Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years
to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct
the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers
immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.

The Jewish community spawned Mussar to help people overcome the inner obstacles that hinder them
from living up to the laws and commandments—the mitzvot—that form the code of life. That community
tends to see Mussar as inseparable from its own beliefs and practices, but the human reality Mussar
addresses is actually universal, and the gifts it offers can be used by all people.

Alan Morinis
Alan Morinis
Mussar Institute

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Humility, the Primary Public Virtue

-- Through a Mussar Lens: More Than Studying Torah, Acquiring It

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Multiple Aspects to Will

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Being Slow to Anger

-- Through a Mussar Lens: the Beauty of Tradition

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Understanding and Experiencing Yirah

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Reasons to be Grateful for Everything

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Defining Holiness

-- Through a Mussar Lens: A Model for Healing Relationships

-- Through a Mussar Lens: To Rebuke with Honor

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Uncovering the Truth about Ourselves

-- Through a Mussar Lens: The Gift of Silence

-- Through a Mussar Lens: The Spiritual Benefits of Release

-- Through a Mussar Lens: Seder’s Deep Roots in the Subconscious




Through a Mussar Lens: Humility, the Primary Public Virtue
by Alan Morinis

The world seems to have taken a sharp turn toward being a harder, colder and less caring place. Virtues and strengths of character that the Jewish tradition has held out as ideals for millennia are under attack in the public square. Truth, compassion, humility, lovingkindness and generosity are being run roughshod by lies, hatred, arrogance and self-interest.

From my perspective, there is only one thing to do, and that is to stay the course. We must continue to be pursuers of virtue. My words sound to me like what a mutual fund manager says to clients when the market is in turmoil. The best investment strategy is to set long-range goals from which you do not deviate just because the market has hit a patch of rough weather. If that is the best investment strategy for money, how much more so is it the right approach when we are talking about the qualities of our very souls?
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Through a Mussar Lens: More Than Studying Torah, Acquiring It
by Alan Morinis

Rabbi Itzele Peterburger (1837–1907) was one of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter’s closest disciples and collaborators. There is a famous story about a visit R’ Itzele paid to the Volozhin Yeshiva, where he argued for the importance of Mussar. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the head of that yeshiva, replied that the study of Mussar is like castor oil: only sick people need it and if you don’t need it, it will make you sick. Healthy people do not need any practice other than learning Torah.

I once heard my own Mussar teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, reflect on the same subject. He said that a person who learns Torah perfectly has no need of Mussar or anything other than Torah study. “The problem, though,” he said, “is that you have to learn it perfectly for it to have that effect. If you aren’t sure you are learning perfectly, then you might need to do something additional to stay on your path and moving forward.”
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Through a Mussar Lens: Multiple Aspects to Will
by Alan Morinis

Almost 800 years ago, a Jewish sage living in Rome published a book called Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot (Book of the Choicest Virtues). This work contains Rabbi Yechiel ben Yekutiel’s 13th century insight into 24 inner traits, including the positive and negative possibilities inherent in each.

His is one of several books of its kind in the Mussar library in which the entire purpose of the book is to explore the positive and negative aspect of every human emotional and intellectual quality—the grain and the husk of every trait, as another of these books (Orchot Tzaddikim) puts it. Each chapter listed in the table of contents of these books delves into another familiar human experience, revealing the deep commitment our ancestors had to understanding the inner life.
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Through a Mussar Lens: Being Slow to Anger
by Alan Morinis

I get angry too often and too easily, and in that I am not alone. In this fast-paced and self-oriented world, any obstacle or unexpected circumstance can set off the inner flares of anger. Though it may seem that the prevalence of anger is a reflection of how we live today, in truth there is nothing new in our anger. Our ancestors grappled with this powerful, sometimes volcanic, emotion no less than we do. They have lessons to teach us.

We hear every day about anger demolishing relationships, smashing property, and even leading to self-destruction. The Talmud is categorical: “The life of those who can’t control their anger is not a life” (Pesachim 113b). It is also written there that breaking things when angry is as sinful as idol worship (Shabbat 105b). Jewish sources relate anger to foolishness—“foranger lingers in the bosom of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9), and to loss of wisdom—“One who becomes angry, if he is wise, his wisdom leaves him” (Pesachim 66b). And, really, these are just two sides of the same coin. How does someone in a rage look to you? Wise? How do you think you appear to others when you act out of anger?
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Through a Mussar Lens: the Beauty of Tradition
by Alan Morinis

To study and practice Mussar is to be in an encounter and a dialogue with an old tradition. Indeed, the Hebrew term for tradition is “mesorah” [mem-samech-vav-resh-heh], which some take to have a common linguistic root with the word “mussar” [mem-vav-samech-resh]. Whether or not that is a valid derivation, there is no disputing that Mussar is a tradition and traditional.

I date the first work that focused on the unique question addressed by Mussar to the 10th century—Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon’s Sefer Emunot v’De’ot (completed in 933). That title is usually translated as The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, but it is equally correct to translate it as The Book of Beliefs and Soul-Traits, since medieval writers (including Rambam) tended to use the term de’ot where more recent writers would use middot [traits of the nefesh-soul].
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Through a Mussar Lens: Understanding and Experiencing Yirah
by Alan Morinis

Jerusalem is once again in the news, as it has been for the last 3,000 years. It is an utter mystery why one small little piece of earth located in no particularly dominating location should dominate the headlines generation after generation. Perhaps we get a clue from the name of the city itself — Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in Hebrew, is derived from the words yirah and shalom. We are all familiar with the word shalom—peace. But what of the first part of the name, arising from yirah?

The Hebrew word yirah is not an obscure Hebrew term that scholars debate that has no practical importance. Yirah is one of the great teachings of Judaism, and understanding it is hugely important to spiritual life.
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Through a Mussar Lens: Reasons to be Grateful for Everything
by Alan Morinis

Our ancestral rabbis tell the story of a man who was bitten by a wasp and ran to the river to ease the sting in the cool water. When he got to the river, he came upon a child who was drowning and saved him. The child thanked the man, saying, “If not for you, I would have drowned.” The man replied, “If not for the wasp, I would not have been here to save you.”

The Midrash extends this example to explain that when the daughters of Yitro told their father about Moshe saving them from the shepherds, they said, “Father, it was an Egyptian man who saved us.” Moshe explained to them, “It is not me you should thank for saving you but the Egyptian whom I killed. If not for him, I would not be here” (Shemot Rabbah on Shemot / Exodus 2:19).
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Through a Mussar Lens: Defining Holiness
by Alan Morinis

There are soul-traits (middot) that can be understood and defined in very human terms. But holiness is not among them. Holiness is a personal spiritual quality that has one foot in this world and another foot in a world beyond. When HaShem gives us our human job description in the Torah, telling us “kedoshim tihiyu” — “You shall be holy” — that verse (Leviticus / Vayikra 19:1) ends with the emphatic, “ki kadosh ani” — God saying, “Because I am holy.” Holiness is both our potential and a quality of the divine.
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Through a Mussar Lens: A Model for Healing Relationships
by Alan Morinis

One of the striking aspects of the Torah is its depiction of human relationships in all their difficulties, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through many other instances of domestic strife. What if I told you that a 16th century rabbi wrote a handbook for healing relationships that is as applicable today as it was five centuries ago. Would you believe me? But it is true. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522–1570) is that 16th century rabbi, and his guidelines for creating loving relationships occupy the whole first section of his classic work, Tomer Devorah [Palm Tree of Deborah].
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Through a Mussar Lens: To Rebuke With Honor
by Alan Morinis

I have recently been fascinated to learn how the brain functions. A student of Mussar—and anyone who wants to realize their personal potential—needs to understand how the brain works. To take an example that applies to many of us, a person dealing with anger is operating in the dark unless he or she understands that anger is a product of the limbic brain, and the neuronal pathways along which anger flies through the brain are among the most hardwired. Anger moves through the brain at supersonic speed, in contrast to conscious, deliberate thought, which creeps through the brain at a much slower speed.
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Through a Mussar Lens: Uncovering the Truth about Ourselves
by Alan Morinis

Ask someone what’s more important, their bank account or their soul, and all but the most foolish would answer that their soul is far more precious to them than any material possession. It’s interesting to observe, then, how few people live by those priorities. Checkbooks get balanced, taxes are filed, performance is reviewed, the bottom line gets tallied, but who does anything remotely like that for their soul?
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Through a Mussar Lens: The Gift of Silence
by Alan Morinis

I have come to recognize a divine dimension to Costco. If you have ever shopped at that big box store (or Whole Foods, too, as someone pointed out to me) you’ll know that those stores provide free samples in every aisle, and that’s exactly how HaShem set up the world as well. Free samples of all the divine qualities are made available to us. You don’t have to do an iota of spiritual practice nor have any sense of relationship to God to experience awe at seeing a glorious sunset, or hearing superb music, or experiencing the birth of new life. Those free samples are handed out in aisle 12. So, too, with kindness, compassion and many other divine qualities: they are all available and known to all of us as free samples that come along with the experience of being human.
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Through a Mussar Lens: The Spiritual Benefits of Release
by Alan Morinis

This past Rosh Hashana ushered in not just any new year but a Shemitah year. Just as the Torah marks the seventh day as a day of rest, every seventh year is designated as a Sabbath year. Like Shabbat, the Shemitah year embodies a theme of rest—only in the case of the seventh year, it is not people but the land that is given a break, from cultivation. Additionally, some debts are remitted and certain slaves are entitled to go free.
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Through a Mussar Lens: Seder’s Deep Roots in the Subconscious
by Alan Morinis

With the Pesach seders days away, the middah [soul-trait] that looms large before us is “order.” The Hebrew for “order” is that very word seder—the name given to the ordered Passover festive meal. Seder/order gives us the name as well of the prayerbook [siddur] and of the officiant at a wedding (mesudar). The trait of order figures so centrally in prayer, festivals and rituals because Judaism sees order as a necessary quality for one who would engage in spiritual processes and growth. How can we achieve that ideal when most of us are anything but orderly in our affairs?
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