I just had a conversation with my friend Steve who was resisting learning Mussar. (What is mussar? Great question! Please see Question 12 in our Jewish FAQs to learn more.) He explained, “there is little in the books that I don’t know; the part that I find to be difficult is putting it into action.” In my humble opinion, what Steve said is technically true yet he is 100 percent wrong. He does understand most of what he learns from reading the book we were discussing, but that is not why mussar is effective.
What Ritz-Carlton Understands About Human Behavior
If you have ever stayed at a Ritz-Carlton hotel, you know that the customer service is amazing. What is their secret and how have they consistently maintained this level of service at every hotel around the world? If you look at their website, you will see a page dedicated to the “Gold Standards” that dictate how each hotel is run in a customer service oriented way. But that is not the whole story. There are many hotel chains that will have similar pages on their websites, yet don’t seem to consistently deliver the same results. What sets them apart?
It is widely reported that every single da—without exception—each Ritz-Carlton employee participates in a 15 minute meeting where the “Gold Standards” are discussed. Although every employee completes a comprehensive training when they join the company, the Ritz-Carlton leadership understands that knowing the ideas is not enough. They need to be reviewed, discussed, and internalized every single day.
15 Minute Daily Meetings At The Ritz Are To Customer Service As Studying Mussar Is To Spiritual Growth.
In the introduction to Mesilas Yesharim (Path Of The Just) Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato explains that the purpose of his book is not to teach you something that you did not know before. On the contrary, Rav Luzzato explains, the things that we know the most clearly we take for granted, rarely revisit, and therefore neglect the most. This creates a great disconnect between what we know in our mind and what we feel. We often know (in an intellectual sense) what is right, yet struggle to control our behavior when emotions or desires conflict with that knowledge. As a general rule, when what we know conflicts with what we feel, we will follow our hearts and not our intellect.
Studying Mussar Changes The Way We Feel
By reviewing or reliving personal growth ideals, we drive the lesson home to the point that it becomes part of our emotional reaction. By reviewing intellectual lessons again and again, we gain an ever deeper understanding of the ideas. As we continue to study and reinforce those ideas, they begin to occupy more space in our conscious mind, and those ideas become part of our emotional response. Mussar works because it constantly reinforces us. To the extent that we neglect our ongoing mussar study, the reinforcement mussar provides will begin to wane and our old habits will re-emerge. Of the most inspiring moments I witnessed when I was studying in Yeshiva (Rabbinical Seminary) was to see the dean, who was in his 90s, sit down with the rest of the yeshiva and study mussar each day. The book he was studying was the aforementioned Path Of The Just. I am quite sure that by that time he knew the book by heart and had learned and taught those lessons tens of thousands of times, yet he understood that the value of mussar is found in its repetition.
My Rabbi needed ongoing mussar study, I need ongoing mussar study, and, my dear friend Steve, you need it as well.