Through a Mussar Lens: Seder’s Deep Roots in the Subconscious
With the Pesach seders days away, the middah [soul-trait] that looms large before us is “order.” The Hebrew for “order” is that very word seder—the name given to the ordered Passover festive meal. Seder/
Order is one of those middot that affects most of us in the same way. Of course, there are those who are much too rigidly regimented in everything they do (what we might call obsessive), and this we see as pathological, psychologically and spiritually. But the majority of us feel that it would be a very good thing if we were more orderly, whether that means straightening up our papers or cleaning out the refrigerator or planning our lives more systematically. Recognizing that we have that desire seldom comes as a revelation, however, and the mere knowledge of what we should do is usually not much help toward the goal.
Because most of us are aware of the issue and want to bring the benefits of order into our lives, what I’d like to explore with you is not the middah of seder itself but rather a perspective that will help us understand what it is that gets in the way of our pursuit of order.
In the Torah and Talmud and then running as a strong theme throughout Jewish law is the notion that bias skews judgment. The initial concern in the tradition was that judges render fair and unbiased legal decisions, influenced neither by self-interest nor the wealth, status or power of those being judged. The Mussar masters applied this legal principle to our spiritual lives and warned us about how easily our judgment can be swayed and our best intentions sidetracked by our own negios/
What exactly is an inner negiah and how do they work? The term negiah is often translated as bias, or self-interest, or ulterior motives, or hidden needs. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, founder of the 19th century Mussar movement, gives us the broadest perspective by describing negios/
We tend to believe that we lead our lives entirely from conscious plans and intentions. But in reality, a welter of inner forces operates beneath the threshold of consciousness. When our actions are “touched” by the influence of these inner inclinations and biases, then logic and rationality do not prevail. Those biases cause us to say and do things that are not in line with what we tell ourselves and believe we want, but rather are the product of the inclination that influences us, and that may steer us in a direction that is not even in our own best interests.
If you endeavor to apply the notion of negios/
In focus here are not the deeper and intractable problems such as ADD, depression or schizophrenia, which may make it difficult or even impossible for someone to keep things orderly. Rather, I am looking at the inner leanings that keep even psychologically healthy people from accomplishing attainable goals we set for ourselves. It’s part of the human condition to have negios/
For example, even though a person may loudly claim to want more order in his or her immediate environment, ego biases may be getting in the way. He or she may be influenced by a subconscious notion that spending hours organizing papers or cleaning out the basement is work that is simply beneath his or her status and own sense of self-worth.
Alternatively, another negiah that could be just as powerful and effective for undermining an intention to be orderly would be if a discrepancy existed between activities to which you are committed and the needs of the soul. If you are trapped doing work or pursuing goals that just don’t fit with or satisfy the deep needs of your soul, in that case, the subconscious desire may favor chaos as a way to bring about failure, and so an escape from the strictures of those suffocating commitments.
These are only a couple of examples of subconscious desires that can cause your behavior to conflict with your own stated intentions to practice seder. When you apply that perspective to your own life, to see what you may uncover that is tilting your life away from the order you want, you must know that it is very difficult to detect your own biases. The subconscious is not accessible to the conscious by definition, and if that weren’t enough, we are masters of rationalization and self-deception.
Rabbi Salanter gives us a tool we can use to help us as we seek to identify the negios/
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler gives us another pointer. He writes, “In matters where it is impossible for a person to judge themselves clearly, they must ask the opinion of others. If they fail to ask others, they will definitely make mistakes.”
Recognizing that our desires and habits can blind us, in a traditional Jewish learning setting one would have a rebbi or a rov who could provide an unbiased set of eyes to appraise our motivations. That is still an option for many of us, while for others, we have Mussar teachers and group leaders, chevruta partners and spouses, and good friends who can be accurate mirrors to reflect back to us the truth of what moves us, without negios/
A first step on the path to bringing more order to your life may be discussing the issue with a very good friend, to see if he or she can help you uncover what really motivates you to preserve that state of cluttered mess that surrounds you.
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