Portion B’reishit: Acharayut/Responsibility
This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition. As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.
This week’s portion, B’reishit, opens the Torah; it is also a perfect place to introduce the mission of Mussar. While the portion begins with the creation story, I would like to start a few chapters later, with Cain and Abel.
When each of the world’s first brothers brings a good will offering, God inexplicably accepts Abel’s gift but rejects Cain’s. This understandably sends Cain into a jealous rage. God takes note and warns Cain not to give in to his violent impulses, saying: “Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, yet you can master it.”
Cain hears God’s words, but he doesn’t listen. He recognizes that it’s wrong to kill his brother, yet he does it anyway.
Why does Cain fail to heed God’s warning? Why would he—and why do we—choose to act unethically, knowing full well that we are in the wrong?
This story takes me back to my years as a student of philosophy. As an undergraduate and in rabbinical school, I expended a great deal of time and effort studying ethics. I learned a lot but the philosophers’ writings always left me rather dissatisfied, because their core inquiry felt far removed from my own ethical concerns. They focused on moral reason, parsing out how we know the good and what would constitute the right course of action in all sorts of complicated hypothetical situations. I found this intellectually interesting, but when I honestly considered my own misdeeds and poor choices, they invariably felt like failures of will rather than knowledge. When I asked friends and family to reflect upon their own mistakes, they confirmed my hunch. Four decades later, I am ever more convinced that in the vast majority of cases, we know the right thing to do. The problem is that we so often fail to muster the will and master the tools that would enable us to actually do it.
That’s why I was drawn to Mussar. As Rabbi Ira Stone notes in his book, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, this Jewish discipline starts by asking, “What prevents me from doing what is good? If I know what is right, if I espouse a set of values that describe the good, why is it so difficult to act on that knowledge and those values?” There are, of course, a host of answers to these questions, but at its heart, Mussar offers us a set of tools to help us not only know what’s right but actually live it. To improve our souls, we examine our unique array of personal traits, duly consider where we are out of balance, and commit to spiritual practices that strengthen our capacity to choose the good.
Viewed through this lens, God’s words to Cain in our parshah falls woefully short. God delivers admonition when Cain needs a toolkit. A good Mussar teacher might have offered Cain a short course on anger management, with concrete strategies on how to overcome his evil impulse rather than a vague and ineffective warning against it.
Mussar empowers us to take responsibility for our actions by giving us tools to scrutinize and correct them. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be looking to each week’s portion as a source for those tools, and for examples—good and bad—of their application.
I look forward to sharing the journey with you.