulating God's ways. How would you describe "God's ways?" And how would you emulate them?
Take a Shabbat stroll, get out into nature and see God's world. Maimonides taught, "When a person contemplates God's great and wondrous works and obtains a glimpse of God's incomparable and infinite wisdom, the person will straightway love and glorify God…"