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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.