The story of Naaman in the Book of Kings II has always been one of my favorites. He is a foreign commander who serves the king of Aram and he has tzara’at, which is usually translated as leprosy. Naaman goes to Elisha the prophet to be healed and is told to do something very simple — immerse in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman becomes angry, he thought that there would be much more of a spectacle from the prophet or that he would be required to do something more challenging, but when he does as Elisha suggests, he is healed. A relatively small action changes everything for him.
I actually followed through on my New Year’s resolution to exercise more this past year. I tried different types of exercise, trained with more strength than I thought that I could, and also developed a sports injury. For a time I worked with a physical therapist to heal my injury. It was amazing that she gave me just few small movements to do twice a day. When I did these exercises, I was able to get my body back into balance and get better. A relatively small set of actions changed everything for me.
Mussar might best be described as “Jewish spiritual ethics” and is a set of spiritual practices designed to change the way that we perceive the world and how we act in it. The modern Mussar movement was developed by Rabbi Israel Salanter in the middle of the 19th century, but the practices are centuries older than that. As the Mussar Institute emphasizes: “Mussar’s purpose is to help people understand the ways of the soul and to guide them in overcoming the obstacles that keep them from coming into inner wholeness (shlemut), holiness (kedushah) and closeness to God.”
The spiritual discipline of Mussar is not esoteric or difficult. In Mussar, the possible practices that we might use include reflecting and journaling briefly, reciting a phrase daily, and being conscious of how we interact with people in our daily lives. We work on ourselves one middah, soul-trait, at a time and among the middot that we work on are such traits as humility, patience, order, equanimity, honor, truth, moderation, responsibility and trust. Mussar is accessible to anyone, no matter their age or level of Jewish knowledge. A relatively small set of actions has the possibility of changing everything for us, of helping us to use strengths that we did not know that we had, to get our souls back into balance, and to develop spiritually.
At the Temple Emanu-El Kurn Religious School, our kindergarten class is practicing Mussar this year, using a curriculum developed by the Mussar Institute. Starting in January, the Temple Emanu-El Adult Education Academy will be offering “Seeking Everyday Holiness,” a community Mussar program also developed by the Mussar Institute, so that adults can also experience the possibilities of growth that come from working through the spiritual practices that help us cultivate our inner mensch.
Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the rabbi educator at Temple Emanu-El.