The Joy of Mussar

You might be questioning whether it’s appropriate to use the words “Joy” and “Mussar” in the same sentence. Mussar has a strong judgemental tone. When you give somebody Mussar, you’re not telling him to “Have a nice day”. Rather, you’re telling him that “You need to make some serious corrections, brother.”

If we look at the Mesillas Yesharim, the classic textbook on spiritual growth and Mussar, we’ll see that the perceived judgemental tone of Mussar is well founded. The early chapters deal with the trait of Zehirus, watchfulness. The first essential spiritual practice of Zehirus is thinking before you act so that you don’t come to do something wrong. The second essential spiritual practice is reviewing your daily actions to identify and work on correcting in the future the things you did wrong today. This type of self-judgment sounds intense and it may turn a person away from Mussar, but please read on.

The key is to put this self-judgement in its proper perspective, as the Mesillas Yesharim does in the first two chapters of the sefer. He tells us that the highest pleasure that can be achieved in this world (and the next) is the pleasure of connecting to Hashem. We know that positive emotional and spirtual pleasures are the result of love and connection, as we experience in the pleasure of loving our spouses, our children, our parents, and our friends. We can experience an even greater pleasure when we love and connect with the Master of the Universe and the Source of All Existence. Achieving this great spiritual pleasure takes work. However, when we do put in the proper effort and achieve success, the fact that we worked hard to earn that pleasure makes it even sweeter.

The Ramchal teaches us that the work primarily involves overcoming three spiritual deficiencies: 1) controlling and directing our physical desires; 2) reducing self-centeredness and ego; and 3) overcoming our natural inclination to be lazy. Corresponding to the extent that we overcome these deficiencies is the extent to which we can experience the greatest of pleasures—connecting to Hashem. We correct these deficiencies through the positive and negative mitzvos. And just like a businessman must judge his activities to achieve his goals, so too must we judge our activities to see why we are not achieving the intense spiritual pleasure available to us.

This is the Joy of Mussar. We have the ability to achieve intense connection and pleasure and Mussar helps us to keep moving on that path. We know from our professional, friendship-building, parental, and spousal experiences that achieving success in the most important things in life takes work. How fortunate are we to have an avenue like Mussar, and a sefer like the Mesillas Yesharim to instruct us on what we need to do to help us achieve the greatest pleasures and happiness available in this world.

6 comments on “The Joy of Mussar

  1. Lovely article, well put. I think Alan Morinis also does a pretty good job of packaging Mussar in a non-threatening style.

  2. To someone who studied Mussar, there is no surprise to the concept of “the joy of Mussar”. For example, Novhardok, the school of Mussar that is so often described as being all about “qatnus ha’adam” (human limitation), is also the source of quite a bit of upbeat music. Would severe people have written “Leibedik Yankel”, a comedy about this simple soul Yankel’s life in the days after mashiach’s arrival?

    Novhardok did indeed begin by teaching human limitation, but that was only in the same way boot camp does. And just as a Marine leaves those months of basic training and being called a “maggot”, Novhardok rebuilt its students with a bitachon (trust in the Almighty) that gave them a backbone to stand up to the Communists, disrupt their rallies, and taunt the speakers. And, once the Communists came to power, the strength needed to survive in Siberia.

    And then there’s Slabodka, with their “gadlus haadam”, focusing on pride in oneself and potential for greatness, along with attention to how we treat others given their greatness. Not dour at all!

    Yir’ah is another idea that we tend to oversimplify and distort until we really internalize the Mesilas Yesharim. We tend to think that since chassidim were all about ahavas Hashem (love of G-d), they were the singers. And Mussar, with its central pleacement on yir’ah, less so. However, R’ Avram Elya Kaplan (a student of Slabodka who ended up rosh yeshiva in Hildesheimers until his death in his young 30s r”l) reminds us, Az Yashir was song when “the Jews saw the Great ‘Hand’ which Hashem did in Egypt, and they felt yir’ah in Hashem and in Moshe His servant. Az Yashir Moshe — then Moshe [was?] singing…” Yir’ah is the gravitas one feels that makes one’s daughter’s wedding so much more powerful of an experience than when the bride is your neighbor’s daughter. It gives the weight to each moment that makes what could have been a small joy, a great one.

    Similarly, the joy of Mussar also inheres in knowing the importance of everything, remembering to appreciate all our gifts from Hashem, that there are no small gifts or events in one’s life. That every moment is a moment packed with meaning, with lessons from the Ultimate Rebbe, and a chance to feel His Love and the awe of it all.

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