What Is Mussar?

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Profile of a human head with a colorful symbol of neurons in the brain

by Yisroel Schor

What is mussar? What is the movement all about and what is the underlying truth our masters are trying to portray to us? Is there a common theme which unites all of the different seforim? What does Hashem really want from us?

If you were to go through any Mussar Sefer which talks about middos, you would find different middos which are good and certain ones which are bad. When talking let’s say about gavah, the Messilas Yeshorim says that if one is haughty, they should think about our insignificance compared to God. If you are haughty because of your success over your friend who knows what that person struggles are? So, therefore, there is really no room to be haughty.

This is just one example of a middah, but all of them have a similar point. It’s not just that you shouldn’t be haughty or get angry because it is a bad thing to do rather it is because it’s not true. Meaning the way to combat bad middos and the root cause of all bad character traits is not being in touch with truth or yourself. Truth and only truth is what will make a person complete.

Although it has not been articulated necessarily this way in the world of mental health, all mental health disorders if you think about it also come from a lack of truth. There is a saying in CBT that “it is not the event which affects us but rather our perception of the event.” What this phrase really means is that when something happens to us it’s not the incident that effects us mentally but rather how we perceive and process the event which affects us.

For example, if someone were to get in a horrible car accident, they may have serious trauma from the event and not feel safe driving anymore. If you think about it, the event is not what changed this person it is the meaning that he extracted from the event which affected him. Mainly, that cars are not safe and that another accident can happen. However, although it can happen again, it is not likely to and therefore it is reasonable to continue driving. So, it was a lack of being able to process the event properly which affected this person.

Let’s go to a little bit more of an extreme example. There is a disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Their disorder is characterized by having more than one personality. Not just multiple personalities but that each of these personalities is literally different people. Now how does such a disorder come about? Usually, the reason it happens is because someone goes through an extreme trauma over an extended period of time in their childhood.

How does this lead to having multiple personalities? One of the reasons given is because there are just too many thoughts to process and they are all conflicting and a person especially a child does not know how to process all these different feelings, and therefore they create identities for each one of their feelings.

Actually, one of the reasons that people in ancient times all believed in polytheism is because they couldn’t understand how both good and bad can come out of the same source and therefore it was only logical that they are multiple Gods fighting with each other and sometimes the good one wins and sometimes the bad one does. This is why the question of Moshe and Iyov to God of bad things happening to good people is such a powerful one.

Anyway, back to D.I.D, the idea is that sometimes trauma is so severe, but there are parts of it that the person likes and there are parts that make them scared and some that make them angry. How are we to understand this all coming out of one person and especially from one trauma? Over an extended period of time, this can lead to a person developing multiple personalities one for each emotion in order to make sense of it all.

Again, the inability to understand and be truthful with yourself is what is creating this mental disorder.

Another example, one perhaps which is closer to home and easier to identify with is anxiety. What is anxiety and what brings it on? The feeling of being anxious is the inability to be able to be yourself. Social anxiety is when a person wants to say something or portray themselves a certain way but feel like they are unable for whatever reason to do it. What comes out of this is a feeling of being anxious and panicked. Again, an example of not being able to be your true self leads to a disorder.

I think we have given enough examples. The idea which comes out is that all mental disorders come from the same root; not being truthful with yourself either because you can’t make sense of it or because the ego is trying to protect you from admitting to yourself things which are sometimes hard to admit. Mussar, has the same message; everything you do must come from a place of truth.

What is the Adam Hashalem, the complete person? The Rambam talks about Adam before he ate from the tree of knowledge. He says that before he ate the forbidden fruit everything was perceived through the prism of truth and falsehood. After he ate he was a yoda tov v’rah, he perceived thing through the prism of good and evil.

What is the difference between truth and lies and good and evil? One difference is that truth and falsehood are objective, whereas good and bad is subjective. What is considered good has to be understood through the context of what is being discussed, and there can be many opinions on what to do in any given situation, whereas the truth is something which is not up for debate.

We all know that are tachlis in this world is to get back to the world that existed before sin. The only way to do this is to get as close as possible to perceiving things truthfully. The complete person is someone whose actions, feelings and emotions are all in sync. It’s the middah called Menuchas Hanefesh, which is at the end of mastering all the other middos. Someone who proccesess everything truthfully and does not lie to themselves will be able to live in complete peace. They will always know what they have to do and will not be conflicted because everything inside of them is working towards the same goal.

My point with all this is quite straightforward. We live in a time where we cannot shelter our kids completely anymore, and there is a lot of struggles and pain to go around. The only way to combat all of this is through self-awareness. Our Yeshivos have to begin promoting the idea of Mussar again. Doing things and not understanding what we are doing is not working anymore. I do not mean understanding all the reasons for mitzvos, rather just being aware of what we understand and what we don’t; sometimes being able to live the unknown. To stop just following what everyone else is doing and really develop our own identities.

At the beginning of Chassidus, one of the main teachings was that there are many ways to connect to God and each person has to find the Rebbe which connects to his soul’s purpose in this world. We must bring this idea back. We are all different people with different things to offer we should appreciate diversity and not be scared of it (obviously within the framework of Torah). We have to have real conversations and promote people being real. Our conversations have to be real, and the way we talk to our kids have to be real.

Anything less might work for those who don’t hit any bumps on the road, but for the rest of us, we need to become aware of what is going on inside of us. Both mussar and mental health are saying one thing. Talk to yourself honestly, try and understand the different emotions that you are feeling, if you have a question or something is bothering you, talk about it and don’t push it away.

I have been helping bochurim who are struggling over the last couple of years and the thing that has worked for me every single time is to promote self-awareness. Asking them questions that they had never thought of or just discussing both mine and their ideas or feelings. When we begin to think about what we are feeling and what those feelings mean about who we are develops integral parts of our psyche.

Most Bochurim struggle because they have no passion which stems from them not knowing themselves or understanding what they are doing. Thinking and being truthful is the only thing that will get us past these turbulent times.

{Matzav.com}

 

 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Mussar is a very broad term. Much of the mussar writings are too harsh for us. I also question whether mussar can directly be used to treat or aliviate mental illness. The point you make about becoming more self aware & honest with ourselves is very true.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more.
    People are inherently good.The importance of a young child growing up in a safe warm environment is everything.When unfortunately that child is raised by parents who then are weak in this area the challenges begin.The parents may insist the child look a certain way,attend that level yeshiva seminary or camp only because subconsciously they think their success and reputation as a parent is defined by their children. However, if a child has a learning disability or is diagnosed with ADHD etc…that child simply cannot and will never fit that description those parents desperately need to save face.How can this happen?Are parents so evil to subject their own children to a life of pain and ultimately rebellion?
    No!
    Do certain Mechanchim or Rosh Hayeshiva mean to seriously damage their students by tossing them out or not accepting a certain child because they are scared to lose the reputation they feel they need to have to be included in the conversation of Elite?
    No!
    Because people are inherently good!
    We all as human beings get caught up in the pettiness of life which enables our weakness to rule us.We get so taken over by these forces we actually are willing to fight and destroy to protect them because we MUST be right.Rav Wolbe ZL calls this “Frumkeit”.
    That is where the importance of learning Mussur comes in.One who dedicates him/herself to learn over and over again the same simple concepts of what Ramchal writes in his hakdama to thee Mussur Sefer,Mesilas Y (that honestly should be in every Ben Aliyah’s grasp) will help us uncover the truth.The truth is a bit different for each individual.Each persons’ background,upbringing medical/mental challenge,social status,abuse survivors,marriage or lack of marriage, and this list goes on and on, need to be able to understand what THEY INDEPENDENTLY AS AN INDIVIDUAL need to do to reach their shelaymus.That is when we thrive!As individuals,as a couple, parent,member of a Kehila and yes,even our wonderful special talented and amazing teenage boys and girls of today who unfortunately have so many other life altering options our culture has forced them to turn to because they desperately need to feel their truth to!
    Torah Bli Mussur Keguf Bli Neshama!

  3. True A issue is that self awareness is hard to achieve without being guided, and even with, is often scary. While there are a few (very few) books, or sections in books, that talk about it, most people don’t achieve it. Unless they have had some for of trauma, there isn’t motivation for most people to even try to get self awareness. Even among Rabbonim, and Magidei Shiur, how many of them have self awareness, and even those who do, can they really guide someone else? This isn’t a attack, just trying to identify problems. It would seem we need to make this a big issue, to make everyone aware of this need. And not just that, but to create pathways towards self awareness that would be available to everyone, and find Rabbanim\therapists who can both mentor individuals, and help create other mentors as well.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, this is an interesting perspective. I always find the intersection of Judaism and mental health fascinating and am encouraged that more and more outlets are speaking up about it. For too long, especially in the Jewish community, mental health issues have been swept under the rug and ignored. Recently, Jewish forums such as this one and Okclarity have started to open up a space to discuss these kinds of issues. Just by mentioning it in a broader article about the effects of Mussar, you’re helping to do away with that stigma. Thank you.

    • I agree! I suffer from anxiety and am SO thankful to have a community like Okclarity to open up on. The Jewish community especially has looked down on mental health for years, so it’s great for this Mussar article to even mention it.

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