Mussar is the catch-all term for describing the lifelong endeavor to make a human being ever more G-dlike. In order to facilitate that endeavor, Mussar employs many tools. The first tool is accurate description of the human being; his strengths and his frailties. Without such an understanding of the self, all growth is merely a fantasy or a wish. Mussar is, if it is anything, real and always starts from absolute, hardboiled reality.
As such, the first part of Mussar is the ‘real.’ To bring the real to light might involve studying how the Torah describes people, especially great people, whose flaws appear under the electron microscope of the Torah; the study of whom can help us understand the secrets of our own hearts. In this capacity, we are said to be studying Mussar when we delve into the descriptions of the human condition as they appear in the blueprint for the world, the Torah. The point of such study is to help us locate ourselves in reality; to know the strengths that we can draw upon and to identify the challenges we were created to overcome.
The next role of Mussar is to cull from the Torah what the human being is meant to look like – the ideal. For the ideal we don’t look at human beings but rather at the attributes of HaShem (G-d). While we may use human role models to help us in our efforts towards the ideal, we still always recognize the ideal as nested in the attributes of HaShem. Each person who studies Mussar, then, is meant to plot his position (his ‘real’) relative to the ideal. So far, all the person has are two descriptive points; the real and the ideal.
Rounding out the picture is the aspect of Mussar which places its focus on the ‘process.’ Here we are not studying Mussar in order to describe; but rather to prescribe. Mussar in the first two senses is static. The real and the ideal are facts. In the ‘process’ sense Mussar is dynamic insofar as it addresses the process of change; of moving (generally inching) along the path from the real towards the ideal. There could be many strategies employed here, some that have already been suggested by the masters of the Mussar process and some that are waiting to be discovered by you and I as we struggle to make our way from the real towards the ideal.
Each of these steps is necessary for real growth to happen. Without a clarity regarding who I am and what my strengths and challenges are (both within me and around me) I could live a life of self-deception (failure of the ‘real’). Without a clarity regarding the attributes of HaShem to which I strive I could be placing great effort in chasing a useless goal of supposed self-improvement (false ideal). And without a process I leave myself living a life of fantasy. In my fantasy I am wishing that I were more like the ideal; bemoaning the fact that I am stuck in the real; and going through life remaining right where I am.
I hope that this ‘top view’ of Mussar is useful. I will leave it up on its own page (and perhaps add to it from time to time) so that we can each refer back to it to keep our ‘eyes on the ball’ and for those who are new to the story of Mussar to gain access to this central story of Jewish life.