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 " ").
Machazik comes from the Hebrew root chet-zayin-kuf. In this form it means "to hold," "to contain." or "tograsp." The middah teaches that we are not to grasp (eino) goodness (tova) for ourselves (l'atzmo), that is, we should refrain from taking personal credit for what is good.
"Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say: If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do." (Pirkei Avot 2:9)
Right in this text we see evidence of the middah—eino machazik tova l'atzmo—not taking personal credit. Yochanan ben Zakkai is described as a recipient of the tradition (meaning Torah). This lineage included only the most honored scholars and teachers. Ben Zakkai accepts his position by crediting his knowledge and worth to his teachers Hillel and Shammai.
Commenting on this middah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that one's talent and achievement in Torah learning comes from God and the most an individual can take credit for is one's good intention when it comes to learning. Further, an individual must view whatever is achieved in life with no other emotion but humility. (Chapters of the Fathers by Hirsch p.108)
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said:
"Humility is greater than all other virtues, for it is said in Scripture, 'The spirit of Adonai is upon me; Because Adonai has anointed me; Adonai has sent me as a herald of joy to the humble.'" (Isaiah 61:1)
Rabbi Levi points out, this herald of joy is not to the saintly, but to the humble. He deduces from this that, "humility, therefore, is greater than all other virtues." (Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 20b)
We live in an age when self-esteem and feeling good about one's achievements are highly valued. In contrast to this is the Jewish value—middah "eino machazik tova l'atzmo—taking no personal credit. This middah teaches several things: that one should take no personal credit for talent in learning or the amount that one has learned, that talent to learn comes from God, and that the amount that is learned is to be credited to one's teachers.
There are, however, moments in life when one has to share what one has learned and accomplished. In light of this Rava taught: "A person may make himself or herself known in a place where he or she is not known." Rava cited a verse from Scripture to explain his teaching: "I, your servant have revered Adonai from my youth."(I Kings 18:12) Obadiah, a servant to the evil and despotic King Ahab said this to the prophet Elijah, when he wanted to explain his beliefs and loyalty to Adonai. Obadiah wanted to be known by his faith and not by his association to Ahab. He had to share this with Elijah so that Elijah would know the true Obadiah.
This just may be rabbinic permission to write a resume, but in keeping with the middah don't pad it!
To Talk About
- Name some of the teachers who you would give credit to for your learning. Why did you choose them? What effect have they had on your life? In what ways would you choose to emulate them? Why?
- How hard is it to practice humility? How do you think one should balance self-esteem with haughtiness or feeling good with pride or being boastful?
- Do you agree with the teaching of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, found in this week's Commentary, that humility is the greatest virtue? Why or why not? Explain why you agree and if not, what do you think is the greatest virtue and why?
- When you complete a task successfully or win in a competition, or make the honor roll or get an award, how can you share your achievements without becoming boastful?
- Rabbi Joshua used a parable of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers to explain the need for recognition: Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: The other rivers asked the Euphrates, "Why is your sound not very audible?" The Euphrates replied, "I have no need for a loud sound: my deeds make me known. When a person plants a sapling at my side, it matures in thirty days; when the person sows a vegetable at my side, it is full grown in three days." Then the other rivers asked the Tigris, "Why is your sound so audible?" The Tigris replied, "I wish my sound were heard yet more clearly, so that people would be aware of me." (The Book of Legends Sefer Ha-Aggadah 710:227) Retell the midrash about the Tigris and Euphrates in your own words. Then consider and discuss how did the Euphrates let it's deeds speak for it. What about the Tigris? How did it behave? What do you learn about human nature from this midrash?
Compose a thank you letter to a teacher who deserves credit for what you have learned. If possible, send the letter to that individual.