Posted November 28, 2016
By Monica Corton
In the Fall of 2015, Central Synagogue offered a new CORE Group opportunity to study Mussar. Mussar is a traditional Jewish practice that offers a way to transform behavior by focusing on core character traits in a group setting.
I eagerly attended the introductory session and was astonished at the number of people who also came to learn about this practice. During the presentation, Rabbi Buchdahl explained that we should be open to groups that included people with whom we had little or nothing in common. I embraced this idea as I had never tried anything like the Mussar practice, although I do attend a lot of classes at Central, including the weekly Talmud class.
I signed up for a group led by Jules Spotts, a congregant who also attends Talmud class regularly and whose background is in psychology. I thought that Jules’ unique life experiences would make him an excellent leader for Mussar, and I was eager to be part of his group.
The timing of starting Mussar practice was fortuitous for me. My mom passed away in September 2015 and I was very broken emotionally from her loss. You could say my soul was a shattered mess, and I was searching desperately to get on a path that would help me heal. At the first meeting in October 2015, in Jules’ home, I felt like I was experiencing exactly what Rabbi Buchdahl had foreshadowed. I had almost nothing in common with almost everyone in the group…I was single, worked in the arts/music industry, had no children and was born to immigrant parents who survived the Holocaust. The others were primarily married or had been married, had children, were multi generation Americans (except for our one Canadian member) and they practiced law (particularly the men) or other traditional professions.
The first middah (character trait) that we studied was humility. I think this was the best chapter in our book (Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis), and it was very lucky that it was the best chapter, or we may have lost more people in the early sessions. The group found meaning from Everyday Holiness, although its interpretations and approach to understanding Judaism were often called into question by our members over the course of the eight months we studied together. The routine for Mussar practice is the following: 1) read and digest a chapter in the book on a specific character trait; 2) adapt a mantra on the trait that you say out loud several times every morning; 3) have an intention to work on the trait every day for a two-week period; and 4) journal your experiences every night to take stock of your progress.
Humility (“anavah“ in Hebrew) is the grounding trait of all of the other traits. The mantra recommended in the book was “No more than my place, no less than my space.” In Mussar, humility is about seeing yourself in balance with others. Generally, human nature pulls us to delight in examining our virtuous behavior and we often see the most minute faults in others which allows us to elevate our sense that we are behaving much better than them. Practicing humility levels out both our high esteem of ourselves and the low esteem we might emphasize in other’s behavior. A key line in the book about humility was “As I develop my own internal love and respect for myself and become less other-directed, I do not need to be acknowledged by others for what I do.” However, being humble doesn’t mean not asserting yourself in a situation; it just means “being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.” Moses is described as humble in the Torah and humility is seen as one of the most holy traits in the Bible. According to the practice, “we act with humility by making space in our lives to listen to others, even if they happen to hold a lesser station or rank or intellectual attainment than we do.”
Humility is also being present to others’ needs without having to insert yourself into them. For example, when someone shares news about something important in their life, do you praise and acknowledge what they have told you, ask more questions, and generally focus on them, or do you immediately respond with your own experiences and derail the conversation to be about you?
At the first meeting, one of the group members shared an extremely personal and private matter from his childhood and it really struck me how courageous he was to do this. I knew right then and there that this Mussar practice was going to be a serious, deep, and profound experience. It made a huge impression on me. I thought I was the only one who saw this as a pivotal moment until we did a group wrap up at our last session when another member of the group described exactly the same feeling. What is ironic is that this person who expressed the same exact experience was the one I thought I had least in common with from the beginning. It was a revelatory moment…never underestimate your connections to others because as far apart as you think you might be…you actually could be closer than you could ever imagine. For me, focusing on humility meant being a better listener and not jumping right into a conversation. Sometimes, people need a little time to truly express themselves. If you don’t give them space to tell their story (mantra “no more than my space”), you might not meet them in their space. It also meant physically honoring others’ space, for example, not running past people trying to get out of the subway at the same time as you. It’s OK to be a little late and not push past people in the name of punctuality. Getting physically into someone else’s space is jarring, disruptive and sometimes rude (e.g. around the elderly). Lastly, humility meant being more open to meeting people in the space they occupy. I started having conversations with strangers on the elevator or other random places. Those experiences were magical. We are often so leery to reach out to the stranger in NYC. I was raised in Upstate New York where people talk to strangers all the time. For security reasons, I had largely avoided this open friendly behavior since moving to the city in 1988. I’ve since brought it back and it feels so good.
Next, we studied patience (“savlanut“ in Hebrew)...a BIG trait I needed and still need to work on. I didn’t connect to the mantra in the book so I found one on the Internet. My patience mantra is “patience is not the ability to wait, but how you act while you are waiting.” This mantra had an amazing effect on my ability to be patient. Every time I felt the welling up of impatience, I said the mantra, changed my thought process and moved away from the tension. It was awesome, like a secret magic pill.
Another trait that bears on order is “kavod,” meaning “honor”. The connection is that disorder leads to or involves some sort of dishonor. For example, when you are careless or sloppy in business dealings, you dishonor the people with whom you work. When you cannot keep things straight for your clients or customers, you dishonor them. Honor is due to all people not because of the greatness of their achievements, age or status, but because they embody an inherently holy soul. The mantra I used for honor was “each one a holy soul”. There is a lot to be said for invoking this mantra when you are actually in conflict with someone. If you keep saying this in your head during the conflict, it will reduce your escalating the situation immediately. How can you actually have anger increase when the person you are looking at is now a “holy soul” meant to be treated with honor by you?
Over the course of many months, I started to see a real change in how I and the others in my group interacted on a daily basis with the people in our lives. My favorite story of change was from someone in our group. I believe it was also during the weeks we worked on the middah of “honor”. She and her husband were out doing errands, and stopped at the Apple store on 14th street to purchase a new computer. They gave their name to the sales associate at the front entrance and within about ten minutes were approached by a young, hip, college-aged salesperson. The wife started to explain in great detail what she needed and the sales associate began typing. He rotated the screen to show her what he was typing. He wrote that he was deaf, but asked if they could communicate using his computer. This of course was a surprise and would clearly take more time and effort. The husband immediately shot his wife that “look,” communicating “let’s work with a salesperson who can speak” but the wife shot him back a look that said “we are not going to change anything and we are going to work with him.” The wife stayed calm and reminded herself of the middah of honor, and decided to begin typing with the deaf sales associate. Within a matter of minutes, the sales associate understood what they needed to purchase, ran downstairs to pick it up for them and completed the transaction. When the couple left the Apple store, the husband turned to the wife and said “you were right to stay with this cool, smart kid and I was wrong to want to leave simply because he was deaf.” With this acknowledgement, he also honored her.
My Mussar group has been an incredible gift and journey. I cannot express enough gratitude to the group and to Central Synagogue for giving me the opportunity to discover things about myself and others, and to engage more deeply in a pure way with many people, from loved ones to total strangers. If we all consider each other as truly being “betzellim elohim,” in the image of God, it will allow us to look at people in a very different way and therefore, treat each other in a very different way. The Mussar practice and my interactions with my Mussar group have been so eye-opening. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to learn and grow from this wonderful practice with these extraordinary people.
Monica Corton is the Senior Executive Vice President of Creative Affairs and Licensing at Next Decade Entertainment, Inc., an independent music publishing company where she has worked for more than 25 years. Her responsibilities include signing new songwriters, negotiating, drafting, and licensing all works published and administered by the company as well as overseeing the distribution of royalties. She has been a member of Central Synagogue for more than 20 years.
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