When I was a kid, and spending a Friday night at synagogue was equivalent to sitting through a math lesson, it was traditional for us youngsters to politely excuse ourselves during the Rabbi’s sermon. We’d lounge in the bathroom or the hallway, dramatically proclaiming our boredom and wondering why our parents made us go. When the sermon concluded, and the usher opened the doors to the sanctuary, we heaved a collective sigh and headed back to our captivity.
The adult version of me actually finds the sermon to be one of the more interesting parts of the service. The text and the music don’t change much, but the Rabbi’s interpretation of what we’re reading, or current events we’re living, is always new.
Last Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbi used his sermon as a platform to begin discussing Mussar, and I was all ears.
Mussar is a centuries-old Jewish spiritual tradition that is little-known outside Orthodox communities. According to the Mussar Institute, Mussar is a set of teachings for cultivating personal growth and spiritual fulfillment. Using a book called Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path to Mussar, the synagogue pulled key character traits found in Mussar teachings (like humility, generosity and patience) and called upon congregants to do some soul searching.
Full disclosure, I have not read the book (yet). However, one particular character trait caught my eye: gratitude.
Gratitude was something I seemed to be short on at the time. Part of the problem I chalked up to watching too many episodes of House Hunters. My husband and I have a love/hate relationship with the show; we love drooling over the huge, beautifully remodeled homes that are shown, and we hate that the homes (sometimes) cost far, far less than our not huge, not remodeled home. But, if I’m being honest, most of the problem boiled down to my desire to want things that friends and family had, and my frustration with my inability to afford these things. Mulling over all that I wanted but couldn’t have did not make me a happy camper, nor was my husband overjoyed by my barrage of “woe is me.”
Listening to the Rabbi talk about Mussar, and how working on these various character traits can help lead to a happier outlook on life, I decided to start my own mini-Mussar project, a gratitude journal. Every night before going to bed, I’d write about one thing that I was grateful for that day.
I started Project Mini-Mussar the next week (it took me awhile to find a cute notebook worthy of being the Mini-Mussar notebook). I was surprised to find how easy it was to think of just one thing that had made me happy each day. I didn’t allow myself any repeats – I could only write “I’m grateful for my husband” and “I’m grateful for my son” once – and yet the things to be grateful for were always plentiful.
I wrote every night for a month, and noticed that my mood actually was brighter, and that I was focusing more on the great things that already existed in my life rather than the ones that didn’t. Project Mini-Mussar seemed to be a success.
Following the month of everyday writing, I’ve written in the notebook sporadically, usually on days that I was particularly down. The notebook has reminded me to be thankful for all the everyday joys and, as my mom likes to say, remember that what seems to be a big deal now will always work itself out in the end.
So I guess that lesson is one of two I’ve learned through this process. The second is to pay attention to your Rabbi’s sermon. You might just learn something.