A couple of weeks ago, I attended the yearly American Conference of Cantors convention in Portland, Oregon.
I always look forward to these gatherings, as it provides me the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion, take new and innovative classes, participate in wonderful music making and renew my friendships with Cantorial colleagues.
During the course of the five-day event, I attended a keynote address given by Alan Morinis, a student of spiritual traditions. He is an active interpreter and teacher of the practices and teachings of the Mussar tradition and works at the Mussar Institute in British Columbia, Canada. The Mussar tradition, based on the Hebrew term mussar from the book of Proverbs, means moral behavior and discipline. Mussar is a thousand-year-old Jewish system for personal growth. This tradition developed during the Enlightenment period in Eastern Europe as a response to the phenomenon of assimilation of Jews to Christianity. Many religious Jews felt that the observance of traditional Jewish law and custom was on the decline, and even for those who still remained religious, the tradition’s spiritual and ethical core became obscured. The Mussar movement was practiced mostly among Orthodox Lithuanian Jews. Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970) described Mussar as “making the heart understand what the mind already knows.”
The goal of Mussar practice, according to the Mussar Institute is “to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul.” Mussar practices include text study, meditation, chanting, silence and retreat, diary practices, contemplations, visualization, and doing actions on behalf of others.
Mr. Moranis’s teaching was enlightening and interesting. In explaining the concept of focusing in on one emotion to fully feel it, he gave a wonderful example of a grocery store scenario. He said, “Picture yourself in a grocery store, where the person in front of you is taking a long time to get out her checkbook after her huge pile of groceries was bagged (couldn’t she have taken it out earlier?!). As you stand behind her, having to wait an extra five minutes, you have a choice. You can either spend those five minutes being impatient and making your heart rate and emotions rise to an unacceptable level, or you can spend the same five minutes being patient. Either way, you are there for five extra minutes, and in the end, who suffers the consequences of the impatience other than yourself?” This exercise is one that has the potential to make us re-evaluate our emotions. The practice of Mussar gives the opportunity to focus on our individual holiness (K’dusha), as well as helping to become whole (Sh’leimut). God wants us to complete ourselves, body and soul.
In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, a census is taken of the Jewish people. Every person is counted over the age of twenty. This is not the first time a counting of the people occurs. Clearly, God has a passion for counting! Furthermore, why would God need a head count? Shouldn’t God know how many people there are?
This census places everyone on equal footing, regardless of ‘stature’. Each person counts for no more and no less than one in the total number. The one and only thing that the people have in common is the fact that they are human beings. And if God wants each one counted, then perhaps God sees each human as something more than just a number. God sees each person as an individual soul, with the potential to reflect goodness, wholeness and holiness. Our job, one which lasts a lifetime, is to realize this potential; to scratch through the surface and get to the good stuff! When we shed the outer layers, the soul is what remains at our core. In this regard, each of us is equal. The census makes sense because we realize that no one is higher or lower than the next. The potential of our soul is infinite. This is an important lesson to remind ourselves when we are tempted to judge another as less than ourselves.
The practice of Mussar does just this. It brings us back to our soul and helps us move beyond the intellect to get down into our heart. It reminds us of the importance of humility. As it is stated in the Book of Proverbs, “Hold on to Mussar, do not let it go; protect it, for Mussar is your life”.
Cantor Tracey Scher