Rabbi Yitzhak Summers of Anshe Emes minced no words. “Hashem expects us to grow. So how can we ensure that we grow? Rabbi Salanter taught us – study Mussar.”
Rabbi Summers spoke at the recent open house meeting that was held to encourage both men and women to join a new Mussar Vaadim which will be started in Los Angeles and lead by Rabbi Benjamin Geiger under the supervision of Rabbi Leib Kelemen.
Mussar, the focus on our moral conduct, instruction and discipline, is the biggest issue in Klal Yisroel according to Rabbi Summers. “We have all sorts of issues, but they would all be taken care of if we had a mass movement to get people exposed to studying Mussar properly.”
Mussar can be defined as spiritual practices and teachings that enable a person to refine his character traits and transform himself to reach his highest spiritual potential and to live everyday life with happiness, trust and love. It is different from the secular notion of “self-help” in that its purpose is to enable a person to gratify more than his personal desires.
Rabbi Summers noted that Mussar is a subject that is often misunderstood. “We need to obliterate the phrase, ‘I’m going to give you Mussar.’ Whoever says this has no idea what Mussar is. Mussar is uplifting, inspiring and enlightening.” Rabbi Summers explained, “I have no clue where I would be in life, even with all my years of learning, if I did not study Mussar. This has changed and shaped my life more than you can imagine.”
The problem is that most people don’t know how to study Mussar. “There is a methodology and a mesorah which most people don’t know. In the Mussar Vaadim, Rabbi Geiger and Rabbi Kelemen will give you the tools to study Mussar properly.”
Those who join the Vaad will be given selected readings of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, z”l and Rav Yerucham Levovitz regarding the particular character trait being worked on. Wolbe’s work, Alei Shur is “almost an encyclopedia of how Mussar works,” said Rabbi Geiger. “But it’s also like lecture notes where it’s hard to get a real picture of what a middah (character trait) should look like by trying to read about the characteristic on one’s own.“
In fact, Rav Wolbe refused to sell his book to someone unless he personally knew the buyer and you’d have to come to his house to buy a copy. Then the person had to guarantee that he would not be learning the material alone.
“If we get Mussar wrong, it is extraordinarily dangerous,” explained Rabbi Geiger. “A person can end up doing things that are damaging and destructive to themselves and others but think they are doing good and call it ‘Mussar.’ ”
Rabbi Geiger also cautioned that the Vaadim are not designed for people looking only to be inspired or what he calls “inspiring shiur junkies”—people who go from one inspiring shiur to another to keep the high going because they don’t have the tools to create it for themselves. “When you go to an inspiring shiur and you hear someone teach inspiring Torah you’re picking up vicarious inspiration from the fact that they’re living an inspired life and that gives you a false boost,” explained Rabbi Geiger. “Real inspiration comes from your own personal growth. If you end up being inspired from the Vaad, it will be because you work on yourself and that work creates real personal change and that leads to inspiration.”
He also explained that the Vaad is not the place for people who are impatient and want to see very quick results. “We focus on making almost microscopic changes so that you don’t flip back to your old ways when you’re under stress. We do this to fly under the radar of the yetzer hara (evil inclination). The goal is to create permanent change.”
Reaction to the Mussar Vaad presentation was overwhelmingly positive. “I’m excited and thankful for the opportunity,” said Leah Pasternak.
“I think it’s something I need with where I’m at with my life,” said Marlene Farronan.
“I’m definitely going to sign up,” said Miriam Nguyen. “I think it’s what we all need, especially at this time of year.”
“The learning and doing of avodahs together is meaningful,” said Chaim Gao as he completed the sign up form.
“I tried to sign up a year ago but there weren’t enough people and I was very disappointed,” said Atteret Melchi. “I just hope enough people sign up this time.”
If you’d like more information about the upcoming Mussar Vaadim in Los Angeles, please call Reuven Fauman at 310-927-2146 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is also more information at http://www.mussarvaadla.com. There will be separate groups for men and women.