I’m Dreaming of a Mussar Hanukkah

Last month, many members of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas had the privilege of learning from Rabbi Ira Stone, a congregational rabbi in Philadelphia and Rosh Yeshivah (Academy Head) of the Mussar Leadership of Philadelphia. For those who were not there, the weekend was not only intellectually stimulating, but also moved many people to think deeply about the process we go through as we read the Torah as a sacred text, what keeps us from doing more good in the world, and to consider incorporating a regular practice that helps us become better people into their lives. It is CBSCS’ goal to establish a Mussar group that meets regularly to support each other in this practice. (If you live in Syracuse, and are interested in becoming part of such a group, please contact me!)

The core of mussar practice is working one one’s soul-traits, called Tikkun Ha-Middot. Middot also means dimensions. Indeed, the inner world of a human mind/soul is multi-dimensional. A particular middah that comes to mind each December is Nedivut, which is Generosity. This month, like no other during the American calendar year, is one with seriously mixed messages. To quote the great comedic songwriter Tom Lehrer (the link goes to the original song on YouTube): “Angels we have heard on high, tell us to go out and buy!” Our surrounding culture tells us through every media channel possible that to show truly our love for each other, we must engage in a deeply money-centric gift giving process, one that so many people cannot afford to do, but do anyway. That is not the Jewish view of Generosity.

In the Jewish tradition, there are two kinds of giving. One is right from the heart, which is called “t’rumah,” which means “an elevated gift.” This comes from neither obligation nor out of guilt, but rather out of the pure generosity of the heart. The other kind is called “tzedakah,” which is obligated giving that is an expression of a commitment, whether or not the heart is moved to act. Contrary to the conventional rabbinic view of valuing giving out of a sense of commitment more highly, the Mussar approach is to “help us fulfill our potential to really live as the holy souls we are, and it is impossible to imagine that we will shine forth in holiness if we act only from a sense of obligation. The passion and the flowering of the heart must be so much more.” (Morinis, Everyday Holiness, p. 150)

The core nature of giving is not so that the received feels an obligation to the giver, nor that the giver feels personal satisfaction either in response to or even despite the feelings of the receiver. The essence of giving, of the quality of Nedivut, is that “by its nature, [it] draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither ‘me’ nor ‘you,’ but only love.” (Morinis, Every Day, Holy Day, p. 64)

The paradigm for this level of Generosity is God, who needs nothing and yet creates the world with all of its abundance for the benefit of Creation. When we train ourselves to becomes givers, being generous becomes who and what we are, that is one way to walk in God’s paths.

So what might be a mussar practice to help train one to become more generous? Alan Morinis, in Every Day, Holy Day suggests four things.

  1. First, study a short piece of teaching on Nedivut, which could be the above piece or something else. This is a way to wake up the mind and body to the concepts around the middah.
  2. Second, to repeat a phrase over the course of the day or week as a mantra to keep this midday in the front of the mind. He suggests: The generous heart gives freely. The goal of this practice is to keep the middah in mind, so that when a situation comes up in which this middah is active, the chances of making a better choice are far greater.
  3. The third is a practice. Morinis suggests: Do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, and one with your caring. For me, this is key to subverting our money-centric culture, since it reminds both the giver and receiver that giving can take many forms, only one of which is through money. Money can be an important tool as an expression of love, but it can never be an expression of love all by itself.
  4. The fourth piece would be to spend a few minutes each day writing about one’s experience with Nedivut/Generosity that day. It does not have to be long, just a few sentences about how Generosity played in role that day. Think back to one or two moments during the day when the middah came up. What was your response to the moment? Did you have a defensive reaction to the moment? What the defense justified or was it a way to avoid? And so on. (This line of questions was taught to me by Rabbi Stone during his weekend in Syracuse. Many thanks to him!)

Give this a try for one week. It will literally take mere minutes out of anyone’s day, but doing this with conscious effort can help anyone become a more generous soul.

Chayei Sarah – What does it mean to be a sacred servant?

One big question that this week’s Torah portion asks is: In whose hands would you put your future?

In your life, if you had to task one person with a mission the success of which  would either guarantee your family’s existential future or end it, whom would you send? Do we have such people in our lives? Who might they be? What are the qualities of such a person? Such a person I would call a sacred servant, someone who mission is completely tied up with the ultimate pursuit of goodness in the world.

Abraham gives one of his servants a task such as this. From this story, we can learn about what it means to be a sacred servant.

When this week’s Torah portion opens, we learn that Sarah has died. We don’t know why she died, or how she died. The rabbis have always connected the Binding of Isaac to Sarah’s death, so if one wants to think about the reasons Sarah died, one can turn to the midrash. What the Torah portion does deal with is how people live their lives in the shadow of Sarah’s death. The first thing that Abraham does is mourn. I can imagine Abraham, returned from Mount Moriah, only to find Sarah cold and lifeless in her tent. Kneeling at her side, he weeps. His hot tears flowing down his face as he reflects back on the love of his life. Then he gets up. And it is the getting up part that is critical. It’s not that Abraham is unsentimental. It is that he knows that he has two sacred tasks to accomplish: Bury Sarah. Get Isaac married.

The opening episode is Abraham doing very delicate negotiations with the local council of elders, trying to purchase a piece of land with a double-burial cave for Sarah. Those deliberations are subtle and complex, but in essence, Abraham insists that the land be purchased, and not granted to him as a gift. Thus Abraham acquires the first piece of Jewish owed property in the land that God has promised to them and their descendants. Now, if only they had some descendants.

We don’t know why Isaac is not married. We are not even sure where Isaac is living at this time. We do know that Isaac is single, that for some reason, that neither he or Abraham are capable of going back to Haran, where Abraham’s family currently lives, and that it is only there that a suitable partner for Isaac will be found. The success of this mission is critical, and failure in this mission threatens to upset all of the promises made between Abraham and God about his future people.

So who does Abraham send to accomplish this task? His servant (which in Hebrew is an eved, which is related to the word for slave.) In previous Torah portions, we have encountered Abraham’s servant Eliezer, and almost all commentators are comfortable calling this one Eliezer as well. Eliezer has been the head of Abraham’s household for years. He is the COO, head of daily operations, for the Abraham and Sarah estate, and he is the one that Abraham think will inherit thishis estate, in lieu of biological children.

What are the qualities of a sacred servant?

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Judah: Transformation from Heartless to Heartfelt

Amazon.com has over 88,000 books in the category called “Self-Help.” In this lucrative category of book, hundreds of authors write about what people can do to overcome their past, improve themselves and become better people. If only the people in the Torah had access to these books, they might have been able to save themselves years of heartache and pain. Cain and Esav could have read up on anger management. King Saul might have been able to cope with his mood swings. Rachel and Leah could have taken some cues from books about difficult family dynamics. At their core, most of these books have a noble purpose in mindhelping people do teshuvah. According to Rambam (aka Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and thinker), teshuvah is a process of realizing that one sinned, regretting the sin, resolving not to do it again, confessing to the person that they wronged and then, when put in the same situation again, making the right choice.

In this week’s Torah portion, VayigashJudah, the brother who heartlessly recommended that they sell Joseph into slavery becomes the brother who makes a heartfelt speech to save the other younger brother, Benjamin, from the same fate. Judah becomes a model of doing teshuvah. In Parshat Vayeshev, Judah coldly said to his brothers:

“What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hand will not be against him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Breisheet 37:26-27)

Last week, at the end of Parshat Mikketzwe found Joseph’s family still living under famine conditions. Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt to purchase more food, and brought their youngest brother Benjamin with them, at the request of the viceroy in charge of Egypt’s food stores, Joseph, known to them as Tzafnat Paneach. Joseph frames Benjamin as a thief by hiding a precious goblet in his sack, and threatens to enslave him. Of all the brothers, Judah is suddenly the one who steps up and make an impassioned plea to rescue Benjamin.

How does Judah transform from a person who is willing to sell brother into slavery into one who steps into the breach to rescue another? How did Judah do his teshuvah?

For sure, he did not read any self-help books. Indeed, Judah has two personal experiences that ignite the spark of teshuvah: his own experience of loss and seeing his Jacob’s daily grief over the loss of Joseph.

Often overlooked in the Joseph saga, especially if one is only familiar with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, are the events of Breisheet Chapter 38. In this chapter, we discover Judah’s personal story. He marries, has three sons, the oldest of which, Er, marries a young woman named Tamar. Er mysteriously dies before he and Tamar are able to have children. The next brother, Onan, who is supposed to marry Tamar so she can have children, fails to do so, and then he dies. Judah is now a father who has experienced the loss of two sons. Although the Torah is silent about Judah’s emotional pain from the death of two sons, he does make efforts to protect his remaining son, Shelah. Ironically, Judah caused his own father to lose son, and now after Judah loses two sons, he has developed empathy for his father. This empathy is the likely source of Judah’s recognition of his sin, his regret for having caused his father’s suffering, and resolution not to make the same mistake again.

Then Judah makes an impassioned speech for the release of Benjamin from slavery. The focus of Judah’s speech is actually not to release Benjamin, but to avoid causing grief and suffering to their father Jacob. Judah is mainly trying to spare Jacob the devastating loss of a second son, a loss that Judah is well acquainted with. It has been over two decades since Joseph’s disappearance, and the family sees Jacob’s grief from the loss of Joseph every dayThey know that Jacob keeps Benjamin close by all the time, and is only willing to let the brothers take him to Egypt in the face of starvation. Judah’s empathy for his father becomes clear, confirming that his own experience is what drives his teshuvah process.

However, Judah must confess for this to be considered real teshuvah. As far confessing to his crime, Judah’s careful use of language betrays a subtle confession. When Judah tells Joseph what Jacob said about Benjamin going down to Egypt, he says:

“And your servant, our father said to us, ‘You know that two did we wife bear me. And one went out from me and I thought, O, he hasbeen torn to shreds, and I have not seen him since. And should you take this one, too, from my presence and harm befall him, youwould bring down my grey head in evil to Sheol.’” (Breisheet 44: 27-29) [Emphasis mine.]

Jacob says that Joseph “went out from” him, which is not the normal way of speaking about the dead. Jacob could have just said that Joseph was dead. Additionally, why would Jacob say that he had not seen him since? Was he not dead? One could argue that Judah reveals that Jacob knows the brothers are responsible for Joseph’s disappearance. In addition, Jacob says that he “thought” that Joseph was torn to shreds, which indicates awareness that he had made an assumption that was he later realized might not be the case. Jacob also hints that the brothers are the ones who made Joseph disappear, and potentially could do the same to Benjamin. As Judah quotes his father’s words, he voices his own confession. They are the ones responsible for getting rid of Joseph.

The last part of teshuvah is doing the right thing in the same situation as before. The situation with Benjamin is quite parallel to when they sold Joseph as a slave: It is the son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. They were all away from their father. All of the brothers are together. Deception would have been easy. Judah makes it clear that he will not make the same mistake:

“And so, let your servant, please, stay instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with us? Let me see not the evil that would find out my father!” (Breisheet 44:33) 

Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin only to spare his father the suffering from the loss of Benjamin.

What can we learn from Judah? Sometimes it takes something tragic to change the way we see the world and others who also live in it. Teshuvah is a process that can take years, but is always worth doing, no matter how long it has been. Forgiveness is always possible. May we all leave continue to grow as people, to look to our past for lessons that will help us move into the future.


  1. Talk about a time when you made amends with someone after a difficult argument or situation. 
  2. After Judah’s speech, Joseph sends out all of the people in the court except for his brothers. The Rabbis understand that this was too avoid embarrassing his brothers. Talk about the importance of not embarrassing people, and ways to avoid that.
  3. Judah had to rely on his own difficult experiences to help him make better choices. Talk about resources that we have today to help us make better choices: parents, teachers, friends, counselors, etc.


  1. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he said: “I am Joseph; is my father alive?” What was his brothers’ response?
  2. Joseph tells his brothers not to grieve or be angry with themselves for having sold him into slavery. What is his reasoning?
  3. What was Pharaoh’s reaction when he heard that Joseph’s family would be coming to live in Egypt?
  4. What did Joseph give the brothers for the trip back to Caanan? What different gift did he give to Benjamin? What can we learn from the gifts to Joseph’s brothers?
  5. One has the impression from last week’s parashah and also this week’s that Benjamin is still a very young man. Judah calls him a lad. Is that so? If you think not, what is your proof?
  6. Along the way to Egypt, Jacob had a dream. In the dream, what did God tell him? How was that similar to or different from the experiences of his father and grandfather?
  7. How many of Jacob’s family went on the trip down to Egypt, including Jacob?
  8. On the journey to Egypt, Jacob stopped to make sacrifices to God. Where did he do that?
  9. What did Joseph tell his brothers to say about how they made a living and why?
  10. Pharaoh asked Jacob his age. What did Jacob reply? What did he mean by “few and evil”?
  11. After the Egyptians had spent all the money they had, they came to Joseph and asked for bread. Joseph sold them bread for the rest of that year in exchange for what?
  12. After the Egyptians had sold all their herds, what did Joseph take next and what did he give them in exchange?