In previous articles we have taken a look at the practical benefits of Mussar. We have seen how it can be beneficial to work on ourselves and focus on specific traits actively.
Now let’s explore some actual middot, or character traits, of Mussar. Yeshua tells an interesting parable that will help lead us to our first trait.
In Matthew 21:28-32, Yeshua describes two sons, one who says he will do something and does not and a son who disagrees at first but ultimately fulfills the deed. Yeshua is contrasting between actions and words. This is similar to James who says,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
Yeshua and James are contrasting those who say they are serving God with those who actually display their faith through works. The first son and the workless man of faith may have good intentions and believe the right things, but ultimately their words come up short. In Mussar this would fall under the middot of zeal or zerizut. This trait is unique in that there are two parts to it. One aspect of zeal is having the enthusiasm to do something. However, an important distinction that the Mussar masters make is that although it is important to start something strong, it is more critical that one actually carries out the deed.
Interestingly, James continues his letter by talking about Abraham, who achieved faith through actions by offering his son on the altar. Most commentators point out that in the story of the binding of Isaac, God never specifically tells Abraham when he should carry out the act. Abraham takes it upon himself to “wake up early the next morning.” Abraham displays both aspects of zeal by agreeing to do the deed in haste and also carrying it out to its completion.
The Apostle Paul also gives us a vivid description of zeal in his teachings on faith. He compares believers to runners in a race. If you have ever run a race, then you know that many people begin a race without a set pace and exhaust all their energy before reaching the finish line. Faith is a lot like this. We start with passion and zeal, but eventually, we are hit with roadblocks that discourage us.
Have you ever started a new project such as learning to play the guitar or fixing some things around the house? You wake up with a ton of energy for it and start strong. Everything goes great until the first hurdle comes along. This is exactly what faith can be like. We begin to read our Bibles every morning or pray three times a day, but then something comes up, and we lose sight of our original motivation. When this happens, it is important to remember the second part to zeal. We must remember that, of course, things get hard; certainly, you will not become the next Jimmy Hendrix overnight, but by overcoming those hurdles and trying again and again, change and improvement will come.
The book of Hebrews has a great answer for someone who has gone astray or faced a roadblock:
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:12-14)
“For the righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity” (Proverbs 24:16). We are not so easily dismayed as to give up after a setback. No matter what happens in life, we are called to continually press on and overcome.
Following in a similar vein, the trait known as gratitude can assist us in this pursuit. Gratitude is realizing that everything comes from God and that he is in control. This allows us to understand that things that seem bad now have the potential ultimately to bring about good. In Judaism there is a blessing that one says when something good happens: “Blessed are you, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who is good and does good,” but there is also a blessing that one says when something bad happens: “Blessed are you, LORD, our God, King of the universe, the righteous judge.” In both instances we acknowledge God’s sovereignty over everything.
Gratitude creates a deep sense of responsibility for our actions. When we truly realize that the King of the Universe has taken a personal interest in our lives, we will be more inclined to serve him wholeheartedly. No matter what situation you are currently facing or where you are in life, nothing is keeping you from returning to the race of faith. Reflect on these two traits and come up with practical ways to practice them, whether that is setting a small challenge for yourself to learn something new or taking time to thank God at various times throughout your day. Spend a week choosing a verse for one of these two traits and try to implement them into your life. No time is better than the present to start striving to be more than just yourself and to be able to truly say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).