Many thinks to the UMJC for providing the recording. Full conference audio recordings will be available soon at umjc.org.
Many thanks to all who attended our recent intro to Mussar at the summer 2014 UMJC Conference. Rabbi Paul Saal and Rabbi Jason Forbes (aka. rav rafael) presented this class to a packed room.
Due to the amount of interest at this conference, we plan to start a new year cycle after the fall holidays, on October 19th, 2014. Sign up on our email list to the right. In the meantime, we recommend you get started learning with the book Everyday Holiness.
Click "read more" to listen and view the presentation.
Many thinks to the UMJC for providing the recording. Full conference audio recordings will be available soon at umjc.org.
If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do. – Lucille Ball
I can’t tell you how many times someone has said that to me when they’ve asked me to get involved in another project. I’m a husband and father of 3 teenagers, work a full-time job, lead a synagogue community, and am involved in a dozen or so other small projects on the side (including Riverton Mussar). This keeps me busy and out of trouble. What’s the secret to being able to do a lot of things? I think the secret is being able to summon up spurts of creativity and concentration.
From a Biblical perspective, I draw the most inspiration from a young man who was put in charge of building the Tabernacle. His name was Betzalel, which means “shadow of God.” He had very unique qualities which allowed him to lead the complex and holy effort of constructing Hashem’s earthly abode. He helped create a Temple which the author of Hebrews tells us was a shadow of the real Temple of Heaven.
Moses said to the children of Israel: "See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, and with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship to do master weaving, to work with gold, silver, and copper, with the craft of stones for setting and with the craft of wood, to work with every [manner of] thoughtful work.
And He put into his heart [the ability] to teach, both him and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. He imbued them with wisdom of the heart, to do all sorts of work of a craftsman and a master worker and an embroiderer with blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen and [of] weavers, those who do every [manner of] work, and master weavers. – Exodus 35:30-35
Betzalel took divine inspiration and the blueprint Hashem gave within Torah to create God’s House. It is the Chassidic understanding of the qualities of chochma (wisdom), bina (insight), and daat (knowledge) that have helped me understand the process of creativity. I think these qualities extend to any kind of project we might be involved in. Let’s see how they might help us.
Chochma – The Flash of Intellect
This is the inspirational stage of creativity. It’s the “ah-hah” moment, a total perspective vortex that brings everything into focus. In that moment of chochma, everything will make sense. It will provide you the activation energy to get the project started. This moment can happen at different times. It can happen while you’re thinking of something else or doing a somewhat mindless task (called “cold thinking” by some). The flash emanates from your intuition. It is pure intellectual revelation, and often a gift from God. Your mind is in problem solving mode behind the scenes and suddenly the inspiration jumps to the top of your mind and you’ve got your starting point. Other times you are intensely concentrating on the problem with “hot thinking” and a new revelation hits you. Make notes. Write down the idea. Draw a picture. Often the flash will fade, so this might be your only chance to get the idea out of your head. You don’t need to record it in detail enough to explain to someone else, just a note for you to remind yourself of the details of this special moment.
Binah – Understanding the Details
Now is the time to develop the details of your idea. This is the blueprint drawing and plan making phase of creativity. Take the intuitive revelation that you received and break it down into its constituent parts. Project in your mind the high-level steps to your project and then fill in the details of each step. Write it down somehow, on a whiteboard, or paper, or on your computer. This is when you brainstorm the process and do the high level problem solving to aid your plan development. Keep focused and get all the ideas you’ve had written down so you don’t need to worry about remembering them. You can structure and reorganize the ideas later if they come out in a chaotic manner. Just record them somehow.
I’ve found that a lot of people underestimate the importance of this step. Few people like planning or thinking about the details. This is the stage when you will likely try to distract yourself. Chochma is exciting, it’s pure revelation. Binah often is a grim reminder that a lot of work has just been made for you with your new bright idea. Believe it or not, doing some planning and detail work ahead of time will help you in the long run. Trust me. I’ve tried to jump right from inspiration to action, and I get stopped by simple things because I don’t have an adequate plan.
Daat – Immersed Knowledge
This is the stage of creativity when you start doing. All your creativity and planning come together and you start executing your plan. This stage is called “daat” because here is where true knowledge is formed. Even though you have the big idea and a plan, the act of doing will teach you even more. True knowledge is not just theoretical, it is experiential. We learn by doing. At this stage you might learn that your initial blueprints and plans have problems. Go back and revise them based on your experience. Immerse yourself in the creative experience and watch your flash of inspiration become a reality.
Staying on track
Although it looks like I’m a person who can get things done, at times my head is swimming and I have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. How do I get back on track? It works best when I plan out my work and eliminate distractions. I am almost always doing my work with a computer, and I have a smart phone in my pocket or nearby. These are the tools of my trade, but they also are the chief source of distractions. I take breaks periodically to check the news, email, Facebook, or favorite web sites. But if I let those things distract me too often during the above creative stages, I can easily lose grip on the project at hand and become very ineffective.
Whether you’re a student working on a research paper, a high-tech worker, a teacher, a hewer of wood, a drawer of water, or designer of God’s House, you’ll need to concentrate on the work at hand. If you employ the lessons of Chochma, Binah, and Daat, you’ll be using the divine pattern of creativity. Stay focused and use them wisely like Betzalel.
There’s never a dull moment around our house. As I’ve been preparing to write an article about the middah of awareness, my wife has found two stray ladybugs in our kitchen. She has made it her personal mission this Sunday to make sure they are fed and watered before she sends them off into the wild world. She has an acute awareness of so much around her. Even the little bugs in our home get her attention. At the same time, I’m considering a verse from Torah that teaches the principles of caring for our neighbor’s property and having a general concern for other.
If you come upon your enemy's bull or his stray donkey, you shall surely return it to him. If you see your enemy's donkey lying under its burden would you refrain from helping him? You shall surely help along with him. – Exodus 23:4-5 (The Judaica Press Tanach)
The verse comes from the Torah portion following the giving of the Ten Commandments. Parashat Mishpatim gives us many of the details related to following the foundational commandments from the two tablets. Though I have never had occasion to live next to someone with a bull or donkey, the lesson doesn’t escape me.
Though I’m not always fond of the yappy little dogs of the next door neighbor, I know I have the responsibility to help get them back to their owners if they get out of the yard or are lost. As you can see, my feelings about the neighbor’s dogs are a little conflicted. I guess this is where mussar comes in to give me some guidance. In life, we tend to be most aware of things we care about. Our attention is tuned to perceive and process the information around us that is in our personal interest. The teaching from Exodus gives us the purest instruction from Sinai, but it doesn’t take into account human nature. The same instruction is elaborated by Moses in his instructions recorded in Devarim (Deuteronomy). Tradition states that Moses wrote these words in the last weeks of his life, after spending a long life trying to understand himself and his people.
You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. You shall not see your brother's donkey or his ox fallen [under its load] on the road, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall pick up [the load] with him. – Deut. 22:1-4 (The Judaica Press Tanach)
This passage adds some important examples and highlights a core weakness of humanity. There are three distinct warnings not to ignore the plight of your neighbor and her/his property. The root word (עָלַם) used for “ignore” means “to veil from sight, conceal”. The warning teaches us an important lesson in awareness. Torah commands us not only to be aware of our own behavior and circumstance; we need to tune our perception and awareness so we will know when those around us need our help. There are often times when we see something amiss around us. Our first inclination may be to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen or that the problem doesn’t exist. We think it will be “easier” if we just didn’t know, then we aren’t responsible. This is the insight into human nature that Moses wants to point out to us. We often run from responsibility because it is inconvenient. Maybe Moses wants us to reflect back to the story of Abel and Cain and show us that we truly are our brother’s keeper and we need to take an active role in caring for those around us.
The Talmud tells of a certain rabbi who found a chicken. He sold the eggs and bought another chicken, then a goat and sold the milk, and then a lamb and sold the wool. A year later, a man appeared seeking his lost chicken and received a barn full of animals. This of course, was going above the absolute call of duty.
We are exhorted to go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to our awareness of the needs around us. Yeshua had pure insight into the needs of those around him, going beyond the physical and perceiving the spiritual and emotional needs as well.
On the day of Shabbat, he was teaching in a certain synagogue. A woman in whom there was a spirit of disease for eighteen years was bent over and unable to stand with a straight posture. Yeshua saw and called to her. He said to her, "Woman, be freed from your disease." He placed his hands upon her, and instantly she arose and stood upright and praised God. The leader of the synagogue became upset that Yeshua had healed her on Shabbat, so he responded and said to the people, "There are six days on which you may do labor. Come and be healed on them, but not on the day of Shabbat? The Master answered and said to him,
Hypocrite! Will not any one of you untie his ox or donkey from the stable on Shabbat and lead him to get a drink? But here we have a daughter of Avraham whom the satan has bound for these eighteen years. Will she not be released from what binds her on the day of Shabbat?
When he said these words, all who were standing against him were ashamed, and all of the people rejoiced about all of the wonders that were performed by him. -- Luke 13:10-17, DHE
Yeshua teaches an important lesson. There is no time like the present to be aware of the plight of others and to free them from it as quickly as possible. He references our lesson from Torah to show that all creatures, small and great, deserve immediate compassion. We may not ignore their plight or delay their redemption from it. Whether our attention is to the smallest of creatures, like a ladybug, the yappy dogs next door, or the person in need, it is our duty to heighten our awareness and be diligent in coming to their aid.
Gospel references taken from Delitzsch Hebrew Gospels (DHE)®, © Copyright Vine of David 2010. Used by permission.
Around our home, Jewish holidays are elaborate affairs. While I tend to be focused on the ritual and teaching aspects of the holidays, I observe that each time they come around my wife turns into a full-time caterer.
Not only has she been planning for weeks to have all the right foods on hand, the common areas of the home get reconfigured for the coming events. Honestly, it’s a bit mind boggling to me all that she has to think about and plan for. When I help her, she knows that she has to give me just one or two tasks at a time which I work through. When I complete them, I come back for more. I am sure it’s a similar situation in other Jewish households. Part of our honoring these special days is to bring a unique joy to our time of eating together.
It’s a certainly our tribal ethic to put out the big elaborate spread for these celebrations. Pondering this, I went back to the Torah to see what kind of spread our biblical forerunners put out.
And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it … And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. – Exodus 12:9,11
Okay, so we were escaping yet another tyrant. I can see why we had to keep things simple. What about the yearly observance?
And no leaven shall be seen with you within all your border for seven days; neither shall any of the flesh you slaughter on the preceding day in the afternoon, remain all night until the morning. You shall not eat leaven with it; for seven days you shall eat with it matzoth, the bread of affliction, for in haste you went out of the land of Egypt, so that you shall remember the day when you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. – Deut 16:3-4
It seems that even our yearly observance required the central, simple unleavened bread and a remembrance of humble beginnings. Matzah, the simplest of foods, consists of just flour and water. As elaborate as our yearly celebrations get, it is the simple matzah that is at the center of our table. We are reminded year after year of our humble beginnings. The wisdom of this tradition is that no matter how grand the scale of your celebration, it’s the simple foods and story of humble beginnings that teach us the true lessons of the season.
While Passover uses food to bring us back to the simplest lessons of life, Succot teaches us a similar lesson through the simplicity of where we eat, and for some, where we sleep. We could think of Succot as the other reminder of the Exodus story. The succah reminds us of the simplicity of living while we were sojourning in the desert. Here we take the feast out of our homes and celebrate it in simple temporary homes in our backyard. We leave the comfort and relative certainty of our homes and take our lovingly catered meal outside. In Seattle, this is a true act of faith since the rainy season is usually right on time with the beginning of Succot.
For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths, in order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43
The succah reminds for a week that we can live with much less and be just as happy. Our homes tend to enslave us in many ways, through our mortgage payments, regular upkeep, and improvements. Living outside for a week reminds us of how precious our homes are and how life can be simple and happy in humbler surroundings.
Whether it is the matzah at the center of our table, or the succah where we eat and sleep, the holidays serve as important reminders that the joys in life are not derived from how elaborately we can celebrate them, but from the simple lessons and reminders they bring. While eating your finely catered meal in your succah, remember to savor each simple joy and treasure its blessing.
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid." And He said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" And the man said, "The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate." And the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?" And the woman said, "The serpent enticed me, and I ate." – Bereishit 3:9-13
Of all the details we could have been taught from the first story about humanity, the one we receive ends up being about personal responsibility. The question echoes in our head each time we stray and hide from our Creator: “Where are you?” Stripped naked of our dignity and clothed with shame, we respond with fear and blame. We all make mistakes, in fact by putting a tree and a snake in the garden a “mistake” was bound to happen. But what is our response when we make a mistake, when we have a weak moment, when we miss the mark? The Torah begins this story surely to give us an example of what not to do. The repercussions were earth shattering. The two human beings are exiled out of paradise and cursed to live and experience life through the lens of pain and hard work.
As a rabbi, I often get the “what if” questions about this story. What if they hadn’t taken the forbidden fruit? What if they had admitted their wrong and apologized? My answer is that that story would have been too boring. The Eden story we have is the story of our lives. We often do not want to take responsibility for our actions. We want to shift the blame to someone else. We want to pretend that God is blind to these things and no one else is watching us.
The moral of this story is so important, as the narrative continues with Adam and Eve’s children. When Cain and Abel bring to God the fruits of their labor outside Eden, Abel’s is favored. Cain erupts in a rage of jealousy and slays his brother in the field. God asks another “where” question:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" And He said, "What have you done? Hark! Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the earth. And now, you are cursed even more than the ground, which opened its mouth to take your brother's blood from your hand When you till the soil, it will not continue to give its strength to you; you shall be a wanderer and an exile in the land." – Bereishit 4:9-12
Here, the curse of Adam to toil over the field is magnified. Cain, the tiller of soil will never again receive fruit from the ground, no matter how much he works it. He is an exile of exile, doomed to wander the earth. Where is Cain? He is nowhere because he was not his brother’s keeper.
will history teach us nothing?
As we fast forward the story, to the time of Jacob’s family, we see that favoritism and brotherly hatred are still in full force. Joseph, the miracle child of Jacob and Rachel, enjoys a privileged status in the family and has the prideful attitude to match. Fed up with his dreams and his talk, his brothers plot to be rid of him. While the brothers are figuring out what to do with Joseph, he is abducted from the pit by some passerby tribes. Reuven finds the pit empty and says, “The boy is gone! And I – where can I go?” It seems like a universal reaction. When we realize our mistake, we often just want to hide. We hide behind our proverbial fig leaf, or behind apathy, or behind a lie. Now the brothers need to maintain the lie about Joseph’s fate to their father. Seeing Jacob’s perpetual state of mourning is the curse they have to live with daily.
The final chapter of this story ends with a strange interjection in the narrative. In Bereishit 38, the story of Joseph takes an intermission and we learn what Judah is up to after this series of unfortunate events. Judah moved away from the turmoil of his family and started his own. Due to their sins, both of Judah’s son’s die and his daughter-in-law is left as the widow of both. It seems that family anguish has followed Judah to his new home. Through all of this Judah has not lived up to his responsibility to provide Tamar, his daughter-in-law, with a kinsman redeemer to carry on her family line. After Judah’s wife dies, Tamar dresses as a harlot and entices Judah to consort with her along the route to Timnah.
When Tamar is found to be with child, Judah’s reaction was cold and abrupt, “Take her out and let her be burned!” But when she reveals the collateral that Judah had left with her (“do you recognize this cloak?”), his reaction shows a crucial shift in the Torah narrative.
Then Judah recognized, and he said, "She is more righteous than I, because I did not give her to my son Shelah." But he no longer continued to be intimate with her. – Bereishit 38:26
Here is a reaction that we do not see in the previous stories. He does not hide; he does not blame; he creates no lie. Judah realizes his mistake. He looks at his own cloak and remembers the mourning of his father, and perhaps the mistake of Cain, and of Adam and Eve. To take responsibility for our failings and truly repent when we do something wrong is the key to healing the relationships in our lives. Such a powerful force is repentance. Our Sages teach that the capacity for repentance was created alongside the free-will given to humanity. Judah was rewarded for this act of responsibility. Through his brief union with Tamar, the seed of Messiah was born. Taking responsibility for our actions, through repentance, is the true “light” of Messiah. When God asks “where are you?” and we choose not to hide but rather take responsibility, this is when the brilliant light of Messiah is shown. Shine brightly...
'The kindnesses of the Lord I shall sing forever; to generation after generation I shall make known Your faithfulness, with my mouth. For I said, "Forever will it be built with kindness; as the heavens, with which You will establish Your faithfulness."' -– Psalms 89:2-3
The lessons of kindness coming from the scriptures are as boundless as the kindness Hashem used when He formed Creation. The midrash teaches us that the Torah begins with kindness (the clothing of Adam and Eve) and ends with kindness (the burial of Moses). It seems that chesed is a fundamental force of the universe.
As ten generations prospered on the earth from Adam to Noach, we unfortunately see the force of kindness dwindle to but a drop in the ocean.
Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of robbery. And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. And God said to Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth."
–- Bereishit 6:11-13
Our Sages teach us that the gravity of this pervasive sin was not merely law breaking through theft. The people found a way to steal from one another that was permissible within the bounds of the law. There was no accountability or justice.
What were the habits of the Generation of the Flood? If a man brought out a basket full of peas, he would soon be surrounded by a mob snatching them away. Each one cleverly took a small amount less than a pruta (small coin). The man’s basket was soon empty. Yet the victim was unable to present the matter to a judge because each culprit could claim that he had stolen an amount so minute that he was not liable to punishment by law. –- The Midrash Says, Vol 1. Beraishis, page 84
Robbery (chamas in Hebrew) represents a new height of selfishness. In Noach’s generation, there was a complete reversal of chesed, for no one cared for their brother. Theft within the letter of the law breaks the vital social fabric. When the justice system is unable to correct these kinds of sins, all hope is lost.
restoration of chesed
Because of this state of affairs, the most kindness Hashem could do for humanity was to cleanse it and start over with a new creation, a creation founded on kindness. Noach followed Hashem’s instructions in constructing the ark and brought the animals inside. Here Noach creates an inside-out Garden of Eden, caring for the animals as they entered this new universe.
As they were all shut up in the ark for over a year, what were Noach and his family doing during this time? According to B. Sanhedrin 108b, they were meticulously caring for the animals. Animals which normally would eat at night were fed at night. Animals which normally would eat during the day were fed during the daytime. There was one animal, however, which would not eat and Noach didn’t know what to feed. One day, Noach was cutting up a pomegranate and a worm came out. The animal snatched up the worm, and from that day on Noach fed the animal worms.
Noach and family barely slept and all the while they meticulously cared for the unique needs of each animal. This is true chesed. Hashem’s new world, fresh and clean, was founded again on kindness. As partners with God, we must remember the tikkun (repair) that Noach and his family brought to the world. God cleansed a world of selfishness and replaced it with one founded again on loving-kindness.
This should be the world we create around us. If Noach cared for the animals with each of their special needs in mind, how much more so should we with the people in our lives? Challenge youself to begin and end your day with loving-kindness, just as Noach and his family did, and see what kind of world you can create.
I tend to be a quiet guy, always desiring to choose my words carefully. I suppose part of this is influenced by people I've met journeying through life who have a lot to say but tend not to deliver.
Keeping your commitments and your word through a silent handshake means a lot to me. That was how I was brought up, to honor others through your actions. When I contemplate the subject of speech and silence, Rabbi Shammai’s famous teaching “say little and do much” (Avot 1:15) comes to mind.
put your money where your mouth is
The Sages quote this teaching from Shammai when they comment on Abraham’s quest to acquire a burial cave for his wife, Sarah. While Abraham is in mourning he sees his first opportunity to put roots down in the Promised Land. The cave of Machpelah in Hebron was within the land of the Hittites, and Ephron the son of Zohar negotiated the sale with Abraham.
Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the sons of Heth, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth, of all those who had come into the gate of his city, saying, "No, my lord, listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead." (Gen. 23:10-11)
Wow, such a deal, but too good to be true? Abraham was an old, wise, and discerning man. He knew Ephron was a talker, so he insisted on paying a fair price so no later claims could be made on the land. He didn’t want this important burial site “un-gifted”.
And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him, "My lord, listen to me; a [piece of] land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you? Bury your dead."
Well, so now the talk isn’t so cheap. In today’s prices (2011), that’s about a million dollars of silver! With this one negotiation, the Torah shows us how important our speech is. Ephron, likely a newly appointed governor of the Hittites, talks like any proper politician – out of both sides of his mouth. He offers to give the field away, and in almost the same syllable charges a fortune.
The Meam Loez commentary gives us some important details:
In the Torah, Ephron is usually spelled with a Vav. In this case, however, it is written without the Vav. This indicates that Ephron's stature had been reduced. He had promised much but had delivered little. When Abraham wanted to pay, he demanded full- size coins that would be universally negotiable.
In its abbreviated form, the numerical value of Ephron is 400. [Ayin is 70, Peh is 80, Resh is 200, and Nun is 50]. This is also the numerical value of Ayin Ra, meaning "Evil Eye." This indicates that since he had the audacity to demand such a large sum, he was actually a low-class individual. The Torah therefore deletes a letter from his name. Furthermore, he was punished for his jealousy of Abraham and for giving him the evil eye.
The Sages contrast the greed, jealousy, and empty talk of Ephron with the actions of Abraham. When three angels visit Abraham after his brit milah, Abraham offers to fetch them a “morsel of bread” (see Gen. 18:5), but he and Sarah prepare a feast. These actions aptly fit the advice of Shammai, “say little and do much”.
invest in your words
Not much has changed since Abraham’s day. In fact, in a world where communication is so much more available, talk is cheaper than it has ever been. It is easier than ever to inflate our speech to make ourselves look and feel more important. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that if we say something out loud, we will be more committed in doing it. This isn’t a good practice, especially if we tend not to think before we speak. Watch people who have character of quality. These individuals go through their day getting things done, helping the people familiar to them as well as strangers, without any fanfare or bloated words. These are the ones who silently build up the world and make it a better place.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the first ones, “You shall not swear falsely, but you shall perform your oaths to HaShem.” Yet I say to you, you shall not swear any oath – not by heaven, for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Yerushalayim, for it is the city of the great King. Not even by the life of your head shall you swear, since you are unable to turn one hair black of white. Instead, let your words be “yes, yes; no, no”; anything beyond this is from the evil one. – Matt. 5:33–37 DHE
Yeshua teaches us that our words matter. We'd better not make promises we can’t keep, and better yet don’t make a promise—just deliver. When you make your words few, meaningful, and reliable, those around you will value every one. Your talk won’t be cheap, it will be as rich as the treasures in heaven stored with your good works. Besides, what are 400 shekels of good deeds between you and me? Say little and do much.
Introduction: Rav Rafael
Rabbi Russ Resnik Session 1: Obeying the great commandment, Part One
The Shema is a central Jewish prayer and statement of faith, but above all it is a commandment. We will consider six ramifications of the Shema-as-commandment and how they shape our practice of Mussar.
Rabbi Russ Resnik Session 2: Obeying The great commandment, Part Two
In this session we explore the commandment that Messiah (along with Jewish tradition) describes as inextricably linked with the Shema: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does this mean and not mean, and why is the Shema incomplete without it?
Rav Rafael Session 3: Na’aseh v’Nishma
This session examines the ethical/mussar imperative that Mashiach Yeshua gives us in chapters Matthew 5, 6 and 7 from the DHE and how to concretely apply it to our lives. Yeshua's Mussar teaching from the mount is an allusion to the giving of Torah from Sinai when we said, "All that Hashem has spoken we will do and we will hear [Na'aseh V'nishma]!“ How we do and listen is a reflection of our character development.
Rebbetzin Malkah Session 4: When all you hear is noise
Meditation Exercise & Feedback:
During this session, we will explore the middot of gratitude and silence. In doing so, we will learn how these middot can be used within meditation to help us stop the noise and truly listen to our souls.]]>
Here are the sources used for the class materials, and various resources to help with your study of Jewish meditation.
We conclude the class on how to use meditation to converse with G-d through prayer (12mins).
Here we present more advanced meditative techniques. These are not for beginners and only for those well established in Torah, Mitzvot and have a mentor (21mins).
We suggest you read this article first to understand the proper use of objects in Jewish Meditation.
Now the rebbetzin explores specific techniques of meditation, including understanding different states of thought and how to meditate on Scripture (36mins).
On this page, rebbetzin malkah takes over the lecture and introduces us to the inward journey of hitbodedut (14mins).
Here is our introductory class to Jewish Meditation. On this page, rav rafael gives an introduction to meditation and explores external self seclusion (25mins).
We encourage you to listen to all the audio for each slide since critical comments and examples are given which are not on the slides. Press the "play" arrow above each slide to listen.
When the ever-unfolding drama of the last chapters of Genesis comes to a climax, Joseph has drawn his father and entire family down to Egypt to weather the remainder of the famine. This wasn’t exactly what Jacob had in mind after all the years he spent in Padan Aram with Laban, building his family. But, this seems to be the story of the Jewish people. Exile upon exile has befallen us since our departure from the Garden of Eden.
Joseph reassures his father that there is a special place within Egypt that will serve as a sanctuary while they are there. His proposition has merit. Egypt is filled with idolatry and magical practices, all of which Hashem wanted the Israelites to remain separate from, after their father, Abraham, separated from his family’s idolatrous past.
a spiritual refuge
“You will then be able to settle in the Goshen district since every shepherd is abhorrent to Egypt." — Genesis 46:34
Goshen was a place of lush fields for their herds. It was also a place where the offspring of Jacob could grow, prosper, and eventually leave with the wealth that would help them build their nation. Just as Abraham and Sarah were exiled to Egypt during their own times of famine and returned with Egypt’s wealth, so too would the entire nation return to Eretz Israel with Egypt’s riches.
Goshen served as a spiritual refuge. The Midrash tells us that the area was sanctified since the time Sarah spent there.
"Tell Father to come to me without delay. He and his family will be able to settle near me in the
district. This is an undefiled area. When Pharaoh took Sarah, he gave her the Goshen district as a gift, and since then, there has been a spirit of holiness in that area because of Sarah's merit. The corrupt influence of Egypt's guardian angel has no effect in this area.” (Meam Loez) Goshen
The Torah teaches us important lessons about the middah of separation in the midst of our exile. For many of us, our lives are made of a series of sojourns. We readily identify with Jacob, whose life is exemplified by his various journeys, trials, and sufferings. Since the Garden of Eden, humanity has essentially been estranged from the comfort of “home” represented by that ideal paradise. So what do we do when we leave the comfort of one home to establish another one far away, like Jacob’s family in Egypt? How do we find our own Goshen within the midst of our exile from home?
when separation is a risk
Rabbi Hillel once taught, "Do not separate yourself from the community" (Avot 2:5). Sometimes life’s journey takes us to faraway places. When it does, we must reconnect to our sense of “home” by finding our own Goshen. We must seek out a community in which to settle and raise our family. Community provides a place of safety and separation from the challenges of exile to a lonely place. When my wife and I relocated from the east coast to the west coast following our graduation from college, we did feel the loneliness of exile. It was difficult to make friends. We began our search together diligently to find a spiritual community that shared our values and where we could find again a sense of “home.” Our goal was not just to have friends, but to also be spiritually accountable and kept on track. Eventually, Hashem led us to the right place and we have spent many years there, raising our children within that dynamic extended family.
When we choose to connect to a community, we lower the risk of becoming renegades and living life according to our own rules. A healthy community has expectations and helps us to flourish; when we are lone agents and separate ourselves, we begin to make our own rules which can lead to our spiritual demise.
Strive to find the Goshen in your life. Seek out a community that will not only provide safety but continual spiritual growth. In doing so, you can prosper, as you maintain proper boundaries against the things that have no place in your life and nurture the elements that will bring true life wherever you may be.
It seems like whenever I turn to one of the cable TV news channels I see “Breaking News” scrolling across the bottom with some detail I used to think I shouldn’t care about. But now I sit and stare as the details slowly scroll across the screen. It’s amazing what constitutes breaking news nowadays. We see the same thing on Internet news sites. That special red box appears at the top of the page telling us what is breaking on the news scene. But, over the last few years, I have found myself more and more desensitized when I see “BREAKING NEWS” plastered across the screen.
Every media source at our disposal is trying to get our exclusive attention. They battle to get the story first and get it to us in the most exciting way possible. And when we have multiple simultaneous events, there may even be several news tickers showing up in parallel to read. Many of us find ourselves taken in by all the drama. We fall into the habit of checking multiple times a day, or hour, or every five minutes to know what is breaking. What should we be concerned with now, what’s messing up the world now, who is being victimized now?
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. There is a thing of which [someone] will say, "See this, it is new." It has already been for ages which were before us. [But] there is no remembrance of former [generations], neither will the later ones that will be have any remembrance among those that will be afterwards. —Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
And how often do these news stories take our attention away from the things so near to us? After a while our sensitivity to those outside events gets so dulled, people can only get our attention by telling us the sky is falling. We get sucked in again to the whirlpool of world events that are sensational, outrageous, and unsettling.
Though I am grateful for the wealth of information available to us in an instant, I’ve learned that most of the time the news is not so new, as King Solomon taught us. Our former king dealt with the same kind of human issues we do. We must remember that the human condition is improved not by addiction to the sound bite, but by careful study of the many sides of an issue. This is the calmer, wiser approach to interacting with the information of our world.
In the dot-com world of instant info, we need to use the wisdom of dot-calm to maturely process the world’s happenings. Don’t react the instant you learn of some crazy new news. Wait for more detail and understand the other side of the story before forming an opinion. Don't solidify your position based on the first bits of information from the news media, without understanding that those first few bits are often a distorted, sensationalized version of reality. Temper your reaction, balance what you hear, and insert calmness "here".
Jacob settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob: when Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad, [and was] with the sons of Bilhah and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought evil tales about them to their father. And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat. And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully. – Genesis 37:1-4
Up until this point in the Torah narrative, it is safe to say that Jacob has worked hard and struggled for many years to build his family. After spending 34 years dwelling with Lavan his father-in-law, and after confronting and coming to peace with his brother Esau, Jacob needed a vacation. He needed some rest. With this idea the Torah tells us “vayeshev Yaacov” – And Jacob settled. Finally Jacob returns to his homeland and conflicts seem to be resolved. It is the same feeling we get after a long day at work. We like to come home, have a nice meal, and sink into our easy chair.
But the text tells us that there is something very wrong in Jacob’s home. As it sets us up to understand the “chronicles of Jacob,” it tells the story from the perspective of his eleventh son, Joseph. Just as Isaac and Rebecca showed favoritism to their children, we see Jacob doing the same with Joseph. This is a natural extension of the favoritism he showed for Rachel over Leah; and it is a major contributor to the trauma the family is about to endure. It would seem that “settling” or resting easy is not the proper place for Jacob at this stage in his life.
Jacob desired to settle in tranquility, but it pounced upon him the agony of Joseph. For when the righteous wish to settle in tranquility, God says: "Is it not enough for the righteous what is prepared for them in the World to Come, that they also ask for a tranquil life in this world?" (Rashi)
The many subsequent chapters that tell the story of Joseph and his family as they are reunited many years later show us that God will sometimes weave together even our personal failings to accomplish a divine plan.
But where did Jacob fall short? After many years of struggling with Lavan, struggling with the divine (hence his name Yisrael), and struggling with himself, Jacob let his guard down. He was not diligent enough in nurturing proper relationships in his family. The early favoritism he showed to Rachel evolved into his special treatment of Joseph and the jealousy of his other sons.
Said Resh Lakish in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: A man must not discriminate among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our father Jacob made for Joseph, "They hated him..." (Midrash Rabbah)
Consider when we physically injure ourselves. We all know that ignored injuries tend to get infected and fester. If we don’t get to the root of the problem, clean it up and put fresh bandages on a wound, that wound will soon get so severe that our entire life is put on hold so we can get urgent medical attention. We face similar situations in our own families and communities. Misunderstandings, jealousies, altercations and disagreements can create schisms in our interpersonal relationships. It often seems easier to just forget about these problems and ignore them as time passes. The problem is that these interpersonal injuries never get properly bandaged and erupt into splits in our family structure.
So his brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter. (Gen. 37:11)
Jacob saw the warning signs within his family but it seems that he did not make adequate correction. Our Sages interpret “awaited” to mean that Jacob was waiting for Joseph’s dreams to come true and did not intervene in events that were playing out. On a spiritual level I won’t argue with this wisdom, but this is not something we should emulate in our own lives. We need to be diligent in seeking to heal broken relationships around us.
When we perceive wounds or problems between people in our families and communities, we need to be diligent in seeking their healthy resolution. Within our sphere of influence, this often means confronting destructive behaviors and getting to the root of recurring problems between people. It may seem easier to ignore those problems, but when we lack diligence in healing the relationships around us, our family fabric can sometimes be ripped beyond repair. Jacob’s remaining years after Joseph’s disappearance were a time of great mourning. May we be diligent in our relationships and learn from the mistakes of our forefathers.
And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear; And if I return in peace to my father's house, and the Lord will be my God; Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.” – Genesis 28:20-22
This seems like a strange request after being given a vision of the passageway to Heaven. You would think that with Hashem’s promise of prosperity to Jacob earlier in the chapter he would have no worries. One may think that this request means that Jacob is focusing on the material world while God is promising a spiritual legacy to him and his children. I would like to argue for the opposite viewpoint. The key is in the details of his request. His request for “bread to eat” and “a garment to wear” implies that Jacob needs only the basics of life to serve God in fullness. He needs no extravagant feasts or royal robes. The basics will do – bread sufficient to to eat and clothes sufficient to wear. Jacob finalizes his request by pledging to give back to God a tenth of all that is given to him.
In this vow Jacob is acknowledging the true origin of all things. Everything we have is on loan to us. It is an illusion to think that whatever prosperity we attain is solely because of our own efforts. By giving back to God, Jacob shows that whatever he calls “his” is truly through Hashem’s sustaining hand.
Everyone's eyes look to You with hope, and You give them their food in its time. You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing [with] its desire. (Psalms 145:15-16)
Later in his life we even see Jacob struggling with his wealth when he finally reunites with Esau. After receiving a portion of blessings originally allocated to Esau, Jacob is filled with guilt. When we first met an adult Esau, he was called “a man of the field,” which is an allusion to his attachment to the material world. Jacob was called an “ish tam, a wholesome man dwelling in tents,” which is an allusion to his care for the social family needs and his spiritual growth through study. Now Jacob is not comfortable with so much material wealth and is bent on giving some of it away to Esau who values it.
But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me. Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it]." – Genesis 33:9-11
Here Jacob teaches us the key to living in this material world. He says “יֶשׁ לִי כֹל / yesh li kol / I have everything.” Jacob has more than enough to live; in fact, Hashem has given him everything he needs as He promised. He fears that if he gets caught up in only the physical and material wealth of the world he will misplace his acute awareness of the spiritual/emotional wealth that he possesses. And so it is with us. True happiness awaits us when we appreciate all that we have. Our sages said it well:
Ben Zoma said : "Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot.” – Avot 4:1
A person's nature can be recognized through three things: his cup, his purse, and his anger. --Talmud, Eruvin 65b
The Hebrew for this morsel of wisdom employs alliteration to aid our memory: koso(his cup), kiso(his purse), ka’aso (his anger). A person’s nature can be defined by how he drinks liquor (koso), how much charity he dispenses (kiso), and how he controls himself when provoked (ka’aso). The key to all of these things is self-control. In some aspects of our life, we have too little self-control and at times we have too much. Of course, Mussar is all about gaining self-control and partaking with moderation those things that are permitted to us. We are in the process of always controlling and balancing our character traits. Our Sages use these three examples of key measures of our self-control because they can be the hardest to manage.
Whether someone drinks for pleasure or to numb personal pain, alcohol consumption can turn into a destructive habit. Our control of what we consume is a measure of character. It can also be that which bankrupts us, or brings us l'chaims (to life). Are we using it to celebrate life or to remove life? Does it drain our bank accounts or does it celebrate the holy moments in our lives?
Though so often people fail to restrain their kos (cup), many times we are overly restrained with our kis (purse) when those around us are in need. Do we understand when to loose the strings of our purse for the sake of tzedakah? Are we able to have compassion for those around us in need or does it take extenuating circumstances for us to give?
Regarding how to moderate our behavior when provoked, there is an amusing story about Rabbi Hillel and a wager on how difficult it was to provoke him to anger.
It once happened that two men made a wager with each other, saying, He who goes and makes Hillel angry shall receive four hundred zuz. Said one, I will go and incense him.
As the story goes, this man waited until Hillel was in the bath and called out to him with a strange question. Hillel got out of the bath, put on his robe, went to the man and patiently answered the question. Afterwards he returned to the bath. The man called out "Is Hillel here, is Hillel here?" Hillel got out of the bath again and patiently answered the next stupid question. He settled into the bath again, and guess who called out to him "Is Hillel here, is Hillel here?" Even after the third strange question Hillel answered with patience. Frustrated, the man asked his fourth and final question.
"I have many questions to ask", said he, "but fear that you may become angry."
Thereupon he robed, sat before him and said, "Ask all the questions you have to ask".
"Are you the Hillel who is called the nasi of Israel?"
"Yes", he replied.
"If that is you", he retorted, "may there not be many like you in Israel."
"Why, my son", queried he.
"Because I have lost four hundred zuz through you", complained he. "Be careful of your moods", he answered, "Hillel is worth it that you should lose four hundred zuz and yet another four hundred zuz through him, yet Hillel shall not lose his temper."
-- B. Shabbat 31a
May we all learn the lesson of moderation from Hillel and how he controls himself when provoked (ka’aso)
Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth. (Num. 12:3)
This verse appears in the context one of Moses' most difficult trials, a rebellion of sorts by his brother and sister. From Exodus through Deuteronomy we experience the revelation of Hashem through the story of a humble leader and the Children of Israel. The Torah narrative points out explicitly the trait of humility that Moses possessed. Why is this trait so important for spiritual leadership within communities?
Humble leaders are hard to come by. The political systems of our world are not set up for the success of such people. We know that Moses was not put in his position through some human electoral process, but was appointed by Hashem because of a calling and his quality of character. So why is it so important for the human voice of Torah in the wilderness to possess anavah, the trait of humility?
“All virtues and duties are dependent on humility,” Duties of the Heart, Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda
As the leader of a brand-new nation, Moses needed to live out the Torah he was conveying to the people. The entirety of his character needed to exemplify the application of God’s framework for the Children of Israel. This must be rooted in the one middah: humility. All other middot rest upon a balanced sense of humility. As a leader, Moses couldn’t be so humble as to let others walk all over him or cause him to cave to their egos and unrighteous desires. On the other hand, he could not let the strength of his ego overwhelm the self-identity of his followers. Moses’ humility was a humility of balance. The key element of this balance was that his allegiance was solely to Hashem and not to building up his own name.
Moses modeled his leadership on devoted service to the people. Operating as the King of Israel, he was constantly occupied with how best to serve the people and bring them closer to their Creator, rather than building up his own self interests within the kingdom. Through all of this, Moses’ humility allowed him to make an honest assessment of his own character strengths and weaknesses. From this, he learned and grew to be the humble leader of his people.
Our Sages teach us that the prototype for the future Mashiach (Messiah) is Moses. Moses was willing to give up his very essence and being for the sake of saving the people after the incident of the Golden Calf. This dedication to the people and the Torah serves as the foundation for the kingship of Israel. Selfless sacrifice for the unity and sanctity of the people was what defined Moses, and what defines the living legacy of Messiah Yeshua. Both gave up greatness to magnify all of Israel. This is leadership to live by.