The Difference between Mussar and Self-Improvement
By Rabbi Ephraim D. Becker
What is the difference between Mussar and other forms of personal growth?
Iíve been asked any number of times how Mussar differs from Covey,
Pransky, Positive Psychology and a host of other self-improvement programs
and concepts. You may find yourself asking the same question and Iíd like
to save you the call.
Mussar, the Torahís approach to personal growth has, at its most
fundamental core, the call to utilize the entire physical world in the
service of the transcendent, eternal world. The Torah calls upon every
human being (both Jews and Gentiles in different ways) to recognize this
world as the place to activate G-dís Will through the use of the physical
world of things, feelings, thoughts and actions. The Torah teaches us how
to harness the material world in the service of transcendent connection to
By contrast, other forms of self-improvement are aimed at capitalizing on
the transcendent aspect of a person in the service of the physical world.
Being calmer, meditating, looking beyond the moment, understanding values,
prioritizing and so on are all seen as tools in the pursuit of a better
physical existence, whether that means a better marriage, friendships, a
job or even a vacation. The point of self-improvement is to harness the
transcendent world of a person in the service of his physical existence.
The difference is 180 degrees.
There are those self-improvement programs (notably in Eastern Religions)
that have placed such a value on transcendence that they put the physical
world at the service of their push for transcendence. If you push for the
answer to why, the answer is because itís a better way to live. Again,
transcendence in the service of the physical world is the message.
Torah is the G-d-given recipe for being closer to Him, eternally. It is
not about avoiding damnation nor is it about being redeemed from sin,
though those are certainly included in the Torah recipe. Mussar is the
arm of Torah that focuses on the specifics of how a physical, created,
conflicted human being can transcend and utilize the limitations which are
imposed by his base-physicality to become G-dlike, G-d-emulating and ever
more closely attached to the pleasure of proximity to Him. The person
doesnít need to be redeemed; he needs to be activated.
Without the revelation of His Will on Mt Sinai all of the other self-
improvement programs run just fine. With no directive from G-d there is
nothing to do but try to improve your life here. With the revelation at
Sinai the only program is Mussar. Everything else is abusing (sorry for
the extreme term) spirituality in order to achieve a more blissful life in
this world. Torah is about utilizing (indeed, abusing, from the
perspective of one who is trying to achieve a blissful world here) this
world in the service of His Will.
We are striving to become better and better servants of Hashem, using only
this life and this world to do so, while self-improvement is about using
all of the transcendence latent in a person to make our lives in this
world better and better.
I cannot be a scrooge and say that Iím unhappy with the programs which
help people have better marriages, more successful jobs, be happier, have
less depression, etc. Iím not a scrooge and my service to and
relationship with G-d includes my celebration of everything and anything
which lightens the load of another person, Jew or Gentile. So I am happy
when I hear that people go off to retreats and come back calmer, have a
better marriage or get/keep a life-sustaining job. Thatís great news.
What all that does is give us more material to transform into service of
Hashem. Donít stop when your life is better; thatís not the goal; itís a
tool and its value is measured in terms of how it is used. Use your good
marriage to emulate Hashem and His kindness. Use the peace of mind your
improved job security affords to focus with more clarity on your Torah
study, your performance of Mitzvos, on your freedom to live with honesty
and integrity according to the Torahís definitions of those terms, your
ability to stay focused and undistracted by the myriad attempts of
mischief to distract you. If youíre exercising regularly then you have
more stamina to serve Hashem. If you are eating well then your body is
less sluggish, less demanding and now you are freer to put your body to
work in the Divine Misssion. Mussar is about the process of doing that.
Self-improvement may be included in the long list of tools to put to the
service of the Divine Mission. However, failure to put them in their
proper perspective runs the risk of leaving the person feeling like he/she
has activated his/her transcendence without connecting Soul to Source.
That is a terrible tragedy. I see it daily with people who get involved
in Kabala, pseudo-mussar, and a host of other attempts to drain the
wellspring of transcendence in each of us so that the Soul is fooled into
serving the Body and fails to connect to the Source. I almost wish the
person had remained in his/her hedonistic rut until ready to wake up to
Sinai instead of having the Soul-craving slaked at a mirage fountain.
If Iíve not hammered it home enough here, please ask. From where Iím
sitting, Iíve repeated myself more times in this article than I have in
virtually any piece Iíve allowed to go past my screen.
I hope Iíve saved you a call.
Rabbi Becker conducts Mussar-oriented counseling through his private practice in Jerusalem. He is also a popular lecturer in Israel and abroad. You can read more of his writings at his site