Pointing Your Feet Up the Mountain — The Mussar Path to Wholeness and Holiness

A young rabbi had just assumed his  very first position as the spiritual leader at a synagogue. Having finally gotten settled in to his new study he was anxious to make a good impression. He sits in front of an open page of Talmud poring over the ancient teachings preparing for his first sermon. The vice president of the synagogue walks by the open door of the rabbi’s office, peeks in and sees him intently engaged in study. He walks over to the president who was also nearby and says, gesturing to the rabbi, “I thought we got a finished one!”

As long as we are alive, we are never truly finished. Day after day, we are learning, growing, changing. We can’t help it, whether we are rabbis or not. Whether we like it or not. Life is a process of transformation. We are not simply human beings. “We are human becomings,” my teacher, Reb Zalman, liked to say. The only question that remains is whether we will be changing in the way we truly want to grow, consciously becoming the very best version of ourselves. This is our life task as Judaism sees it.

The Hebrew month of Elul, this period that we are in now, that leads right up to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, serves as a spiritual warm up to the important inner-work of these approaching Holy Days and invites us to pay special attention, before we even get to the High Holy Days, to the ideals and values that we are striving to cultivate within ourselves. These days of preparation are gifts that we give to ourselves so that we can, in the words of Alan Morinis, a modern Mussar master, “make the process of change deliberate and conscious, and aimed in a particular direction.” 

Mussar is an age-old Jewish practice, currently experiencing a renaissance, that provides us with a treasure trove of specific practices for developing and directing the process of our own change and spiritual growth. Morinis relates in his book, With Heart in Mind:  Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life, that “The highest and best use of a life is to aim toward either shleimut (meaning, ‘wholeness’) or kedusha (‘holiness’). These are but two dimensions of the same phenomenon. The more we become living embodiments of our ideals, the more we transition from our partialness (even brokenness) toward becoming more whole, and in wholeness we become vessels for holiness itself. The Mussar masters tell us that this is the open secret that makes sense of the journey of life.” (p. 4)

Over the past few years, we have offered Mussar classes with Deni Marshall that have become very popular and inspiring. Then, on the last Shabbat of August many participated in our Shabbat Lab, an exciting Mussar experience with Rabbi Jay LeVine and Rabbi Laura Rumpf (thanks to the generous sponsorship of Roy Kaplan and Janet Saunders!). We hope to make this Mussar Shabbat an every other monthly opportunity, alternating with our chant service. 

Building on the growing interest and excitement in learning about Mussar, I would like to invite you to join me for a special Selichot workshop on Saturday evening, September 21st from 7:30 to 9:30 pm, to explore the ancient teachings of Mussar as we prepare together for a year of growth and transformation. Mussar offers us practices to cultivate our middot, spiritual qualities, that allow us our true neshama, our innermost soul, to shine brightly. This will be an experiential and interactive opportunity to encounter and reflect upon some of the 48 Mussar middot—such as Judging Others Favorably, Bearing the Burden with the Other, and Learning in order to Do—that are part of our innate inner resources that we have that can guide us towards who we hope to become. The most important part of this practice of transforming ourselves is the journey itself, the practice. Morinis reminds us that “it really doesn’t matter how far you get. The most important thing is that you point your feet in the right direction on the path that leads up the holy mountain, and that you go.” (ibid. p. 11) I am looking forward to going on this journey together with you.

Blessings for a sweet year of transformation,

Rabbi Greg

Selichot Program with Rabbi Greg

Pointing Your Feet Up the Mountain—The Mussar Path to Wholeness and Holiness 

Saturday, September 21st                                 7:30-9:30 pm  Social Hall

Sweet Treats Oneg                                             9:30-10 pm       Social Hall

Moving and Inspiring Selichot Service          10-11 pm            Sanctuary