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 " ").
Ma'amido al HaEmet translates as "to place or set others on the path of truth." The root of the word ma'amido is ayin-mem-daled and means, "to stand." The word ma'amido means "to cause to stand" or "to set." A similar word with the same Hebrew root is Amidah, the name for the central prayer of Jewish worship services. The prayer is so named because it is said in a standing position. The word emet means "truth" or "true."
"Then I bowed and prostrated myself to Adonai and blessed Adonai, the God of my master Abraham, who led me on a true path to get the daughter of my master's brother for his son." (Genesis 24:48)
In this week's text, Eliezer is speaking about his good fortune in finding the right wife for Isaac, the son of his master Abraham. Being set on the true path, in this case by God, led to Eliezer's success.
The text reflects the intent of this Jewish value, middah, "to set others on the path of truth." Whether physically or intellectually, we can play a role in the success of our fellow human beings. Normally one thinks of truth as not lying or not being deceitful. But the word 'true' can also mean 'correct' or 'appropriate'.
Midrash Samuel, commenting on this middah, explains,
"When a colleague makes a mistake in debate, the true Torah scholar derives no pleasure. Instead, he tactfully corrects his colleague and attempts to focus him or her on the truth. (Pirkei Avos: Ethics of the Fathers, Art Scroll p. 422)
From this we learn not only that a Torah scholar corrects his or her colleague, but also does so in a diplomatic way. This preserves that person's dignity and allows them to be open to accepting the correction.
There is or at least should be a real give and take when it comes to this middah, one corrects and one gets corrected. Midrash Samuel reminds us that the one doing the correcting is to be tactful. Solomon ibn Gabirol addresses his comment to the one receiving the correction, "Be not ashamed to accept the truth from wherever it comes even from one less than you." (Mivhar Hapeninim) Ibn Gabirol is teaching us to be open minded, reminding us that we can learn from all people, regardless of status.
We now know how 'to set others on the path of truth' and how one is to accept that direction. This leads to the question 'why be a part of this process?' Essentially, why on the one hand should an individual set others on the path of truth and on the other why accept someone's correction? There is a Jewish dictum which states, Kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh—all Israel is responsible for one another. Judaism does not let us off the hook. We are here to help each other, whether it is financial, physical or intellectual and we are here to accept help from others.
To Talk About
- Midrash Samuel suggests tactfulness as a needed quality in 'setting others on the true path,' Ibn Gabirol reminds us to be accepting of this information. What qualities would you suggest as part of the give and take of 'setting others on the path of truth?'
- When do you think setting someone on the true path becomes criticism and is not helpful?
- Do you feel personally responsible to set others on the path of truth as it relates to the study of Torah? Why or why not? What might hamper or encourage you to take on this role?
- Is it easy or hard for you to accept being 'set on the true path? To give it? Has there been a time when accepting or giving such direction was very important? Share and discuss.
- Has being 'set on the true path' ever led to you a success you had not expected? Have you been able to do that for someone else? Describe.
- In your own words explain, Kol yisrael arevim zeh ba zeh—"All Israel is responsible for one another."
Create an illustration or collage from magazine cutouts of the phrase Kol anashim arevim zeh ba zeh—"All people are responsible for one another."