David Brooks begins his book, The Road to Character, as follows:
“Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the values that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” (Introduction: Adam II)
Surely we have heard eulogies filled only with resume values, leaving us wondering who the deceased really was at her core. Accolades solely about accomplishment may make some people reflective about their own lives only to feel inadequate in comparison. Others sense on a heart-level that something was missing in this person’s life, leaving us to reflect on what is truly important in our own lives.
In comparison, consider the life of a man whose resume values were of little consequence, yet the chapel was filled to overflowing by those whose lives he touched through his generosity, kindness and healing sense of humor. Officiating at this funeral made an indelible impact on me. Most of my teaching is now devoted to Mussar – an intentional systematic, strategic and intentional approach to developing one’s “soul traits” – one virtue at a time.
The Mussar movement was a Jewish ethical and cultural movement founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter, a Lithuanian Jew living in the mid-nineteenth century. The Hebrew term Mussar is from the Book of Proverbs (1:2), meaning moral conduct, instruction or discipline. The movement was nearly destroyed during the Holocaust. Since the start of the 21st century, there has been a North American revival which has spread beyond the orthodox community and into the lives of Jews representing an entire spectrum of beliefs, including atheists and the post and trans-denominational. The Mussar Institute and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality are leading retreats, programs and leadership institutes around the country.
The goals of Mussar are to gain awareness of situations in which we typically react negatively, increase our ability to respond to such situations with greater wisdom and compassion, and experience our community as modeling positive moral character. Key practices include meditation, text study, compassionate listening and reflective journaling using our lives as text from which to glean opportunities for practicing Mussar in our daily lives. Examples of traits include generosity, kindness, patience, humility, common decency, friendship and keeping commitments.
Recently, a film making group called Let It Ripple made several wonderful short films to serve as discussion starters about Adaptable Mind, The Science of Character , and Making of a Mensch. The inclusion of “Making of a Mensch” as part of a national Character Day demonstrates that the growing focus on character education is not solely a Jewish endeavor. Consider the nationwide character and student development program found in schools, Character.org , which states:
Character education embodies the idea that schools shouldn’t leave character to chance – a school of character does not simply provide academic knowledge to students, it intentionally emphasizes hard work and ethical behavior in academics, interpersonal relationships, and community standards.
Character development is not, however, only for children. People are engaging in Mussar practice and discovering that personal growth is possible at any age. Such is the case with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Tikkun Middot (lit. preparing character traits) project as well as their Wise Aging program, both of which are sparking individual and communal transformation and growth. Over 250 facilitators nationally have been trained to lead Wise Aging programs for people aged 55-85 in synagogues, JCC’s and within the community at large. Beginning this fall, Bev Shurman Lavitt and I will be leading a group co-sponsored by North Shore Congregation Israel and Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living.
Rabbi Israel Salanter once encountered a shoe maker who was still repairing shoes very late at night. When asked why he was up so late, the shoe maker replied, ”As long as the candle burns, there is still time to make repairs.”
May you be safe.
May you be happy.
May you live with ease.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi
13 Adar 1 5776/ 22 February 2016