Making Space to be Better: The Jewish Practice of Mussar


Professional coach and Mussar educator Barbara Gottesman shares what Jewish tradition knew before modern science.

It happens every year at the end of summer. I plan that, this year, I’m going to be ready for the High Holidays. I’m going to be present, assess my life, set goals on how I want to be, and create a list of priorities to get done. In parallel, and without fail, the start of school happens – filling in forms, buying supplies and creating schedules for my family. At the same time, work ramps up as the rest of the world heads back from summer slow-down. What’s most surprising about this is that it still takes me by surprise.

According to the thousand-year old Jewish practice of Mussar (pronounced MOO-suhr), this repeating challenge of being present to my inner soul while balancing my external responsibilities is part of my personal curriculum. Because it shows up over and over again, and not just in the context of end-of-summer angst, it is something that I must overcome in order to become a better person. And how much better I would be if I could master it!

While mastery is most likely elusive, I’ve at least felt some progress in the right direction since I’ve happened onto Mussar.

Mussar is the Jewish guide to living a meaningful, well-directed life. It’s a practice to bring us closer to fulfilling our highest potential based on our own unique personal curricula. In a nutshell, it’s Jewish life and executive coaching. Make no mistake: this is no self-promoting, self-indulging, or self-help philosophy, but rather a mechanism with the end goal of having each one of us shed more light into the world. Forgive the pun, but G-d knows the world needs more light right now.

After being all but destroyed during the Holocaust, Mussar teachings are now being rediscovered around the world within all Jewish affiliations and beyond, regardless of level of practice, comfort, or knowledge, and therefore it’s been a unifying force within Jewish communities. While the Torah provides general guidance on how we must be in the world (“Kedoshim t’hiyu” or “You shall be holy”: Vayikra 19:2), vaad  (literally meaning ‘council’) groups are popping up to study the guidelines that will help us become as spiritually refined as possible. We do this by examining the inner traits (called ‘middot’, or literally ‘measures’), such as humility, patience, respect, order, and gratitude, so that we can show up in alignment with our values. Everyone has all of these traits, but we are unique in the measure we project externally. For example, if we have too much humility, we are taken advantage of and feel undervalued, and if we have too little, we are understood by those we encounter as being arrogant. An awareness of the imbalances sets one’s own personal curriculum.

It’s a disciplined practice taken in two week increments, in which we study what the traditional and more modern texts say about a particular trait or middah, and then we internalize the teachings through a self-directed combination of journaling, contemplations, and actions once we leave our study group. It continues to fascinate me that, even a thousand years ago, our sages knew what modern science has only recently proven: a routine, step-by-step practice repeated over periods of time will stimulate neural-pathways that define thinking and behavior leading to lasting inner change.

This year, my personal curriculum involves patience, simplicity, strength and order, just to name a few, so that I can start the New Year with focus and determination. This introspection is only the beginning. My hope is that we can all choose to be the change we wish to see in the world. I’m convinced that Mussar will help us get there.

Shana Tova U’Metukah – Wishing you all a Happy and Sweet New Year.

Join us at the OFJCC for A Taste of Mussar on Monday, September 18, 2017, at 7:30 pm ($10 Members/$12 General Public).  Please register here.

In addition or instead, please join for the OFJCC Mussar Group on seven selected Monday evenings this fall from 7-8:30 pm beginning September 25, as we continue to study and discuss how we can navigate change in ourselves and the world. Register for the class here; cost is $136 but no one will be turned away for inability to pay. Open to all, regardless of religious practice, comfort or knowledge.

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Barbara Gottesman

Written by Barbara Gottesman

Barbara Gottesman is a trained executive and leadership coach, communications trainer, former attorney, published author, motivational speaker, and a graduate of the Mussar Institute’s Manchim facilitation program. Originally Canadian, she lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two teenage children.

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