Parshat Bereshit – A Mussar Perspective

Henach Leibowitz, Majesty of Man

Many people think that learning mussar and studying middos is merely “icing the cake,” of secondary importance to the rest of the Torah. On the contrary, having proper middos is inextricably bound to the observance of the entire Torah. Without mussar the rest of the mitzvos cannot be properly performed. Reb Yisroel Salanter founded a campaign to stress the learning of mussar after a specific incident: One day, before Yom Kippur, Reb Yisroel passed a very pious and learned man who was deep in thought contemplating the seriousness of the moment. Reb Yisroel asked the man for the time but the man continued walking, totally oblivious to Reb Yisroel and his inquiry. Reb Yisroel felt the man was unjustified in his neglect of a chesed – a kindness. Has this man been involved in properly reflecting on teshuvah – repentance – and self-betterment he would have become more aware of the people around him who needed his help, not less aware.

Jealousy, by Edvard MunchMussar is a spiritual practice aimed at improving ethical behavior, how you respond to the day-to-day challenges of living. A middah – literally “a measure” – is a character trait; a pattern of thought, feeling, and action. Studying a middah means assessing how well you measure up to a desirable trait, and working on improving your performance. Kindness is an example of a middah.
Only a small part of Mussar practice involves text study. Practice includes self-reflection through journaling, trying kabbalot (behavioral actions and seeing your reaction), meditation (including different forms of contemplation and visualization), chanting of phrases, and group study.
In a traditional Jewish community, Torah study is usually understand as strengthening the observance of mitzvot. Rabbi Leibowitz is saying that mussar and learning mussar from Torah is essential to performing mitzvot. How is he illustrating this through his example from Rabbi Salanter?

Bereshit (4:4-7)

The LORD regarded Abel and his offering but He did not regard Cain and his offering, and Cain was very incensed, and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain.

“Why are you incensed,
And why is your face fallen?
For whether you offer well,
Or whether you do not,
At the tent flap sin crouches
And for you is its longing
But you will rule over it.”

[Alternative translation: Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.]

God’s response to Cain is thought by modern scholars to be a very ancient insertion into the Torah. It is very evocative and enigmatic. How do you understand it?

Sforno

“Why art thou angry”—why were you jealous of your brother and concerned that I was favourably disposed towards his offering? “And why is thy countenance fallen?”-if a fault can be remedied it is not right to bewail the past, but one should strive to mend matters for the future.

Malbim

The Almighty explained to him three points: (1) that the evil inclination is ever ready and man should study his motives and not allow his baser instincts to get the better of him, since they always lie in wait to poison his behavior; (2) He further informed him that, on the one hand, his baser passions longed to lead him into sin and demoralize him, and that (3) on the other, it lay within his power to rule over them by exercising the freedom of will given to man. Man was only truly free, if he ruled over the bestial part of his nature, and not if he allowed the latter to rule over him.

A basic idea of mussar is that humans have good and evil inclinations – a yetzer hatov and a yetzer hara. Both are necessary for people to have free will. In our daily lives we are constantly facing situations which require us to choose which path we will follow. These are tests and who we are emerges from how we respond to these tests. You can learn from “hard knocks” – the pain that ultimately follows from making bad choices — or you can try to develop with greater self-awareness.

Bereshit (3:1-7)

Now the serpent was most cunning of all the beasts of the field that the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden –“And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the garden’s trees we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it and you shall not touch it, lest you die.” And the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not be doomed to die. For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods knowing good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate. And the eyes of the two were opened …

Henach Leibowitz, Majesty of Man

Man can believe with deep conviction that he is doing a great mitzvah, for the sake of Heaven, when in truth he is committing a sinful transgression to fulfill his desires. The Satan [yetzer hara] cleverly disguises the situation and drives us to our own destruction. How careful we must be to check and re-check our motivations, pinpointing the exact cause and root of every feeling …

A healthy measure of self-skepticism is the key to self-improvement.

What are the different ways in which the serpent attempts to convince Eve to disobey God? What are the motivations that influence Eve?

Thinking about day-to-day situations, how are you motivated or influenced to act in ways that you know are wrong or unhealthy?

What are ways to develop “self-skepticism”?

An idea introduced by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler is that each of us has our own bihara-point – choices that are really subject to free will. For a person raised in a band of thieves, the bihara-point may be whether to commit violence, while stealing might be just normal, taken-for-granted behavior. Once we go down a path our bihara-point may also move, for good or bad.

What was the bihara-point for Adam and Eve? How does that change for them?