I am the rabbi of Beit Hashofar synagogue in south Seattle and co-founder of Riverton Mussar.
It’s strange to say, but unfortunately the spiritual disease of tzara’at does not exist today. Life might be a little easier if we had a physical barometer of how well our soul is connected to others and to the Divine. Once we see the physical signs we could get some help, repair, restore, and reconnect. Today our purity of soul is much more difficult to measure so we must be proactive in it’s care.
The book of Leviticus (Vayikra) contains a set of passages (chapters 12-15) often skipped in our study due to their unpleasant nature. I am ever fascinated by the laws of purity contained in these pages. The Holy One teaches Moses who may come near the Divine Presence which is manifest in the Tabernacle. One must be tahor (pure/clean) in order to come near the Mishkan. Tahor denotes not a physical purity, but a purity of soul, a cleanliness of spirit. The opposite spiritual state, tamei (impurity & separation) indicates that a barrier has been placed between the human soul and the Divine.
Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah: "Once a child got the better of me."
"I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'Which way to the city?' and he answered, 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.'
"I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?' Answered the child: 'Did I not tell you that it is also long?'"
(Talmud, Eruvin 53b)
In our quest for more order, we are sometimes tempted to take shortcuts to get things done or arrive at our destination more quickly. Some things just seem so beyond our grasp or too difficult to attain; and because of this, we attempt to find a shorter, easier path. Occasionally this is possible, but often we discover that this "shorter" path is actually more costly to us, creates greater hassle, and does not teach us the lessons we are meant to learn along the journey.
We are taught instead that the "long but short way" is steep, winding, tedious, and can take a lifetime. It's full of frustration and setbacks. However, it is the road that leads us through to our aspired destination. Sometimes it is the journey that is the destination, rather than the end point.
The Israelites journeyed in the desert for 40 years so that the children of a generation of slaves could learn to cleave to God and rely on Him during life's journeys. May we learn to appreciate our long but short way, the way of Yeshua, who calls us to a life of holiness and sacrifice.
As we consider our prayerbook, the siddur, as a crucial component of an ordered and prayerful life, remember that it is also the simple prayer of a contrite heart and the proper intention that Hashem desires as well.
Every system in the universe has many forces acting on it that have the potential to disrupt and disorganize the original intended order. In the beginning, God pulled His “light” into the universe as the energy of creation and good. Our job is to tap into that light and help be little mini-agents of creation. When we bring order back into our lives, we are actually acting in emulation of the First Agent Who facilitated this creation process. The sages teach us that the “Spirit of God / Ruach Elohim”, which hovered over the deepness of chaos, was the Spirit of Messiah.
G-d must be an engineer. Well, at least I try to tell myself this. We all look at Hashem through the lenses of our own experience. I like to build things, and have done so to varying degrees since I was a child. I know that one of the “hats” Hashem wears is that of Creator, Builder, and Thinker Upper of Stuff. The Torah is filled with stories and accountings of great detail. G-d is a G-d of order, we are all told. But you need only open up the first story to understand the order of creation and start to apply it to your own life.
As I write this my beloved wife is on the other side of the country for a weekend women’s retreat. It is a Friday afternoon and my awareness of the coming Shabbat seems to be elevated in her absence. The many things that I take for granted come to the forefront of my mind as those responsibilities shift to me this weekend. The Shabbat is a wonderful thing for a family in this modern age of busyness and distractions. The Shabbat comes whether we are prepared or not and can often be a great challenge to glide into smoothly.
Last fall, my wife and I took a 10 mile walk on the Snoqualmie-Preston trail east of
The vision of the Riverton Mussar project is a bold one forged out of several years of leading a community, teaching Torah and working toward a meaningful life. As we moved toward the end of the year 5770, a vision of the next year began to sharpen into focus. This would be a new year of community transformation. For several generations, our community has endeavored to build the Malkut HaShamayim (Kingdom of Heaven). We have laid many bricks for this kingdom and have a solid foundation. Even with our studies and community support system, each year we come to the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) with an accounting of many of the same personal weaknesses.
Aware of the ever present struggles in our lives, the lives of our congregants, and our wider movement, we decided to formalize the practice of personal character growth. There are many approaches to this. Go to your local book store and you will find shelves full of "self help" books. You'll see pastors, priests, and rabbis on television and the Internet who have all the solutions for you. We've all resolved to make changes each new year, but struggle to stay on track long enough to affect permanent change. After much searching, we felt the best solution to this pale effort was to tap into an ancient Jewish tradition, a 13-step program to becoming a better human being. The practice of Mussar is rooted in Hebrew scriptures and was codified through the ages. Many other branches of Judaism have experienced great renewal through Mussar.
We began to realize we needed to bring it into our community and movement too, and even more so because we have the ultimate Mussar Master - Messiah Yeshua. We soon realized the enormous potential of giving people the tools to become the people Yeshua calls us to be. Yeshua's invitation to take up his yoke in his Kingdom is established on the foundation of repentance and turning away from our destructive habits. The lessons he taught us were not just for the world to come but for this world.
R. Pinchas ben Yair once said:"Torah leads to Watchfulness;
Watchfulness leads to Zeal;
Zeal leads to Cleanliness;
Cleanliness leads to Separation;
Separation leads to Purity;
Purity leads to Saintliness;
Saintliness leads to Humility;
Humility leads to Fear of Sin;
Fear of Sin leads to Holiness;
Holiness leads to the Holy Spirit,
and the Holy Spirit leads to the Revival of the Dead."
(Avodah Zara 20b)
The Talmud shows us that our call to be a light of Torah ultimately leads to our living a life everlasting, but many steps of personal transformation must occur along our journey in this life. This kind of transformation is needed universally by all. In our vision, Mussar became the perfect paradigm to teach life transformation to Jews and non-Jews alike. The program would seek to integrate the wisdom of Torah (Hebrew Scriptures), Mesorah (Jewish Tradition), and Besorah ("Good News" - Yeshua's life and teachings) into a life practice that yields long lasting results. This paradigm has been fundamental to the call of being a follower of Yeshua.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:19-21, ESV)
As we contemplated the scale of this program we realized that the true power of Mussar is self-discovery and development of concrete actions that counter our negative character traits. What if we provided a way for members to share their discoveries and life wisdom with each other? Mussar is traditionally practiced with a partner (chevrutah) with whom you study and to whom you are accountable. We then developed the idea of a social network where we all can study with each other and learn from each other's discoveries. The website would be an open forum for Mussar wisdom and discovery. I call this approach "open-source," a term applied to software built by a community of devoted authors with a common interest.
Here are the unique elements Riverton Mussar provides:
We see ourselves not as Mussar Masters ourselves. We merely hope to provide the tools and inspiration for growth in our movement beyond the walls of our synagogue. From those I've already talked to, there is great hunger building for this. May Hashem bless us together as we aspire to be the human beings worthy to sit at our Master's feet.
The remedy for many of these troubles comes through conditioning. One must approach whatever is disturbing and confront it. Understand it through touching, feeling, questioning of intention. Seek the root of your discomfort. Many times our reactions to situations obscure the real root of the problem. It is much easier to condition one's self once the root is addressed.
For example, if you are overworked and any new tasks make your existing work unmanagable, perhaps you should try organizing your workload by making lists and prioritizing the more important things to do. By writing them down, you don't have to remember all the details. As new items arrive, simply adding them to your list can help eliminate some worrisome thoughts.