In Genesis/Bereishit 2:18, God says that it is not good for man to be alone. The human relationships that show up in that book of the Torah, however, could very well lead you to the opposite conclusion. Adam and Eve trade accusations and deceit. Cain’s envy of his brother Abel leads to murder. Abraham is a disloyal son and as a father was ready to sacrifice one son and then banishes another along with his mother to die in the desert. Add to the panoply of dysfunction, the strife between brothers Esav and Yaakov, and Joseph’s treatment at the hands of his brothers, who stop just short of killing him. I doubt whether a social worker would consider any family in our origin story fit to raise a child. Being alone starts to look pretty good.
I recently asked my chevruta (study partner) for assistance in determining which middot (soul traits) were in play for me in assessing a relationship challenge. It might have been easier to figure out which ones were not. Such is the nature of our closest relationships that inevitably we will be challenged in nearly every way, and quick fixes seldom materialize.
Like many of us, I am often asked about how I got “into” Mussar. I usually respond that the question is more like, “When did Mussar get into me?”
I was raised as a traditional Jew in Wichita, Kansas, and when I was around 16 years old, prior to my junior year of high school, I decided to become more observant in many aspects of my Judaism. After graduating high school, I spent my freshman year at Yeshiva University, and the next fall I spent my sophomore year studying in Israel. The first night that I was in Israel provided a defining moment for me.
Like many, perhaps most of you, there came a time when I stumbled upon Mussar. For me it happened when, as part of wanting to learn more about Judaism, I signed up for a weekly email from Torah.org. One week an email came entitled “Mussar for Moderns,” and it contained a chapter from a book of the same name. The chapter discussed a fellow named Salanter, along with a few others, and emphasized the importance of emotional understanding in addition to intellectual understanding and described a practice that sought to bridge the gap. That was my where-was-this-stuff-hiding-all-these-years moment.
Have you done it yet? If so, congratulations. If not, it’s still not too late … to sign up for the upcoming TMI Kallah, that is. You can register by clicking HERE. (Don’t forget to call the conference center if you’ll need a room: 847-625-7300.)
What I would really like to talk about this month, however, is the theme for this issue of Yashar and, as it so happens, the theme for the Kallah: Relationships.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter says that the first step in working on yourself is to become aware of your spiritual curriculum, which means identifying the specific traits [middot] where you have the potential to grow. For a week, keep a journal of all the things people to whom you are close do to annoy and offend you. Write out briefly what they did that bruised you or inflamed you. Then, underneath that entry, identify the quality in you that their behavior triggered. Anger and impatience? Dig a little deeper. Arrogance or worry? Reflect on what you can learn about yourself from those encounters, because that awareness of your own curriculum is a great gift to yourself. Once you are aware, you have set the stage for change, both in yourself and in the relationship.
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