Malkah Forbes, born in Upstate New York, studied Computer Science at SUNY Oswego (B.A.), where she met her future husband, Jason. Soon after, they moved to the Seattle area where her husband could pursue his career in software engineering. In tandem, Jason was studying to become a rabbi. After Jason received his smicha (rabbinic ordination) from the UMJC, both he and Malkah became leaders of their current congregation, Beit HaShofar Synagogue in Seattle, WA. Currently, Malkah is an active rebbetzin and not only teaches Hebrew, but helps to oversee and spearhead new synagogue programs. Her latest project includes Riverton Mussar, which she and her husband co-founded in 2010. She has been a frequent contributor of drashes for the UMJC website, served on the board of the UMJC National Sisterhood, Achot, and has been a speaker for various sessions at the UMJC International Conference.
When Malkah is not writing for Riverton Mussar, she can be found enjoying her three teenagers, her two delightful cats, working on her interior and garden redesign business, knitting, and sporting a serious game of Mah Jongg.
Lessons in Tanya, Iggeret HaKodesh, Epistle 25
And this [will be understood] by first considering the teaching of our Sages, of blessed memory: “Whoever is in a rage resembles an idolater.”
The reason [for this] is clear to those who “know understanding,” because at the time of his anger, faith in G‑d and in His individual Divine Providence has left him. For were he to believe that what happened to him was G‑d’s doing, he would not be angry at all.
It would seem, at first, the statement that someone who is in a fit of rage is an idolater is a very heavy judgement. But upon further examination, it makes complete sense if we remember we are not our own gods. If we accept that we have limited effect on our destinies, then unplanned and unexpected events don't unseat us from our own self-made thrones. We are simply part of the Divine drama:what is required of us is to handle this life with noble equanimity and not seek our own understanding. This story below from the Talmud illustrates this idea of gam zu l'tovah (also this is for the good).
The history of Mussar, a brilliant one, begins here with the introspection of a few men who realized we have a way to go to become holy.
The Mussar movement arose among the non-Hadisic Lithuanian Jews, and became a trend in their Talmudic schools. The founding is attributed to Yisrael Lipkan Salanter (1810–1883); however, the roots of the movement was formed on ideas previously in classical Mussar literature. Before the founding of the Mussar movement, Mussar was a practice of the solitary seeker; thanks to Rabbi Yisrael Salanter; it became the basis for a popular/ethical movement aftter this period of time.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter was a promising young rabbi with amazing knowledge of Jewish law living in Salantai, Lithuania. He was initially inspired to dedicate his life to the cause of spreading Mussar by his teacher Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant (1786–1866), who was a student of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin and Akiva Eiger.These rabbis were profoundly good-hearted and filled with humble behavior and simple lifestyle that attracted Rabbi Yisrael's interest. It was Rabbi Yosef Zunder Salant who allegedly urged Salanter to focus himself on Mussar and continue in the study of Mussar.
Widely recognized as a rabbi of exceptional talent, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter became head of the yeshivah in Vilna (Vilnuis), where he quickly became well known in the community for his tremendous scholarship. He soon gave this post to open up his own Yeshiva at the Nevyozer Kloiz Nevyozer Kloiz where he emphasized moral teachings based on the ethics taught in traditional Jewish rabbinic works. He referred to his approach as the mussar approach, using the Hebrew word for ethics.
Despite the prohibition against doing work on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) Rabbi Salanter set an example for the Lithuanian Jewish community during the cholera epidemic of 1848. He made certain that any necessary relief work on Shabbat for Jews was done by Jews; some wanted such work to be done on Shabbat by non-Jews, but Rabbi Salanter held that both Jewish ethics and law mandated that the laws of the Torah must be put aside in order to save lives. During Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) Rabbi Salanter ordered that Jews that year must not abide by the traditional fast, but instead must eat in order to maintain their health; again for emergency health reasons. By 1850 he left Vilna for Kovno, where he founded a yeshiva based on Mussar, with a student body of 150.
The Riverton Mussar concept was formed out of years of questioning how better to be a light of Mashiach Yeshua in a very practical and everyday manner. Over the course of reading and studying, I stumbled upon the concept of Mussar, or Jewish ethics as it is also known. As I saw the amazing practicality and profound spiritual connection it provided through honing character traits, I felt like two worlds just harmoniously came together: the world of the Mussar masters and our Mashiach Yeshua.
As it became apparent to me that the best way to emulate the ethical lifestyle that Mashiach Yeshua spoke of was through Mussar, it became my quest to find out how to implement this method on a broad scale for many people within our own Messianic movement. To me, it was as if I was seeing our Mashiach as the ultimate Mussar master. Somehow, some way, this needed to be brought out in our communities. We were sorely lacking this very daily introspective discipline and I didn't understand why no one had brought it to the forefront yet. Besides that, it would be a beautiful way to get a greater portion of Messianic Judaism to lose their distaste of rabbinic writings, and to realize the beauty and righteousness of so many rabbis who were striving for holiness through self-improvement.
The first inclusion of Mussar concepts into our congregation began back in 5767, with the ordering of charts by Rabbi Salanter regarding the 13 Middot. I introduced our children in our synagogue cheder to the middot which were listed on a large poster, and then over time, my husband introduced the congregants to charts with the middot listed on 8 1/2 x 11" paper.
In the summer of 5769, my husband, Rav Rafi, started feeling a deeper need to connect with the middot; he incorporated at a congregational Torah study an explanation of the middot during the month of Elul as a way to hone our character traits for the King in the Field. However, this only grazed the surface as the Rabbi and I searched for how to incorporate the study of Mussar in a broader, more holistic and ongoing capacity.
As time continued to pass and we entered a new year, 5770, it became more evident that the practice of Mussar was the practical solution for many of the situations the Rabbi and I were facing on a congregational level. It not only provided introspective analysis of the character traits that were in need of attention, but also the means in which to maintain a healthy balance of all the middot. It wasn't enough to talk about them—it became apparent that we needed a formalized practice of Mussar within our own congregation at the very least. We needed it and we owed it to our community to bring Mussar to them in a formalized way. Needless to say, it was incumbent upon us...
During the spring of 5770, I had the opportunity to attend a three day sisterhood board retreat in Washington, D.C. For me, this was a chance to add a few extra days onto my scheduled trip for some personal time. While in D.C., I spent the first three days, in advance of the retreat, on my own at a bed and breakfast, reading and contemplating two different works by Alan Morinis (head of the Mussar Institute). It was in reading his "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" that I realized that the author and I were kindred spirits; not only did we seek self-improvement for the sake of clarity and a better life, but we also were seeking the practice of Mussar for the sake of refining not only our own but other people's character traits. While my personal experience had not included hitting rock bottom like Alan Morinis, it was still something I felt I couldn't live without. For years, my husband and I had seen too many people nearly hit rock bottom or lack consistency in their lives. They needed it: therefore, we needed to bring it to them.
My time of discovering the depth that a disciplined Mussar practice has to offer was a gift that weekend. In receiving that gift, I realized the immense responsibility that I had in being a recipient of that information. It was a calling and a task—one that I could not decline or shy away from, no matter how much work it meant in developing a program. I had seen other Mussar websites out there; however, I did not want to duplicate them. And even more, my husband and I weren't Mussar masters. How could we bring anything formidable and honorable? I wanted something intrinsically Messianic and desirable for people with a multitude of backgrounds. From that weekend on, it was my task to find out how to bring Mussar into the movement in a collective and collaborative way: with many voices, with a regiment that would work, and a means to make it sustainable. I knew that in partnership with my bashert, anything was possible. But what, exactly?
The idea behind the name of this project, Riverton Mussar, comes from the very area in which I originally came into contact with Mussar. Our synagogue in South Seattle, Beit HaShofar, is located in an area called Riverton. The very area which our synagogue rests on is known as Riverton Springs. Anyone who has attended our shul for any length of time is well acquainted with the natural springs which lie below our synagogue property—many years and dollars have been spent to tame the water and divert it from our buildings. For me, the name for a project, whose purpose is to be a wellspring for ethical change, could come from nothing less than a place which is known for one thing: living waters.
It is my hope that through the guidance of the Holy One, blessed be He, that honor can be given to Mashiach Yeshua and all that he stood for in his teachings, his words, and his inspiration through this application of Mussar. May the wellspring of Mussar guide us all and bring us to a place where we are a wellspring to others of exceptional character and holiness. May all of you who come to Riverton Mussar drink deeply and be forever changed.
-Rebbetzin Malkah, Av 5770