Saturday, October 11, 2014

All I Want is to Be a Good Person - A Message from the Rabbi

Before you know it, it will be after the High Holy Days. All the prayers that talk about what we didn't do right will be over. For many people, this is the least likable part of Judaism but, surprisingly, attendance is the highest. That sounds counter-intuitive. People deny, vociferously that they ever do, or have ever done anything wrong, but they show up once a year (sometimes more!) and join with others to recite prayers and go through rituals that are about atoning for sins. “Rabbi,” you may be thinking,” you are over-thinking this. They aren't really following the prayers or agreeing with the sentiments expressed; it's really like a yearly Jewish homecoming. They get to see old friends, family members scattered from around the country, and catch up with the life changes that have gone on.”

Yes, to some degree that is true, but I really don't believe that is central to the High Holy Days. It is REALLY about the issue of what we should do and how we have fallen short.” BUT ALL I WANT TO BE IS A GOOD PERSON. ARE YOU SAYING I'M NOT A GOOD PERSON”? The issue is not that you are not a good person. Our tradition is very clear; the wholly righteous and the wholly wicked are very few. Most of us are “inbetweeners”. We have souls that are entirely pure, but what do our bodies do? All too many deny this bifurcation and deny the soul and totally identify with our bodies. Our bodies are in the driving seat and, if they aren't, our passions/feelings are.

But what if that isn't the case? What if we are locked in a struggle between great goals and less than stellar drives? Our tradition posits such a real struggle and doesn't believe an hour a year really settles the matter (attendance at a service). The belief that we can actually change our behavior is organized in Jewish tradition as Musar. This tradition has its roots in various Jewish teachings that go back to Biblical texts, developed in the medieval period and came to fruition in the 19th century in Eastern Europe, especially in Lithuanian yeshivas just before WWII. This tradition has been revived in recent years outside Orthodoxy by Alan Morinis, who has written a number of books on the subject, and who has done presentations at URJ events and has written in Reform Judaism Magazine. Musar is a method of teaching ethical/moral precepts (called Middot) and exercises that develop these in people so that they can transform themselves. Allan Morinis has created a Mussar Institute ( and lectures around the continent on this topic. During the month of October, I will be teaching on this topic for the Adult Education programs.

Let me introduce you to Musar by quoting a passage in one of Morinis' books Every Day, Holy Day 365 Days of Teachings & Practices from The Jewish Tradition of Musar:

Just as there is a time to open and a time to close the door of a house, so should one close the doors of his mouth. Just as you would guard silver, gold, and pearls in your room, within a case, making one enclosure within another, do the same with your mouth.
Orchot Tzadddikim (1540)
Phrase: Wisdom walks through the door of silence.
Practice: Find at least 10 minutes every day when you will be silent and seek inner stillness.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, October 2014

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