Those who know me, know that I have been a student of Judaism’s Mussar tradition for a number of years now. Last Yom Kippur I spoke on the subject ofmussar, which at the time I described as “the Jewish road to character” (riffing on the title of David Brooks’ inspirational book The Road to Character. What started as a weekly dive into mussar texts with my hevruta (“study partner”), Rabbi Jonathan Kraus a bit over 3 years ago, led to engagement with and training under the auspices of The Mussar Institute. I have led several mussar groups at our congregation, invited Alan Morinis to our congregation for our annual Altshuler Family Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and I have begun to offer teachings in a variety of settings through the lens of mussar. I credit Alan Morninis as one of the key figures in bringing this little-known part of our rich Jewish heritage back to life and prominence through his writings and the work of the Institute. Over the past ten months I have been engaged in a more advanced training program under the auspices of the Institute which will enable me to offer more advanced courses at the congregation in the coming year.
This past week, I studied the final text for this soon-to-be-concluded training program. It’s a teaching on the middah/value of Emet/Truth from an early 19th century Mussar text entitled Cheshbon HaNefesh (literally “Accounting of the Soul”) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin of Satanow. In my various mussar studies, with my friend Rabbi Kraus, and under the auspices of the Mussar Institute, I am constantly struck by the immediate sense of applicability of these teachings from centuries earlier than our own to our own time and its challenges.
As we pause between the Republican and Democratic Conventions; and more importantly, as we pause for Shabbat, I share just a small piece of Rabbi Leffin’s teaching on truth. While it might seem that I am bringing it out in response to these past days, I lift it up, also as we approach the coming days. May we all consider it’s applicability to our lives, and to our complicated times:
“TRUTH – Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true.
“Lying is a most despicable spiritual illness. At first it stems from the pursuit of permitted pleasure, money, prestige or the esteem of men. It then progresses towards the pursuit of prohibited pleasures. At the end, it becomes an acquired inclination of its own lying for the sake of lying! When it is combined with the yetzer hara (“evil inclination”) of mocking and of idle talk, it brings man to the point where he will even swear falsely, God forbid. For example: A haughty person expends all of his efforts to flaunt virtues which he does not possess. He strives to deceive others through mountains of lies and exaggerations hoping that they will believe him.
“A person who mocks also slanders and discredits decent people. A person who flatters, uses falsehood as his chief weapon . . . Then there’s the cheat who lies for money; building his livelihood and his prestige and his business on this virtue. His expertise in deception, cheating, wrongdoing, mocking, slandering and flattering makes him a person to be feared . . . But in the end, falsehood has no base on which to stand. And if the liar should later speak truthfully, no one believes him any longer. This is the punishment of those who are haughty, hypocritical, deceitful or who cheat others they are discovered and exposed, first by one friend and then by another, until their lies are publicized and they become full of shame, debased and hated by all.
“Therefore, one must, from the very beginning of its appearance, search for the root of this illness and root it out by applying the disciplines of humility, righteousness and silence. Afterwards, one must include the discipline of truth by committing himself to the positive precept of loving truth even when doing so will cause him to forgo some monetary pleasure or presumed honor . . .” (from Cheshbon HaNefesh, chapter 12)
There’s much more Another time! For now, Shabbat Shalom