Thursday, September 15, 2011

I met Alan Morinis and other folks from the Mussar Institute

Never Done: I met Alan Morinis and other folks from the Mussar Institute

I don't think I've ever expended as little energy getting to an event that I would have gone to great lengths to attend. At 7 PM, after a long and at times taxing day at work, I stood up from my desk, left my office, walked down one flight of stairs, and took a seat in the beys midrash. (Beys midrash means, literally, house of learning -- and at the JCC is a lovely room lined with Jewish texts.) I was there for a lecture called, Seeing Your Life as a Soul Journey: An Evening of Mussar with Alan Morinis.

The seat I chose was near the back, but when I got a text message from Dana that she would be coming very late, I moved to a closer row where I could leave her a seat on the aisle. Before the lecture started, suddenly -- right behind me in my new seat -- a woman tripped over someone else's cane, and simultaneously fell down and spilled her water and her plate of fruit. She was OK, and the first thing she wanted to do was clean up. I offered to do that for her, because although she had not badly hurt herself, I remember what it feels like to almost hurt yourself badly, and your heart needs some time to stop racing, and your soul needs a bit of time to realize you're actually OK. (Or, in some cases, that you're not.) So I cleaned up her spilled fruit, and a couple other women did too, and I threw it away, and I got a bunch of napkins to dry off the chair where the water mostly landed. (If this feels like a mundane description, just hang in there -- it's going somewhere.) As I blotted up the water, a woman who was sitting nearby said to me, "We were going to sit there."

OK. Many things went through my head at that moment. I admit, most of them were sarcastic. Instead of saying any of them, I chose Silence: Reflect before speaking, and continued to clean up. Then she said, "There are four of us." It seemed to me that she was complaining about the fact that there was water on a chair she wanted one of her friends to sit on, and that she wanted me to do something about it. I don't think there was any way for her to know I work at the JCC, and in fact I wasn't cleaning up the water as a JCC employee, but as a person thinking about Cleanliness: Let no stain or ugliness on our self/space and taking responsibility for our collective space. So my mind went to a bunch of judgmental places about this passive woman who expects other people to clean up for her, when it occurred to me that I don't actually know what is going on for that woman. Maybe she's wearing a brand new silk dress that would get ruined if she sat on a damp chair. Maybe she hasn't seen the people she's with for years, and it's truly her priority to spend time with them. We really don't know what is going on for others. Then I decided to move the chair instead of mop up the chair, so I picked it up, and I asked the woman to move some other chairs over so I could put this chair a row behind. It was just like one of those games we had as kids -- where you move squares one at a time until you get them in the order you want. Only she couldn't see how to get where we were going, and she was moving chairs in a way that would only shuffle the wet chair among her four friends, and not remove it from her row. Finally I was able to describe to her what she would need to move in order for me to put the chair down, and while this was happening, I suddenly remembered that when I was at the Dan Bern concert, a woman moved her wobbly chair to another table instead of removing it from the hall, and then another woman sat on it and it broke, causing her to fall to the ground. I remember writing that I could imagine myself as the person who just moved the wobbly chair elsewhere instead of completely removing it from the room, and that I was going to heed that lesson and try to take complete (not partial) responsibility for the spaces I use from here on in.

So there I was, holding the chair, having this memory, and noticing that if I put the chair down where I am about to then someone else might get a wet tush. I looked up to see how to remove it completely, when I saw that a man was reaching out his hands to take the chair from me, and I could tell that he saw the big picture, and was going to remove this chair from the line of duty. I handed him the chair, I thanked him, and I sat. (I later found out that this man was Michael, the Executive Director of the Mussar Institute.)

All this, and the lecture hadn't yet started. And more -- I got the woman who had fallen a replacement plate of food, and when I sat down, I thought again -- as I often do -- about what it means to be so deeply predisposed to be in service to others. This was a situation in which I had nothing else to do but sit and wait, and helping her was in no way taking away from a somehow more interesting life activity. But there are certainly times in my life in which I default to service to others when I have not yet taken care of my own basic needs. Since I do have that tendency, and the Mussar practice is deeply about service to others, it's no wonder that I am drawn to it. But the practice also has at its core a thoughtful examination of the balance between the needs of self and others. To borrow a common analogy, if you don't put on your own oxygen mask first, you won't be able to assist others with theirs.

Speaking of which, I actually have to go to work, and can't take the time to write about Alan's actual lecture, beyond to say that it focused on three aspects of the soul -- neshome, nefesh, and ruakh -- and the importance of tending all three aspects. Neshome is the pure, brilliant, clear essence of our humanity. Nefesh is our character traits -- anger, patience, humility, passivity. And ruakh is our spirit. Neshome just is -- it's the part of the soul that cannot be sullied. It's often most evident in a new born, who without language or pressing appointments, is purely human. Nefesh can get out of balance. We can be too angry, too humble, too patient, too impatient. It is the work of a Mussar practice to keep this in balance. Ruakh can also become sick -- if we have too little energy and our spirit is tamped down, we are depressed. If we are over-energetic, and can't calm down enough to focus, our ruakh is also out of whack. The heart of Alan Morinis's lecture was that our Mussar practice is one of seeing our own and other people's neshome, and working to keep our own nefesh and ruakh in balance -- largely by being in service to others.


  1. Jenny, is Mussar practice something every Jewish person does in her lifetime? Something anyone could do? I have learned so much so far this year from your sharing your practice.

  2. Hi Sandra -- it's not something every Jewish person does, nope. It's a practice that dates back to the mid 1800s, and is one expression of a possible Jewish practice. I definitely think non-Jews could do it. I mean, I do it in a way that is separate from g-d because I don't believe in g-d. Believers have a much more religiously rooted practice than I do, including an essential element of the practice that I don't do, which is meditation.