The Mussar spiritual journey raises awareness of forces beyond our conscious knowledge that cause us to act or not act according to our values. The Mussar Leadership Program frames these forces, the Yetzer Hara and Yetzer HaTov, conventionally the inclination toward evil and good, as the innate material inclination to protect and serve the self, and the equally innate inclination to serve the other. Through working with middot (moral virtues or character traits), text study, chevruta (study partner) and group work, students learn to constrain (kibbush) and transform (tikkun) these forces.
The word mussar literally means “correction.” The practice of Mussar is defined as a specific discipline of character development. Mussar is based on the precept that true spiritual acumen can only come as the result of serving the other. The practice of Mussar assists us in cultivating appropriate ways to do this. The practice helps us replace the habits of self-service and self-protection with service to others. And this cultivation, in turn, allows us to experience an openness to the abundance of life’s gifts.
Thus, the goal of Mussar is to transform ourselves by serving the other. In order for this transformation to be more than an illusion, we have to adopt a disciplined assessment of our behavior and interactions in every circumstance: with our families, our friends, our co-workers, and with the strangers we encounter in our most seemingly “unspiritual” activities – at the supermarket, the coffee shop, the bank, the dry cleaners; at the PTA meeting and at the synagogue trustee meeting.
We accomplish this goal by attending to a list of character traits or middot, developed in Mussar literature in previous centuries. This process of attentiveness, known as cheshbon ha-nefesh, “an accounting of the soul,” focuses serially on each of these character traits. The classic exploration of these middot appears in an eighteenth-century work entitled Cheshbon Ha-nefesh, by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Lefin of Satanov.