Its more than just the 10 commandments…
The written Torah is “technically” the collection of books often known as the hebrew bible or the tanakh. This cannon is made up of the five books of moses (genesis, exodus, leviticus, numbers, deuteronomy), also the books of the prophets (such as isaiah, or zephaniah – this guy’s not so popular but his name is fun to say), and lastly the works of the writings (with favorites such as the psalms, job, ruth, or esther).
Why do I say technically?
Throughout jewish history, the word ‘Torah’ has been used to mean any form of Wisdom or Truth. Learning Torah has included works such as the talmud, midrash, and kabbalah (jewish mysticism); and nowadays has come to also include things like poetry, acts of civil disobedience, and wordless musical melodies.
So, really, the hebrew bible as ‘Torah’ is simply a work which contains profound pearls of wisdom and truths. Stories that try to bring us closer to the ultimate Truth of what it means to be alive.
Why is my blog called written torah then?
I can’t promise that each post will be inspirational, or wise, or life-changing, but I hope that the ideas expressed throughout the pages on this site will stimulate conversation. Conversations that join a 3,000-year-old process of thinking, feeling, and acting on ideas that seek to bring us closer to one another and towards ourselves.
These, hopefully, thought-provoking blog posts will be presented in the written format.
Hence, written Torah. Enjoy!
ben franklin – The creator of A key Jewish discipline
Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk mussar. (We’ll get back to benjamin franklin in a moment.)
First and foremost, what is mussar?
While a healthy (perhaps even more than a healthy) portion of the jewish tradition provides resources for the cognitive aspects of our being, there isn’t as much energy devoted to the resources that tap into the affective corners of our selves – the emotional/spiritual sides.
This is what the work of mussar attempts to do. To shape our hearts and souls, not just minds.
Now, we come back to mr benjamin franklin. Part of tapping into those emotional character-traits that make up who we are at any given moment is first developing an awareness of the traits that we have, and secondly articulating our goals of where we want them to be. Benjamin franklin pioneered such an awareness with his writings on the ‘thirteen virtues’ in his autobiography.
His writing permeated through the walls of the shtetl and influenced the mussar thinkers of his day. It wasn’t just his outline of which character-traits are important that impacted mussar, but it was also his practical tips. Most importantly, he said, was the need to focus on one at a time – our mental energy is finite.
One of the main books studied in mussar and one that was heavily impacted by franklin is called cheshbon ha’nefesh. This book lays out the various character-traits (middot in hebrew) that are necessary for us to prioritize if we seek greater peace in our lives. Traits such as generosity, responsibility, honesty, etc are brought to the forefront for each student, as each learner is asked to reflect on their own state of being.
Traditionally, mussar asks for practitioners to work towards creating a balance of each trait. If you have too much trust, perhaps you can be taken advantage of. If you are too honest you might insult others around you with your bluntness. A balance was seen as the ultimate goal – never too much of any one trait.
I, personally, take a different approach. Rather than limiting middot such as trust or honesty, I instead attempt to work through a paradigm of abundance. An abundance that builds a deep enough reservoir so that, for example, we see opportunities for honesty and trust in all moments. Our cups runneth over with good traits! From which shall we drink?
We shouldn’t have the mentality of decreasing any of our traits. Who are we to push back against the creation that we are? Instead, we should think through the lens of increasing and reprioritizing other qualities in those moments. We can hold dear to our trait of honesty and still see a need for the gentle touch of respect at that moment.
This reframing maintains the value of each trait – always seeking to increase a characteristic, rather than to limit another one.
I hope you enjoy learning about this practice and that you will let these ideas percolate in your noggin. It is vital that we have an opportunity to take time to reflect and meditate on these lessons, so that they have a chance to pierce through our hearts. The goal is to acknowledge that we are like flowers in bloom – at any given moment we may be in need of water, sustenance, and sunshine; for traits such as compassion, patience, and diligence our spiritual photosynthesis is mussar practice.
Resources for practicing and teaching mussar will be shared via google drive to those that are subscribed to the newsletter.
It takes steady and ongoing work to ensure we are caring for our souls in an intentional way. Why not begin now?