Mussar has a similar impact, but on a far more profound level. It transforms every mundane delay or nuisance into ethical conditioning. So, a couple of days ago I missed a freeway on-ramp and had to make a u-turn at the next light to get back on course. And of course, I hit the intersection right after the light turned red, so I had a long wait, just as I was all ready to charge back down the street and get on the freeway.
Mussar offered to turn this long wait into an inner conditioning opportunity . . . if I was diligent to take advantage of it. Diligence means not allowing a moment of our life to be wasted, always finding something to do for yourself, or for a friend, as Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh instructs us. This “something to do” includes the kind of spiritual conditioning I’m describing, and also more practical acts of service. Every moment provides an opportunity, if we are diligent.
Such diligence is fueled by the awareness that we belong to another—we are servants of a master—and our time is not our own. If we love the master, we continually direct our time and energies to the things that please him, whether or not they appeal to us at the moment. This awareness is part of yirat ha-shamayim, the fear of God (or literally, of heaven) that underlies the whole discipline of Mussar. As Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi said, “Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the power of sin. Know what is above you; a seeing eye, a hearing ear, and all your deeds written in a book” (Pirke Avot 2:1).
Our Messiah brings it all home with a question:
“Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time?” And then the promise: “Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.” (Matt. 24:45-46)
People today are often too busy, or busy for the wrong reasons, but the diligent person is busy because the master has put him “in charge of his household”—which includes whatever sphere of activity or responsibility he finds himself in. There the diligent person uses every moment to accomplish his master’s work.
Part of this commentary first appeared in “In Praise of Mussar” at rebrez.wordpress.com.