and have been overseen by Moses. Now the people must take living into their own hands.
Living involves more than mere existence. It means being aware of the world around us and our place within that world. It means reacting to that world and learning to act within the world to better it and ourselves. While the rest of the year asks us to focus on tikkun olam, repairing the world, these forty days, from the beginning of Elul, the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar until Yom Kippur, offers us a time to focus on ourselves.
One practice within Judaism that helps us see how we function in the world and how we need to repair our relationship within it is called mussar. Mussar takes a variety of forms but primarily directs individuals to look at their character traits, known as middot, and deal with them, one at a time, for a period of time, and then move on to the next. After the traits are each addressed, the individual cycles back and begins again to move to another level within each trait.
While the modern mussar movement was formed in the 19th century, its roots can be traced to medieval ethical literature. It enjoys Chasidic, Kabbalistic, Ashkenazi and Sephardi variations. Duties of the Heart, The Path of the Just and The Gates of Repentance (same name but different text from the reform version of the machzor) present philosophical approaches on how to be a practical, moral Jew.
Today, perhaps the broadest mussar practice is one presented through the Mussar Institute established by Alan Morinis. Character traits are infinite in number however, a set of traits is generally established within the practice. Each of us chooses which of the traits we want work on to improve ourselves. These might include: humility, anger, respect, trust,
generosity, forgiveness, gratitude and – well, you fill in the blank.
How much more will the Holydays mean if we have each spent a few weeks contemplating how we can improve, how we can draw closer to the Divine in the world and the Divine in ourselves? Even a few minutes each day spent recognizing where WE can make improvements rather than what is wrong with someone or something else, can make a tremendous difference when we unite as a community to sing joyfully about the creation of humankind and seek compassionate assistance as we continue to strive to be the best we can be as individuals and as a community.