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After Passover, Counting the Omer With Mussar

Embracing a simple, rewarding practice devoted to Jewish moral conduct

Siân Gibby
April 17, 2014

During the period of counting the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot, it is traditional to do ethical study; typically people read Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This week, when we start counting the Omer again, I will continue a form of Mussar practice I began two years ago—Mussar being a 19th-century movement dedicated to Jewish moral conduct. You don’t have to be religious to do Mussar. It is accessible, efficacious, and fun—and it is doable.

In the summer of 2012, my friend Shari suggested that she and our friend Harriet and I read portions of Everyday Holinessby Alan Morinis, and discuss them in a three-person chevruta, the traditional Jewish method of studying with a partner. Morinis based his 2007 book on 19th-century Mussar tradition (though with some roots much older), built around texts by people like Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and Rabbi Chaim Luzzato. Always a startlingly modern-seeming spiritual practice, Mussar has broadened in appeal in its contemporary incarnations by including women and by lending itself to distance learning.

Morinis’ formula is simple: Pick a single characteristic you struggle with in your life from a list of traditional middot (positive attributes/qualities, such as equanimity, orderliness, frugality, silence, calmness, etc.), and dedicate a week to that quality; adopt it as an organizing principle for seven days.

For example, you might pick a middah like calmness and make it your mantra each day. Look at your life and everything you do through the lens of calmness, from the moment you get up, as you get ready for work, interact with your family, with colleagues, people you meet, in traffic, etc. Note when you lose your cool; note how you react to it. At the end of each day, make a witheringly honest but compassionate report to yourself in a diary kept just for this purpose. When the week is done, meet with your chevruta partner(s) and talk about when you failed and when you succeeded. Begin each new week with a new middah.

That’s it. It’s simple, it’s interesting and enlightening, it brings you in touch with your emotions and behaviors in a Jewish way, and it gets good stuff done.

It is not always easy, but that’s where the chevruta saves you. If you behave less than completely admirably, you might get discouraged, but discussing it in chevruta gets it off your chest … and frequently leaves you even laughing. As anyone who has done work in chevruta knows, it can be like therapy, in a good way. If your chevruta cares about you, and you about him/her/them, if you trust each other and want to see each other succeed, you can talk about even embarrassing or difficult things. In fact the hardest part of this practice probably will be finding a time to meet with your chevruta; but that’s what telephones and Skype are for.

Last year we switched to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s A Jewish Code of Ethics. Telushkin provides a staggering amount of textual backup for his contention that this personal work is the responsibility of every serious Jew. We used his list of “holiness” attributes and applied Morinis’ system to them.

The three of us tried this weekly focus/journal/debriefing method for a total of about seven weeks; sometimes we failed and sometimes we improved. What made the difference was being deliberate about this, taking concrete action instead of just meditating on the traits or feeling guilty that we weren’t better people. Writing notes in the journal daily and discussing it made it real, made it a commitment. We looked forward to this every week; it was fun.

An example from my struggle with the middah of patience: I want to murder tourists in midtown Manhattan, where I work. They walk slowly, shuffling and gazing at buildings, they stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk to consult a map. They hesitate at the top of the stairs coming out of the train, clog thoroughfares, and make me late to the office. Sometimes by the time I get to work I am already furious.

But the week when I tried noticing my impatience on my commute, suddenly it seemed possible to stop it in its tracks (much as the Dutch family of four stopped me in mine on 43rd and 5th) and then to defang it.

When I found myself glaring at some backpacked, sandal-shod couple lingering in the train doors, I tried to make myself really see them, and suddenly I realized something more significant than my irritation: I want these people to like my City. I want them to go home later and say, “New York is great!” In fact, my impatience is I suspect an affectation I picked up here to fit in with how I perceived New Yorkers to be and to feel. Shari and Harriet understood because they had had similar experiences and wrestled with the same kind of challenges. It felt really good to talk about this stuff and do it in the service of trying to be better Jews.

And that brings me to Abraham Foxman. Who recently said this in these pages:

Does it bother me that we’re not perfect? Yes. Does it bother me that we’re not an or laGoyim now? Yes. But it also bothers me about tikkun olam. I think it’s a cop-out. I want tikkun atsmi. I think we have to fix ourselves before we can become a model. Because I believe what I was taught, that we are going to be a model only if we set ourselves the task of being that model. And I think we’re skipping that step, and now we want to fix everybody else without fixing ourselves.

Foxman was talking about criminals in our midst and about taking care of our own deeply debilitating flaws in the course of bettering our relations with others. I agree wholeheartedly with him. Most of us, baruch Hashem, are not swindlers. But we all have things in us that need work, rough patches that require polishing. To refine our souls by regulating our behavior is our duty in this day and age, in this position of power we have attained after so many endless-seeming years of powerlessness. Most of us can’t solve the bigger ills of the world. But every single one of us can do the job we are here to do by gently correcting the little ways we go astray.

This year, we expect to go back to Rabbi Telushkin, moving from his volume on attributes of holiness to A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself. Telushkin’s tone is frank and friendly, and he has the kind of authoritative perspective we feel we can trust. Who would have thought that “spiritual work” could be not only painless but actually a good time?

Siân Gibby holds the position of writer/editor at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. She is the translator of Intimate History of the Great War, by Quinto Antonelli; The God of New York, by Luigi Fontanella; and Resistance Rap, by Francesco Carlo.