A Drash for Yom Kippur (ca 5765)
by Marc Mangel
Abraham Joshau Heschel began God in Search of Man by writing
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by crede, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountian; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless. Religion is an answer to man’s ultimate questions.
One of the ultimate questions is “How should we behave?” and to answer that, I’d like to discuss the Mussar movement and its teachings with you.
Mussar is the Hebrew word for “ethics” or ethical teachings; Jewish Mussar teachings combine religious philosophy, psychology of religion, preaching and ethics with the goal of personal improvement.
The tradition is said to begin with Duties of the Heart, written in Arabic in the 11th Century by Bahya Ibn Pakuda and has been continuous since then. (Moshe Chayim Ltzzatto’s Path of the Upright is a mussar classic)
In the late 1800s, Rabbi Israel Salanter created a mussar movement and a series of mussar yeshivot in Lithuania. His goal was to provide an alternative to Hasidism, which did not appeal to all, in the same way that neo-Hasidism today in Jewish Renewal does not appeal to everyone.
Salanter wanted to combat the spiritual malaise that affected the non-chassidic Jews of Europe. Non-chasidic Judaism had become brittle and too many Jews focussed on ritual and forgot the broader emphasis on moral action. Salanter set out to reverse this trend with urban centers for ethical reflection where business and trade people could gather on Shabbat for moral instruction and mutual support. Learning became elevated from an intellecfual exercise to a means for moral advancement and building good character. Mussar offered a threefold approach i) Observance of ritual
ii) Never-ending improvement of one’s moral character, and iii) On going service to fellow human beings as a means of serving God.
Today we hunger for meaning, beauty and ethical integrity and often do not find sustenance in the secular world. We need something else and sometimes seek it in the synagogue; but it must be practical and doable. When you come here at times during the rest of the year, and I hope that you will do so, at a moment in prayer that is difficult for you to connect, pick up the siddur or the Chumash and read it in a Mussar way — look into the prayers, the Torah portion or the Haftorah and ask “How can this help me be a better person in my daily life?
What does today’s Torah portion, Haftorah or siddur prayer tell me about self-improvement? ” To be sure, there is lots in here that one does not want to use as a role model. But you can make these prayers and the Torah and Haftorah come alive and into action by taking a Mussar attitude to them.
I would like to offer a Mussar teaching for Yom Kippur. We come here today because we have missed the mark in our dealings with other people and with God. We began, before Kol Nidre,with apologies to people and we spend today in public and private communication with God about the other failures. But there is a third case. What about the hurt done to us for which no apology has been received? Perhaps the person who caused us the pain no longer lives in town or is even no longer alive. Perhaps that person is in this room. What should we do? The mussar teaching for Yom Kippur is simple: forgive even the hurts for which no apology was received. Let it go from your heart and feel cleansed. You will be better without that hurt. That is what Mussar teaches us for Yom Kippur — forgive even those hurts for which no apology has been received.