Handouts for “Wisdom in Hardship” with Rabbi Amy Eilberg

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Guest Author

Wisdom in Hardship – Online Webinar Series for SDI

Led by Rabbi Amy Eilberg

July-August, 2020

Still time to register – click here

Key Definitions

Mussar (literally, “correction” or “instruction”)

Mussar is a traditional Jewish path of spiritual development that leads to awareness, wisdom, and transformation. . . . The methods of Mussar include the study of classical and contemporary Mussar literature, and engaging in regular practices such as meditation, silence and retreat, journaling, chanting, visualizations and exercises, and doing actions on behalf of others. All are intended to penetrate the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change at the root of our nature. (https://mussarinstitute.org/what-is-mussar/)

Middot (literally, “measures”; singular: “middah”)

Qualities of soul, soul traits, virtues held in balance

Components of Mussar Study and Practice

Study of classical texts on each middah (typically in dyads or small groups)

Daily recitation of sacred phrase related to the middah of the week, each morning and throughout the day. 

Soul-Reckoning Journaling, toward the end of the day:  The idea is to briefly recall and reflect on moments during the day when you were (consciously or not) practicing the middah of the week, or when you were challenged in practicing that middah.  The point is decidedly not to judge yourself on how you did today with your middah, but to bring curious and gentle attention to how the middah has arisen for you that day. 

Personal Practice – a practical exercise meant to help you grow with the middah of the week.  Be “SMART”: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.  The idea is to build your capacity, in very small increments, as you practice the middah each day.  E.g. If the middah of the week were generosity, “give some charity each day” or “give away $100 each day,” would not be good choices, but perhaps “give $1 each morning to the unhoused person who often sits on the corner near your house of worship.”

Texts on Self-Reflective Learning and Cultivating Trust

Mussar (literally, “correction” or “instruction”)

Mussar is a traditional Jewish path of spiritual development that leads to awareness, wisdom, and transformation. . . . The methods of Mussar include the study of classical and contemporary Mussar literature, and engaging in regular practices such as meditation, silence and retreat, journaling, chanting, visualizations and exercises, and doing actions on behalf of others. All are intended to penetrate the darkness of the subconscious, to bring about change at the root of our nature. (https://mussarinstitute.org/what-is-mussar/)

Middot (literally, “measures”)

Qualities of soul, soul traits, virtues held in balancetrue natures

Introduction: Learning from Life

Ecclesiastes 7:1-2

A good name is better than fragrant oil, and the day of death than the day of birth.

It is better to go to a house of mourning that to a house of feasting; for that is the end of every human being and the living should take it to heart.

Hitlamdut:  self-reflective learning, attentive curiosity, way of life based on commitment to ongoing personal learning and growth

Mishnah Avot 4:1. Ben Zoma says: Who is wise?  One who learns from every person.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe (1914-2005), Alei Shur, vol. 1, p. 194.

One who wants to “work on oneself” must understand well the depth of this matter, and must agree and commit to the fundamental practice of hitlamdut (self-reflective learning) from now and throughout one’s life, in all one’s affairs being only a learner, until the day of death.  Even when one reaches the time of death, they do not die, but learn how to die.  This is the way of the practitioner of mussar.

Texts on Trust and Fear

  • In all your ways know/acknowledge God, and God will smooth your path. (Proverbs 3:6)
  • Though my father and mother abandon me, God will take me in. (Tehillim 27:10)
  • Trust in God at all times, O people, pour out your hearts before God; God is
    our refuge. (Tehillim 62:9)
  • Cursed is the one who trusts only in humans and makes the flesh his source of strength and turns away from God. He will be like a tree in the desert and will not see when good comes. She will inhabit the parched places of the desert, a salty, uninhabited land. Blessed is the one who trusts in God, and whose hope is in God. For she will be like a tree planted by the waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and will not see when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green; and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will it cease from yielding fruit.   (Jeremiah 7:5-8)

* * * * *

Arrogant faith, blind faith, challenges physical laws and can only be satisfied with increasingly difficult tests.  “If you really have faith, then you’ll do this.”  Opposed to such spiritual brinkmanship is a quiet, gentle trust that never calls us to pit our piety against the natural order.  Instead, we hope only to understand our place in the scheme of creation.  As Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev said, “God, I do not need to know why I suffer; I pray only to understand that it is for Your sake. 

When we are unsure or afraid, such faith is our support.  We say, I have been put here for a reason and I have the ability to do the job that Heaven has set before me.  I am guaranteed neither health nor happiness, only that I have the power within me to do what needs be done.  Only I can do this, no one else.  God has put me where God needs me.  If I am very fortunate, someday I may understand.  (Lawrence Kushner, The Book of Words, Jewish Lights, 1990, p. 99-101)

* * * * *

If you desire, human being, look at the light of God’s Presence in everything. . . .

Gaze at the wonders of creation, at their divine life—not like some dim phenomenon that is placed before your eyes from afar.
But know the reality in which you live.
Know yourself and your world.
Know the thoughts of your heart, and of all who speak and think.
Find the source of life inside you, higher than you, around you.

[Find] the beautiful ones alive in this generation in whose midst you are immersed.
The love within you: lift it up to its mighty root, to its beauty of Eden.
Send it spreading out to the entire flood of the soul of the Life of worlds,

Whose light is reduced only by incapable human expression. . . .


You have wings of the spirit, wings of powerful eagles.
Do not deny them, or they will deny you.
Seek them, and you will find them instantly.

(Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, Orot Hakodesh I, pp. 83-84)

* * * * *

In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, the word usually translated as faith, confidence, or trust is saddhaSaddha literally means “to place the heart upon.”  To have faith is to offer one’s heart or give over one’s heart. . . . With faith we move into the unknown, openly meeting whatever the next moment brings.  Faith is what gets us out of bed, gets us on an airplane to an unknown land, opens us to the possibility that our lives can be different.  Though we may repeatedly stumble, afraid to move forward in the dark, we have the strength to take that magnitude of risk because of faith.  (Sharon Salzberg, Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, (NY: Riverhead, 2002,  pp. 12-13)

* * * * *

The Avowal

By Denise Levertov

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

You’ll Never Walk Alone 

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Oscar Hammerstein II / Richard Rodgers

You’ll Never Walk Alone lyrics © Concord Music Publishing LLC

Questions for Reflection:

  • What have you been learning since the start of the pandemic?                                                  
  • What has been the interplay of trust and fear in you during this time?

* * * * *

Sample Sacred Phrases

Isaiah 12:2

Behold the God who gives me triumph! I am confident, unafraid; For God is my strength and my might, And God has been my deliverance.”

Psalms 27:10

Though my father and mother abandon me, God will gather me in.

Psalms 62:9

Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your hearts before God; God is our refuge. Selah.                  

Psalms 84:13

Happy is the person who trusts in You.

* * * * *

I am where I am supposed to be.  (Kushner, Ibid., p. 101)

* * * * *

B’yado afkid ruchi b’eit ishan v’a’ira

V’im ruchi g’viyati

Hashem li Hashem li v’lo ira.

I place my spirit in God’s care

My body too can feel God near.

When I sleep, as when I wake,

God is with me, I have no fear.

(Adon Olam, based on Psalms 31:6)

Suggested Personal Practices

1.Each day, I will spend five minutes turning away from the news and praying for my own well-being and the well-being of all those affected by the virus.

2.Each day, when I first open my calendar and feel a spike of time pressure, I will pray one of my sacred phrases for three minutes, synchronized with my breath.

3.Each day, when I feel a spike of fear in connection with the virus or a sense of overwhelm about racial injustice, I will spend three minutes reflecting on (or chanting) my sacred phrase.  

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