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Parshat Shmini 5768: New Age Spirituality and Reb Elya’s Mussar

by in Shmini, Reb Elya Lopian .

New Age Spirituality and Reb Elya's Mussar 
"Happiness is not about how much you have, but about how little you miss."

Mindful Observance of Mitzvot

Would you daven three times a day (assuming you are a man) if there were no chiyuv (obligation) or reward for davening? Whichmitzvot would you continue to keep consistently if they were voluntary and there was no reward for doing them nor negative consequence for not keeping them? Think about it carefully and consider asking your children too.

I recently put this question to a group of bnei Torah from various walks of life who had joined me in a "Tefillin Workshop." They answered candidly. Very few would keep anything, some would continue to keep Shabbat because it was good for family cohesiveness. This means that their shemirat hamitzvot (mitzvah observance) was inherently fear- driven. They experienced no inherent attraction to or benefit from most mitzvah observance, at least not sufficient to warrant commitment to it. This contrasts with, say, exponents of meditation who practice it religiously even though there is no chiyuv or reward. They do it for the benefits they feel. Why do so many of us fail to feel similar benefits from our davening?

I reviewed some halachic, Talmudic and kabbalistic elements of the mitzvah of Tefillin with the Workshop and then took them through a process of learning to put Tefillin on mindfully. We used some simple breathing and concentration techniques to free the mind from distraction and focus it on the mitzvah. We learnt how to feel the various contact points of the Tefillin with the body. We practiced staying with the experience of the mitzvah for a few moments before launching into the davening. I urged them to practice these techniques and let me know their experiences. For many it was life-changing and has remained so. Those young men would now put onTefillin each day even if it were not a chiyuv. Several are investing a little more time and a lot more thought in this precious mitzvah than they ever have before.
Part of the allure of Eastern and New Age philosophies is that they enhance their practitioners' Olam Hazeh (This World) experience rather than merely promise them a better Olam Habbah (World to Come). People who practice yoga and meditation feel the benefits almost immediately. Relaxing their bodies and clearing their minds, they learn how to access deeper levels of subconscious wisdom.

The practice of shemirat hamitzvot is no different. Our problem is that we are seldom as mentally disciplined about the "mindfulness dimension" of kiyum hamitzvot (performing the mitzvot) as serious followers of meditation are about their practice. It is possible to experience more profound transcendence in practicing mitzvot withKavanah (deep, mindful intention), and meditating[1] on the cheftza shel mitzvah (mitzvah object), than in secular meditation

It is possible to experience more profound transcendence in practicing mitzvot with Kavanah (deep, mindful intention), and meditating[1] on the cheftza shel mitzvah (mitzvah object), than in secular meditation.

Many of our educators, through no fault of their own, are not skilled in helping people perform mitzvot in instantly pleasing and transcendentally uplifting ways. Instruction is exclusively focused on the vital area of halachah and halachic technique. kabbalistic ideas, when they are introduced, are spiritually captivating as a philosophy, but are seldom learnt as a hands-on technology for spiritual self-mastery and ego-abolition. Many of us spend a lifetime growing in technical observance but remain crippled in our spiritual evolution, emotional fulfillment and development of character. The outcome: The Torah world is losing too many young people.

The Science of Mussar

There is a specialized area of Torah that focuses on spiritual growth and transcendence, the science of Sheleimut Ha'adam (developing human wholeness). This area is Mussar. And Reb Elya Lopian z''tzl, one of my teachers, was one of its contemporary masters. (Please visit the new Reb Elya page on iAwaken for Reb Elya’s shiurim).[2]

What is Mussar?

Mussar has many different faces, and it suffers from still being presented in the packaging of yesteryear. We have changed the way we present Gemara. Look at the Artscroll and countless other repackagings of Shas  particularly designed to help Daf Yomilearners. The siddur has been repackaged into a thoroughly user-friendly presentation. We daven in smaller, more intimate and serious minyanim, instead of the awe-inspiring structures filled with cantorial and choral music. We have learnt new ways to presentHashkafa and Halachah to the modern intelligentsia who are becoming more and more serious about their Torah study and observance. Times and tastes have changed and we have changed the presentation of our Yiddishkeit while trying not to change its essence. But we have failed to change the way we present Mussar. What should its new packaging look like?

Like many of you, I was transformed this week by some of Reb Elya's shmuessen (conversations/presentations) and am struck by how stunningly "New Age" they are! I could recast almost all of what he teaches in the language of Eckhart Tolle[3] and others, and without changing the meaning at all, you would think Reb Elya was their source rather than the Upanishads and the ancient Vedanta texts of India!

The first Shmues I listened to, titled Haolam Hazeh Lamai,[4] was onOlam Hazeh (This World) and Mussar. Reb Elya explained that all pain is a function of loss, or fear of loss. The more we crave and the more we need, the more we open ourselves to pain and loss. He talked about Chazal's comment on man's insatiable desires: "Man does not leave this world with even half of his desires satisfied; for if he has one hundred he craves to convert them into two hundred; he has two hundred and wants four and so on."[5]

Having Much vs. Being Great

Happiness, explained Reb Elya, is not about how much you have; it is about how little you miss. Not missing much is a function of how great you are, rather than of how much you have. It is a function ofbeing, not of having. The bigger the person is, the less he needs in order to feel satisfied. Great people are nourished by the richness they find in small things. Small people need big things and many of them to nourish themselves. Then they live in fear of losing those things, and they feel pain when they do. To become a greater beingrequires avodah: the daily practice of Mussar, an emotional avodahof personal and spiritual improvement. To perfect yourself, you need to work on yourself with the same diligence that you would to perfect anything else.

Mussar is an avodah and not a textual study. (Reb Elya says that one should master the classical Mussar texts, but that is standard Torah learning, and is different from the spiritual practice of Mussar). As such, it is enhanced by repetition, much as a chorus or a poetic refrain enhances a work of art. He tells of a Chazan who davenedMaariv at a wedding. When the Chazan reached Hashkiveinu and said "Vehaseir mimenu oyeiv dever vecherev vera'av,  vehaseir sattan..etc" (‘.. and remove from us the threat of the enemy, of war, and of famine, remove the Satan from us..’) everyone, including him, began to cry. Why did they cry, Reb Elya asked? Had they never before contemplated these ideas? Had they never said this prayer before? Did they not previously know what a cherev (enemy) was or the Satan? No, he explains, it was not the linear meaning of the words that moved the people to tears,  but the Chazan's voice, and the emotions he evoked with his feelings that moved people and changed them. Mussar works too by the feeling of the images it evokes: Mussar is right-brain work, not left-brain analysis. You need to work on each few lines before continuing to the next. You need to work not only to absorb them, but also to experiment with them, to try them out in practice.

I remember when he gave that shmuess in the Yeshiva. After he finished, he invited us to listen to him learning the opening chapter of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto's Mesilat Yesharim. With a voice that could shatter a window pane (and did, on more than one occasion,) he would chant the opening phrases piercingly, over, and over, and over again: "Yesod hachasidut, veshoresh ha'avodah hatemimah, sheyitbareir veyitameit eitzel ha'adam mah chovato be'olamo." (‘The foundation of piety and the root of perfect practice, requires that a person know with clarity and with truth, what his responsibility is in the world, and what his vision and his mission should be in everything he works for, his entire life.’) He would chant it many times. He would send shivers down our spines. He transformed us in front of his eyes. Then, the whole of that week, he would run hands-on workshops to mentor us in the practicalities of implementing those ideas. This was modern strategy, mission and vision. This was current "New Age" thinking: focus and visioning, meditation with use of a "mantra": in this case the Mesilat Yesharim.

Reb Elya's Mussar, however, had two palpable dimensions that "New Age" spirituality cannot have: kedusha and mitzvah - the dimensions of sanctity and satisfying the will of the G-d we . Using Reb Elya's methodology of Hitpa'alut (emotional enthusiasm), the mindful and alert Mussar practitioner experiences these dimensions of kedushah and mitzvah tangibly.

Sanctity is not the creation of Divine intent, but its fulfillment

However, even Hitpa'alut has its limits. It is designed to heighten spiritual experience and to convert knowledge into personal movement and action. The excitement we feel in those transcendental moments of connectedness with Hashem and HisTorah changes who we are and the quality of our actions. Emotional enthusiasm should never translate into a level of volunteerism that creates spiritual practices not designed and required by Hashem. Even when Torah reformation is motivated by zealand commitment, even when that reformation adds to rather than detracts from Torah, it is still reformation and as such it is forbidden. In the parsha we see the tragic outcome of two of our greatest, the sons of Ahron, expressing their hitpa'alut in an innovation not ordained by Hashem.

In spiritual practice the Torah way, kedusha and mitzvah go hand in hand: sanctity is achieved not by the creation of Divine intent but in its precise and enthusiastic fulfilment.

[1] Meditation is a technique that uses breathing and sometimes exclusive focus on an object or phrase of the practitioner’s choice, to still the clatter of the conscious mind, opening access to deeper intuitive and subconscious levels of da'at (knowledge). Meditation is a secular instrument, like therapy or psychoanalysis, with no inherent religious association, and many secular licensed therapy practitioners use it today. It helps to access the subconscious, and with practice can  even seem to penetrate to deep soul levels. However in pure Eastern and New Age philosophies, meditation does not associate with any deity. If it did, it would be Avodah Zarah(an idolatrous practice). Just as concentration is a secular tool that can be used to enhance any study including the study of Torah, so too meditation can be used to focus your mind on Torah and Tefillah. Refer to my shiurim on Nefesh Hachaim by Reb Chaim to see how Reb Chaim uses principles of meditation (which Aryeh Kaplan shows inJewish Meditation: A Practical Guide, is indigenous to our Mesorah[tradition] and always has been). He mentions different techniques, including focusing exclusive attention on the formation of the letters of the prayers. 
[3] The Power of Now.
[5] Kohelet Rabbah, also quoted in Menorat Hamaor, Introduction to Neir 1.

Latest update: October 12, 2014

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