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 " ").
The phrase ohev et hatzadakot means "loving righteous ways." The word ohev from the Hebrew root aleph-hei-vet means "love." Tzadakot is the plural of tzedakah, from the Hebrew root tzadi-dalet-kuf and means "righteousness" or "justice."
"One who walks in righteousness,
Spurns profit from fraudulent dealings,
Waves away a bribe instead of grasping it,
Stops one's ears against listening to infamy,
Shuts one's eyes against looking at evil—
Such a one shall dwell in lofty security…" (Isaiah 33:15-16)
In Deuteronomy we read: "Do that which is right and good in the sight of God" (Deuteronomy 6:18). Rabbi Mark Washofsky explains that this requires us to act as a holy people in every aspect of our daily lives, in our contact with all our fellow human beings, in our social and economic pursuits and in our ritual activities. (Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice p.297)
This teaching is echoed in text that comes from the book of Isaiah. Judaism is a faith rooted in righteous good deeds. One cannot simply be a repository for Torah knowledge. The essence and purpose of study is action. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah used to say:
One whose wisdom exceeds his or her good deeds what is that person like? To a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few; and the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down. But the one whose good deeds exceed his or her wisdom, what is that person like? To a tree whose branches are few, but whose roots are many, even if all the winds in the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Pirkei Avot 3:22)
Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah created another metaphor for those with knowledge and varying amounts of good deeds. He said that a person who has learned much Torah and has good deeds is like a horse which has reins. The person who has the first—much Torah, but not the second—good deeds, is like a horse without reins: it soon throws the rider over its head. (Avot de Rabbi Natan xxiv, 39a as found in The Rabbinic Anthology # 469)
In Jewish tradition, studying and doing go hand in hand. In the midrashic commentary Tanna Debe Eliyahu, we learn that an individual should first be a decent human being (in other words a mensch—Yiddish for a good decent individual) before seeking to acquire learning:
"Let a person do good deeds, then ask Adonai for knowledge of Torah: let a person first act as righteous and upright individuals act, and then let that person ask Adonai for wisdom: let a person first grasp the way of humility, and then ask Adonai for understanding."
To Talk About
- Explain this text in your own words. What do you think it means to walk in righteousness? What ways are listed in the text that might allow one to "walk in righteousness?" What additional ways would you suggest?
- If you were going to write a code of righteous behavior what would be included in it? Would this text by Isaiah be adequate? Why or why not?
- Avraham ben Ezra, a Spanish scholar and poet of the 12th century, taught, "If we were all righteous, we should need no system of laws." Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
- The teaching from Pirkei Avot in the Commentary section compares a person whose knowledge exceeds his or her good deeds with one whose deeds exceed his or her knowledge. Ask participants to take part in an "add-on" story. Begin with the line "I once knew two people, one whose knowledge exceeded his or her deeds the other whose deeds exceeded his or her knowledge and ……" Each participant helps tell the story adding as much explanation and storytelling. For those who would rather not tell a story, ask them to create a picture illustrating this idea.
- In the Commentary section, two metaphors are given for those with learning and good deeds. Create your own metaphor for this concept.
- What quality would you personally like to have before you acquire more Torah knowledge? Explain.
- Complete this phrase "A mensch is someone who ______________."
In the Talmud it teaches, "The righteous say little and do much." (Bava Metzia) Discuss what kinds of deeds a righteous person would do. Then, as a family, create a list of these deeds and post them in a prominent place in your home. Each family member should try to fulfill some of these righteous deeds. On the following Shabbat, talk about the deeds that were done, why they were chosen, what good resulted from those deeds and how they affected or changed the doer and the recipient—if there was one.