Tag Archives: Mussar

Moon and Mussar Musings on the Megillah

The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman
The 5 Faces of Paul oil painting -1981 by Helen Redman

Like a cat circling her spot before she can settle down, pawing and prodding the cushion or the carpet or the bed-spread, I also, have to create and circle my space before I can manage to write.

This has been difficult for me lately. I’ve just been posting recipes. Recipes are safe and easy and do not require too much from me that involves delving into emotional or personal territory. It is not lost on me that folks respond more to my recipes than to my musings. I have a loyal following of muse-niks (those who appreciate my musings), but there is a much larger following of recipe lovers. So, if you are a recipe lover, this post is not a recipe for some yummy dish. It is a sort of recipe/play on the themes of Purim. Full disclosure, I do not know how to make Hamentaschen and this post will not result in a good cookie!

Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!
Apricot Hamentaschen, NOT made by me. This is the only cookie you will be getting from me!

Tonight is Purim, and the full Moon is hanging brightly in the sky, urging me to get a little moon-mad, and instead of reading or hearing the Megillah being read, I am sitting in my meditation room, listening to flute music amidst incense and candles. Instead of dressing up and being wild and with a bunch of people, I am sitting quiet and still and writing.

This is a VERY unusual state of affairs for me. I have an internal barometer connected to the Jewish cycles of holidays, fasts, new moons, and all the weekly Torah readings as well. It is physically difficult for me to be absent from any of the rituals connected to my path. When I actually got involved with Judaism actively, as a young woman in the 1980s, it was with a profound sense of coming home and finally understanding and being able to make sense of so many things about myself. My family has been Jewish forever, but the practice part of that skipped a generation or two. This is not unusual and it is often the case that one generation will be very religious, the next one won’t be and then the grandchildren or great-grandchildren will find their way back. Many of us seem to spin on a generational wheel of sorts.

Some folks wander around or linger in one spiritual tradition or another and pick and choose that which works for them and discard or lay down the rest. Others are devotees of only ONE way to walk and be on the planet and with Holiness. Most folks are somewhere on this continuum, and of course there are those who completely reject any kind of spiritual path or directionality. It is not one size fits all, it never has been and it never will be.

My size and shape and relationship to Holiness is WRIT LARGE, I am the Jumbo size, extra-large variety in all my expressions. This is a difficult path, because it is not, in any way, quiet, petite, small, cute, sexy or easily dismissed, overlooked or ignored. People know when I am coming and where I am. I am louder without a microphone than most folks are with one. Friends with sensitive ears sometimes cringe  when I speak. I am asked to speak more quietly in many circles. My animation and volume are VERY strong. This applies in all areas of my life. If I had to name one of my “super powers”, I’d say it is my voice. Sometimes it feels like it literally can travel around the globe.

As I move through the thin middle place in the hour-glass of my life, and also as a result of my continuous mussar work, I am shifting things about myself all the time. I am actively looking at my volume and working to moderate it. I am adjusting the sands of my personality, grain by grain. I examine and attend to what goes on around me and through me very carefully. In Alan Morinis‘ most recent Mussar book, With Heart in Mind, I read the following passage today:

“Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-46) in the Mussar classic Path of the Just gives us another take on the spiritual value of fear. One who fears heaven ought not to be concerned so much with punishment from God’s big stick but with offending against the supernal glory that infuses our world. This is not fear of breaking a rule and catching the consequences, but rather acting in an unseemly way that besmirches the most precious, pure, and holy divine majesty, which, if we are sensitive to it, permeates every fragment of the reality within which we live.” pg 40

So, for me, who is “sensitive to it,” there is an element of fear/concern in my every awake moment. It is an undercurrent, not a blaring horn. Am I reflecting the supernal glory and holiness I experience accurately? Am I modeling healthy and loving relationship to the planet and all her beings? Am I remembering to be grateful, to engage others gently and with chesed/kindness? Am I living in a way that honors the creation and the creator? Am I living for Olam Ha-Ba and behaving in accordance with the “precious, pure and holy divine majesty” or am I just sleep-walking through my life?

These questions are not really answerable. There will never be a complete or finished answer sheet with checked-off squares, √ kindness done, √ honoring done,√ gratitude done. These are forever and all the time questions for me and they are part of my life and very real for me. How does any of this relate to Purim, you might be wondering?

Well, Purim is about many, many things, most of which we will never be able to grasp in this world/Olam Ha-Zeh. One of the things that I love and relate to the most about Purim is the idea of dressing up, trying on, the costume of your enemy or your dark side. This holiday is ancient and it asks us to get so drunk that we can no longer tell the difference between good and evil, between the heroes and the villains, between right and wrong, up and down, male and female, Jew and Muslim, and all the other polarities on the spectrum. It’s the one time of year you will see Santa costumes in Orthodox neighborhoods. It’s really funny, very straight men dressing as women, super religiously devout folks dressing up as clowns and Christian icons. It’s a weird wonderland of a holiday.

Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.
Nicole, not really in costume, revealing her third eye.

While we are simultaneously supposed to be getting really drunk, we are also meticulously supposed to be listening to every syllable of the Megillah (scroll of Ester), and it has to be read over if we miss a line or say one word wrong, from the beginning. “A megillah is a finely detailed account or book but the term by itself commonly refers to the Book of Esther.” ~Wikipedia emphasis mine!

So, Purim is a study in contrasts, extreme detailed focus on the script, and wild abandon of self and self-constraints. For those who have alcoholic tendencies, or who come from families with alcoholism, this can be a treacherous holiday. Many people imbibe and it can be difficult to be around. Folks get loud and strange, it’s truly not your usual religious service. You don’t have to drink to get expansive or loosen your boundaries, but this is one of the times in the Jewish religion where some kind of personality, boundary-crossing, mind altering substance is called for.

We are so very attached to our ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, male and female, Jew and everyone else, black and white, trim and fit or large (and by society’s definition unhealthy just because of our size). Purim is the one Holiday that will still be celebrated once the Messiah comes. I will address the various and multiple views on Messianic consciousness in Judaism in the future. I mention it here only to underline my point.

This strange holiday, based on an ancient scroll telling a terrible story, with ugly and horrible things going on it, as well as miraculous and wonderful things; this model of alternative narratives and confusing roles is something that is so fundamental to the nature of this universe, that it will actually still have a place in Olam Ha-Ba.

What does that mean? For me, it means that I am never going to “get it.” I will never be able to wrap my head around anything and say, “I’ve figured it all out, I know the answer.” It means, I should expect to be surprised and confused and not think that Ha-Shem has a plan, like we do.

While talking with my dear friend and Rabbi, Naomi Steinberg, we were discussing our extreme frustration with the concept of “God’s Plan.” This idea is so human-centric. Naomi was expounding on the ridiculousness of thinking about the Divine having some kind of day-planner with notes about what was supposed to happen to someone on Tuesday at noon.

We use and need plans as humans, because the world is a majorly intense and confusing place to navigate. If I don’t have a plan, I might miss my appointment with the dentist or the job interview or the meeting with the principal or whatever??? I am a big planner, I am not demeaning plans, planners or planning (see my Organizing Optimally post for a real list of how to plans).

There is a huge difference though between my attempts to navigate and organize my life or events and how the Creator engages with the Universe.

Planning cannot be applied to the Divine, or to the Divine in each of us. That Holy spark reveals itself to everyone differently and in its own way and across space and time. I may think you look like a woman, but you may feel like a man. I may think you are someone to feel sorry for, because you are in a wheel-chair or blind but you may be wiser and healthier, in a deep way, than I could ever know.

None of us knows what is inside of others. Regardless, we have to try to make contact and reach across whatever divides us. We need to reach across the bridges of our differences and listen, listen carefully to EVERY word of each others’ scrolls. “Wait, I missed that part where you said you felt different, can you go back and repeat that again, so I really understand?”

Coup d'Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22"x16"
Coup d’Oeil Marocain, 1971, pen, ink, collage on paper with (handpainted mat), 22″x16″ by Helen Redman

We also have to play with who we are and be willing to actually be THE OTHER, to wear the skins of those we cannot imagine being, or to take a risk and wear the shape that is true to who we are inside, even when it doesn’t match who we are on the outside. It’s a crazy, wild ride. I only drank some mellow herbal tea tonight, but somehow I was able to expand without any mind-altering substances. I hope your mind and heart are a little more expansive as a result of these Moon-rich Megillah musings of mine. On the 15th of Adar, 5775, Shushan Purim, it was written and, at least, for now this marks the end of the Nicole-Zone Purimschpiel/Megillah. Amen!


Jubilee Series Part 7: Coming Together With My Land, Skin and Heart

Story Bones by Helen Redman, 1993Story Bones by Helen Redman, 1993

The air is thick with smoke from the large fire at Happy Camp. I am several valleys away from this fire, but it is still impacting the skies here. It is smoky in the mornings here where I am on retreat for my Jubilee (50th birthday). Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily perfect. It is quiet, except for bird song, squirrel chatter and lizard movements among the dry leaves. The smoke clears by mid to late afternoon, which is when the wind seems to pick up. My days have taken on a dreamy quality of time moving extremely slowly with no sense of urgency. This is absolutely what I wanted and needed. There is a profound restorative quality to this time. I was just about at the very end of my tank, even my reserves had been used up.

Over the course of my life folks have told me to do less, to care less, to take more care of myself. This advice has rarely been useful or heeded. My soul is dedicated to serving and until the suffering stops on the planet, I am on duty. I am always attending to myself AND to others. I am not, nor have I ever martyred myself. I do, and always have felt the needs of others to be as important and real as my own. This has been true for me my whole life. My ability to regenerate is pretty good, in general, I just need some time to pray and to cry and to be held or get into a body of water and move my body. I do need natural water for a deeper kind of healing. There is a beautiful poem that resonates for me, from one of my favorite books of poetry by Nancy Wood, called Many Winters © 1974. It is a collection of prose and poetry of the Taos and Pueblos with drawings and paintings by Frank Howell.

“The skin of the earth
covers its imperfections
Just as my face conceals
my vast uncertainty.
In the dry cracks of the earth
I find that it has bled
from the injuries of man.
The earth has healed itself
through time moving across
its tortured face of skin.
But what shall heal me except
the sun which makes cracks in my face
so that I can come together with my land.”


In the afternoons up here, I walk to the river, moving very slowly, so that I can come together with my land.

When I get to the river, it is cold and has deep pools as well as shallows. I immerse and rejuvenate, alone with the trout, crayfish, birds and water bugs, so that I can come together with my land. Besides immersing myself in quiet and cold water, I came here to do some work. The process of self-examination and hard work of this month of Elul, which is the month that precedes the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah, is always pressing upon me. I’ve written about this before and I wasn’t sure what new things I could say here. My process this year, is of course, WRIT LARGE, because it is not just about a single year, but the last 49 years and my very conscious choice about changing direction and focus. In order to do this, I have to snip the old frayed threads or sew the ragged patches up, so that my body and soul can move into the next part of my brief time on this planet, so that I can come together with my land.

Elul reminds us that life is cyclical. We make mistakes, we grow, we fight, we harm, we love, we fall down and we do these things over and over until we are no longer able to. This cycle is as old as human consciousness. There has always been war, there has always been ugliness. There has always been fear and pain. There has also always been love, and tenderness, hope and reaching for Holiness and Wholeness and more folks working on mending what is broken than folks breaking things.

This cycle, my Mussar teacher gave us a very specific assignment. I’m used to making lists of people in my life I need to ask forgiveness from and I have a practice that is pretty automatic at this point. My teacher asked our class to start the forgiveness work this Elul by forgiving folks who had hurt us for the first ten days. She wanted us to make notations and to do this work internally. There is a daily forgiveness process in the Jewish tradition that is part of the Bedtime Shema, where we grant blanket forgiveness to all who have wronged us and ask that they not suffer on account of any wrong they have done to us. Only religiously observant folks recite this blessing regularly. I attend to it in Elul, but it is kind of automatic and non-specific.

This homework assignment was really different. I had never actually made a list of all the people I needed to forgive. It was not that long, but there were some biggies on the list. I wrote a name down, and then listed the hurt that person had done me. After I completed this part of the process, I started to chant the name of the person and to speak to them and tell them I forgave them for the wrong and the hurt they had done to me, as I did so, tears came and a huge sense of release in my heart. I found myself blessing these folks after I forgave them. I certainly did not expect any of this and it took me by surprise.

For the men who raped me, I forgave them for the harm they did me, but asked that my forgiveness be connected to justice unfolding and for them never harming another person again. I asked the Holy One to please help them to find health and healing and awareness. I’ve done years of work on this territory, in various therapies, and most of the hurt is no longer present for me. There are tiny droplets of pain that re-surface now and then. I can go great swaths of time not thinking on it– “I find that it has bled from the injuries of man. The earth has healed itself through time moving across its tortured face of skin.”

There were two folks on my list that I put aside for later, I am not ready or able to forgive them on some level. I can forgive the men who raped me, but not these folks who betrayed my trust and hurt my family. I will have to get some help from my teachers about these two people and how to not be holding onto this hurt. Elul is not an easy month for me and yet this process is amazingly liberating, even being able to identify that I am not able to release those people, is helpful. It tells me I have work to do. I don’t believe forgiveness is a simple thing or that I have to grant it. In my tradition I do not have to forgive someone until they seek my forgiveness and make amends. My choosing to forgive them ahead of their asking is completely on me and also part of a deeper spiritual practice.

There is enough sticky goo in all of our lives, old hurts and tattered remnants of messy memories and shattered feelings. I would rather be free of these so that I can be of good cheer and good service for this moment unfolding right now. It is late, almost midnight. More musings on how to let go of fear and be more present coming in the next few weeks. For now, though, you don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of this time, make a list of folks who have hurt you, see if you can forgive them, and see how it makes you feel. Take a chance on letting go of old stuff, so that you can come together with the land, which has no choice but to forgive all the wrongs we do. Did the sun not rise today, did the vegetables forget how to grow? Forgiveness is the nature of earth and we are made of this lovely loamy stardust stuff.

Nicole comes together with her land and your land and any land she can by engaging with it, and then writing about it. This column was written high in the hills as Nicole turned 50 and is now officially “over the hill.” It appeared originally in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What Kind of Jew are You?

Open Poppy From Nicole's Deck and Heart, Flower made by The Holy One
Open Poppy From Nicole’s Deck Heart, Flower by The Holy One

I’m a heart opening,
Big Loving,
Always Seeking,
Torah Studying
Kinda Jew

not just a kinda Jew but
a full fledged
big practicing
kind Jew

I’m a never ending
pot o’ soup on the stove
kind of Jew

I’m a complex and
wild woman
mikveh loving and
Mussar loving
kinda Jew

I will
cook for you
pray for you
engage with you
sing for and with you
study with you
discourse with you
kind of Jew

I’m a sit with you
while you are dying
and sing the Shema
over you as you take your last
breaths kind of Jew

I will gently bathe your cold
body and recite love lines from
the Song of Songs
over your limbs and your whole body
I will work with others together and
wrap, gently wrap
you in a shroud
kind of Jew

I’m a start to finish
kind of Jew
I’m a long-winded
and lots to say kind of Jew

I say a blessing
over everything
that goes into my mouth
I say a blessing
when I arise
when I learn of a death
when I immerse
when I study
whenever I have or make time
when I do something for the first time
when I see an old friend

or a rainbow

I pray every day
pretty much all day
in some way

I light candles on Shabbat
I light candles for those
who’ve left this world
or for those
in need of healing

I honor my mother and my father
I strive to honor and be present
for my children, all the children
in my life, not just those I’ve
raised or birthed

I love my husband, my man
who is not a Jew
I love him completely
imperfectly and with all my heart

I’m an observe a lot of commandments
kinda Jew….but not all of them

I’m a wrestle with and dance
with the Divine kinda Jew
and I think
whatever Kind of Jew

I am

I’m some kinda Jew
looking for and
always loving You!

©Nicole Barchilon Frank, February 28, 2014 ~ 28th of Adar I, 5774

Introduction to Mussar

We are Holy at our core

We can uncover the core

Our difficulties, stresses, and problems in this life are the core curriculum of our lives, this is our spiritual homework

Acknowledgment: This extremely introductory and broad overview of the topic of Mussar is the result of eight years of study with my teacher Caroline Isaacs, my time with my Mussar sisters in group study, reading, reading, reading and more reading as well as studying great teachings, some of which are mentioned here. Please see all the links for more in-depth discussion and direction. This piece is truly meant as an introduction to the topic and I hope it stimulates much further study.

Mussar is introduced in Ba-Midbar/Exodus also in Devarim/Deuteronomy

Ha-Shem/The Name (see Teachings, -Naming the Divine?Why Ha-Shem article on the use of this word instead of the word God). Ha-Shem literally means The Name and it reflects the concept in Judaism that you cannot quantify or confine the Divine. It is unnameable, infinite and vast. Ha-Shem is not like my name or yours.

Ha-Shem gave us Mussar. Mussar can be translated to mean training/to train. It is also understood as the practice of Jewish ethical work. Mussar is a series of practice tools and teachings for learning to walk our talk. I often describe it as a way to shine up my soul, to work at scouring, lifting, cracking the code on the patterns, barriers, obstacles that are in the way of my greater self/soul/heart.

When first trying to describe it I wrote this short poem:

I’m trying to make my soul
shiny, shiny bright
so that everyone can see
its light

Mussar is practical and doable.

The main work of Mussar involves engaging actively  and becoming aware of the many middot/measures of energy/Divine flows that operate in our world and that we can work with to live with integrity, pursuing goodness and justice. The Hebrew word middot cannot be easily translated. The idea is that there are flows or measures of Divine Energy or Qualities that move through all of us and the world. By connecting with them in their essences and learning to identify them and dance with them or use them to help us with our lives, we can change and improve ourselves and our lives and the lives of those around us.

There are several key or central middot. Middot is the plural for middah. For the purpose of this article, using the word measure or flow of energy is the best way to conceptualize this idea. You do not have to believe in a Holy Being to practice Mussar or to understand the middot. They can also be translated as attributes, flows, energies, characteristics, or paths. Some of the central middot are:

Humility, Compassion, Faith, Trust, Generosity, Moderation, Equanimity…etc..

A student of Mussar attunes to each of these Middot for a specified period of time, usually no longer than a few weeks and studies this energy through teachings and the techniques described below. The student looks for how one is involved with this attribute and where one falls on a continuum of this particular energy. The more advanced student looks to harmonize and balance themselves with this particular energy and how to use it to improve one’s conduct and self. Throughout the year one goes through a cycle of these middot and re-visits them again and again throughout out ones lifetime of study.

Important Mussar Texts in Antiquity:

  1. Talmud
  2. Pirkei-Avot, Ethics/Teachings/Sayings of our Fathers
  3. 11th Century Spain, Medieval times: Chovot HaLevavot/Duties of the Heart by Rabbi Batya Ibn Pakuda,
  4. 12th Century: the RaMBaM (רמב”ם – Hebrew acronym for “Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon“/Maimonides continues this work with his Mishneh Torah
  5. 16th century: Yiddish translated into Hebrew Orchot Tzadikim/the Ways of the Righteous and then the Tomer Devorah/Palm Tree of Devorah by Moshe Cordovero
  6. Then into the 18th century Mesillat Yesharim/The Path of the Just by Luzzato also known as the RamChal.

There was a schism between the flowering of Hasidism/ecstatic worship of the Divine, deemed “wild” vs. the counter to the Hasidic movement. These folks went into Mussar practice and were called the Misnagdim. The Vilna Gaon was the main proponent of this and very opposed to the ecstatic Hasidic movement, in the 18th century. In the 19th Century Rabbi Yisroel Salanter pulled all the varied sources together and created and codified a system for Mussar study:

  1. Mussar Steibel (home practice)
  2. Practice Melodic Chants of Holy Phrases “with lips aflame”
  3. Don’t study alone, study with partner.
  4. Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh=Accounting of the Soul, keeping an honest journal of daily encounters and behaviors that one did and looking at them through the lense of whichever Middah one is studying.
  5. Hitpahalut: impassioned chanting of a melody, prayer or Holy phrase for 20-30 minutes for 30 days.

20th century Mussar leaders/teachers: Rabbi Abraham Twerski, Alan Morinis, Rabbi Arthur Green and many others. See The Mussar Institute.

There are real tools in Mussar practice and ways to confront our reflexive, seemingly innate and hard to change behaviors and inner inclinations. These tools work at a deep level. This is Soul Work, the deepest kind of work and central to this work is the idea that:

I am a soul NOT I have a soul

Perfecting our soul/our beings is a personal choice and everyone has their own path. There is no expectation of one size fits all or we have to all walk the same path, nevertheless Mussar practice is a tried, true and well-developed practice that has tremendous momentum, teachings, teachers as well as practical and clear results.

This is a 24/7 practice, the possibility to do it exists all the time. I think about it this way. I can put on my Middah glasses, and my Mussar cape, so that all I see and all who see me are encountering me fully present and practicing. This then reinforces and develops my awareness of my growth as a soul.

Addressing the Nefesh (first of four levels of our souls) and on up through all the levels is one part of our Mussar practice: See post on Four levels of the Soul in Tu B’Shevat Article (insert link)

Whatever we encounter or whatever obstructs us can be looked at through these Middah lenses. They may show us our particular and unique challenges and illuminate our character traits, and/or they can be indicators of the measure of the middah we are either in balance with or not.

Mussar is a striving to be more centered and includes the recognition that all of our experiences and behaviors can be measured on a kind of continuum that is not a place of judgment, but a place of informed awareness with an intention towards improvement. We will never arrive, but we can always keep practicing.

This practice, when done with devotion can undue the teem tuum Ha-Lev /stopped up heart). It is amazing and transforms one.

Our goal is Shelemut/Wholeness, but we won’t attain it necessarily. We can continue walking towards it, shoot our arrows and aim for the center which leads us to more and more moments of connection and experiences of connection and Holiness.

Mussar is a Matan/Gift from the Holy One to help us do the work

Awareness Practices:

“Take Time, Be Exact, Un-Clutter the Mind”

~Alter of Slobodka

This approach helps create a barrier between our impulse and our acting out or response to that impulse. SLOW DOWN, TAKE TIME.

Notice where you react to the teachings or to what others say, have a daily mussar journal, just note things, don’t judge yourself for reactions. This is about becoming aware of the contours of who we are and what the issues are. Mussar is not about FIXING IT. It is a subtle and very deep practice that really is about being a soul, not having a soul, being someone who is aware, not making ourselves aware. Over time you will see patterns and can work with them or just being aware of them will help them shift.

This is not a beat ourselves with horsehair whips and wear clothing that is full of needles so we bleed and remember how terrible we are kind of practice. It is not based on guilt, but on taking responsibility and awareness.

This practice is rooted in a core Jewish belief based on the idea that our souls are pure and that there is junk that obscures or occludes our souls. We can diminish the murky mess and crack through the hard shell that surrounds our souls. We can liberate and make visible the innately glorious and sparkling nature of our souls with OUR PRACTICE.

In Malachi 3:3 “He will sit smelting and purifying silver, he will purify the children of Levi and refine them like gold and like silver and they will be for him.”

When is the silver smith satisfied with the quality of her smelting and purification? When it is so clear and pure that she can see her face in it.

Basic Practice Outline:


  • Morning Repetition of a simple saying related to the middah one is working on, this is said after the recitation of the first blessing we say upon awakening Modeh Ani L’fanecha.

  • Awareness throughout the day of the Middah and noticing of our interactions as mentioned previously.

  • Evening: writing down, briefly what you saw related to middah  and our selves in the day, any anecdotes or interactions that relate anywhere on the continuum. Just jotting them down, this is not about analyses. It is a practice without judgment. Re-read materials, jot down issues or highlight stuff you want to ask about or work with a partner on.


Check in for an hour or more with a partner or a group and go over materials, answer questions, check in, share from journal, not about therapy in traditional sense, return to the materials and use them to guide your encounter. Take turns being in charge or choosing a teaching to study.


Class with a Mussar practitioner or Rabbi and other students, discuss what questions came up during your study, share experiences, switch to a different Middah for the next month. Never spend more than a few weeks on one Middah.

All of the teachings and texts used here are excerpted from these and other texts,  and here are some links to those for further study:

©Nicole Barchilon Frank