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 " ").
Sichlut HaLev translates as "a perceptive heart." The word sichlut comes from the Hebrew root sin-kuf-lamed, and means "to pay heed, behave wisely, use good judgment, to be intelligent." HaLev translates as "the heart."
"Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth." (Ecclesiastes 11:9)
This text is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to Kohelet, the son of David. In it we are given instructions as to how to derive the most out of life. We are told that it is the heart that has the power to lead us in the right direction so that we might enjoy our lives.
The rabbis tell us that while it is important to have an understanding heart (Middah Binat Ha-Lev), it is not enough. We must also have a perceptive heart. When we are confronted with difficult decisions we respond both intellectually and emotionally. We use both our minds and our hearts but it is the perceptive heart, the heart that helps us apply the lessons we have learned from experience to our decision-making that makes the difference.
The Talmud records an argument over the meaning of the question, "But wisdom, where shall it be found? (Job 28:12) R. Eliezer said: In the head. But R.Joshua said: In the heart". (Midrash Prov.) Among the sages and scholars, wisdom traditionally meant common sense (sechel) and good judgment in everyday matters-knowing, for example, when to speak and when not to, when to act and when not to (Voices of Wisdom). No single set of rules can tell us what we should do in every circumstance or how to navigate our way through new situations. All we can do is to consult that inner good sense we have been cultivating in our hearts through study and deeds, and hope that it will enable us to make good decisions.
Throughout Jewish history and folklore, the rabbis have reasoned their way around difficult questions through the use of stories. Of all the elements in Jewish folklore, the parable is probably the most revered. The Hebrew name for it is mashal and it includes stories, fables and brief allegories. The parable is not just an ingenious and entertaining story. It is subtle and imaginative, containing both wisdom and common-sense understanding of both the heights and limitations of the human being. The rabbis of the Talmud loved to use parables to teach lessons. It is these lessons that help us develop a perceptive heart.
An example of a parable is the story of the man who was carrying a heavy load of wood on his shoulders. When he grew weary he let the bundle down and cried bitterly, "O Death, come and take me."
Immediately, the Angel of Death appeared and asked, "Why do you call me?"
Frightened, the man replied, "Please help me place the load back on my shoulders." (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore)
Rabbi Eugene Borowitz reminds us that foolish "sages", more naïve than wise, populate the literature of every age and society. Our 19th century Eastern European ancestors gave us "The Wise Men of Chelm" as our very own archetypical fools. According to one Chelm story, when God created humans God wanted to distribute the wise and foolish souls evenly across the earth. While flying over Poland, the bag got caught on a mountain peak, and many of the souls drifted down to Chelm, a town in Poland. Many people, in fact, complained that Chelm got more than its share of foolish souls. A wonderful source of both humor and wisdom, the Chelm stories help us realize just how closely wisdom and foolishness are connected. (In fact, the Hebrew word for foolishness is sechel, spelled samech-kuf-lamed, which has an identical etymology to the Hebrew word for wisdom, sechel spelled sin-kuf-lamed). These stories remind us that there is a little foolishness in every wise person and a little wisdom in every fool.
Here is an example of Chelm wisdom:
The people of Chelm were worriers. So they called a meeting to do something about the problem of worry. A motion was duly made and seconded to the effect that Yossel, the cobbler, be retained by the community as a whole, to do its worrying, and that his fee be one ruble per week. The motion was about to carry, all speeches having been for the affirmative, when one sage asked the fatal question: "If Yossel earned a ruble a week, what would he have to worry about?" (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore)
To Talk About
- The eleventh-century Spanish poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabriol suggested that an important part of wisdom is knowing that our search never ends: "If a person imagines he has attained it, he's a fool" (Mivhar Hapeninim) Think about one experience you had this week from which you gained wisdom. How might you use what you learned from this experience to help you in the future?
- Jewish theologian Louis Jacobs reminds us that there is a constant struggle in the human heart between what we are and what we ought to be. Jewish virtues (middot) challenge us to raise the level of our interactions with each other, with ourselves and with God. Talk about one way in which you would like to change your behavior in each of those areas.
- Reread the story about the Worriers of Chelm. Why was the recommendation for solving the problem of worrying so foolish? What special insights or perceptions did the "sage" show when he asked his question? What wisdom is contained in this story? How can we apply this lesson to our own lives?
- Compare the Hebrew word for "foolishness" with the Hebrew word for "wisdom." Why are these two words related? What do we learn about wisdom from its relationship to foolishness?
- Our sages were wise enough and practical enough to acknowledge the selfishness of human nature and were insistent about our potential to overcome it. One of the ways we can do that is to pay attention to the lessons we learn on a daily basis and to use them to help us make decisions. Think about an example of a time when you relied on a lesson you had learned to solve a problem. How did it help you?
- The rabbis told the parable of the man and the Angel of Death to teach a lesson. What lesson do you think they wanted to teach? Was this a good way to teach that lesson? Why or why not?
Think about one important lesson that you have learned and would want to teach to someone else. Write a parable or a 'Chelm-like' story that teaches that lesson. Trade your parable with someone else in your family. Try to find an opportunity to use the lesson that the parable teaches.