Off the Shelf: Exploring the Torah with Mussar principles

There are many lenses through which to view the Torah. Over the years, a variety of commentaries have appeared focusing on specific viewpoints – from feminist to LGBTQ to men’s issues – in order to challenge our ideas about the biblical text. One recent work offers a different approach: “The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life” edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block (Central Conference of American Rabbis) uses Mussar principles to offer insights into better understanding the text and create more spiritual lives.
Block translates Mussar as “(Jewish) ethical discipline,” although it has also been defined as correction, ethics and instruction. The book opens with a listing of 33 different middot (the singular is middah), which Block defines in his glossary as “virtue, value, characteristic, attribute.” A few examples include avanah (humility), emunah (faith), kaas (anger), kinah (jealousy), m’chilah (forgiveness), savlanut (patience), tzedek (justice) and z’rizut (alacrity). All human beings contain these middot; the amount differs in each individual. The practice of Mussar is to help people recognize the middot that form their personality and learn ways to counter their negative aspects. However, the aim of the practice is not self-improvement; rather, Mussar seeks to bring holiness into the world. All the middot have positive and negative aspects to them, something discussed in the essays.
The collection’s purpose is not to teach Mussar directly, but, as Block notes in his introduction, to “craft Torah commentary based on Mussar.” The authors were asked not to write directly about a middah, but to “craft Torah commentaries grounded firmly in the parashah, teaching Torah while teaching Mussar.” Each essay looks at a Torah portion through the lense of a particular middah. The authors also offer “questions to ask,” practice for the middah under discussion and other middot to consider for that portion. 
At first, it felt as if the essays were focusing more on the middah rather than the biblical text, as if the author was imposing a particular Mussar trait on that portion. However, this may be because of the book’s unusual focus: the more I read, the easier it was to see what the writers were attempting to accomplish. Some essay spoke to me more than others due to the particular issue under discussion. Some of my favorites include: 
Mishpatim – Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz writes about the practical steps that one can take in order not to be overwhelmed by life’s trials and tribulations in “M’nuchat HaNefesh – Equanimity: Finding Peace in Responsibility” The author also suggests ways to recognize our limitations, while still finding spirituality in our daily lives.
Ki Tisa – In “Kaas – the Value of Anger,” Rabbi Mari Chernow discusses ways to control and use our anger to make the world a better place. She notes that sometimes anger can inform us that “transformative change is necessary.” Anger has also led to the creation of important social movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too. She notes that there is a place for anger in the world, but that we must be careful to not under, or over, react.
Vayikra – Rabbi David Jaffee looks at different ways of thinking about generosity in “N’divut – Generosity: Giving Away, Bringing Close.” He talks about the importance of giving, but notes that there are multiple levels of giving in enduring relationships, suggesting that “strong relationships cannot rely only on freewill desire to give and take... On the other hand, relationships must be more than obligations.” 
Tazria – In “Rachamim – Mercy: Seeing the Whole Person,” Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil., looks at how, when someone becomes ill, we often see the illness, not the whole person. She notes that many people distance themselves from those who are ill, unable to see the humanity that still exists even in the most ill. Grushcow uses the role of the priest in the Torah portion to show how the biblical text teaches the priest not to just see illness, but the whole person – to recognize a person’s place in the community.
B’chikotia: Rabbi Marla Joy Subeck Spanjer, D.D., discusses ways to live a satisfactory life in spite of living an imperfect world in “Histapkut – Simplicity: Recognizing Our Blessings.” Her essay talks about the need for perspective and the importance of realizing the blessings we have in our lives, even if we have not achieved all our goals or attained all we wished in life.
Readers who are already familiar with Mussar’s principles will find “The Mussar Torah Commentary” an additional way to incorporate them into their lives. Those who want to learn more about Mussar will see how those principles can be used for Torah study. Anyone, like myself, who loves reading Torah commentaries with a different focus will find “The Mussar Torah Commentary” an excellent addition to their bookshelf.