Mussar: Order

Here’s my contribution for this week on the new mussar website, rivertonmussar.org, coordinated by my friends Rabbi Jason and Malkah Forbes. Mussar, is the Jewish discipline of ethical character development, and I’m contributing commentaries on the various character traits or middot, as they’re termed in Hebrew. Here’s my piece for the week just concluding, on order. (It’s a little out of order because I’ve been traveling in Israel all week.)

In my pursuit of Mussar, I find myself returning to Order more than any other middah. I can think of three reasons for this.

First, order is foundational to any discipline. Without steady, systematic practice, one never emerges from mediocrity into excellence, whether it be as a violinist practicing scales for hours daily to prepare for a great solo performance, or a runner hitting the trail every day, rain or shine, to get ready for a marathon. Likewise, spiritual development requires an ordered life.

Second, order is fragile and requires steady maintenance. Hashem’s initial charge to Adam and Eve included order: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). Subdue it, because disorder is ready to break out at all times. The earth is not created as a static, perfect order, but as a dynamic process in which order must be established and upheld. Indeed, much of Jewish life is about maintaining order within this dynamic creation, as when we set apart Shabbat from the ordinary days, or distinguish between clean and unclean foods.

Finally, order is a priority among the middot because its presence or absence will be evident. As Alan Morinis writes, External disorder may be a reflection of internal disarray (Order. Mussar program #16, © 2007 JewishPathways.com). We might be able to mislead ourselves or our friends about other traits, but disorder will be evident. Order, then, serves as a barometer of our overall progress in Mussar.

 So how do we practice order? Yeshua gives us a starting point: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). We can draw some practical lessons from this simple picture:

  1. He got up before it was even light. Disorder, like sin, is crouching at your door (Gen 4:7). To overcome it, you have to get the jump on it, to stay ahead of it, not in a frantic, obsessive way, but through consistent discipline.
  2. He went to a deserted place. Seek a time apart from the bombardment of duties, demands, and distractions, which often requires physical separation. Indeed, separation is one of the lessons of Jewish tradition; to discover and preserve the order of holiness, we have to mark it off from the ordinary. In the same way, to increase holy order within our own lives, we need to return steadily to a place marked off from the ordinary.
  3. There he prayed. We practice order so that we can meet with Hashem, and in so doing our order increases.

Yeshua maintained such order even through the crisis of his final days in Jerusalem. After his last Passover seder, “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives . . .” (Luke 22:39). We can maintain a custom of withdrawal and meeting with God through our lesser trials, and guard the order that underlies all growth in Mussar.

 (All Scripture references are from the NRSV.)  

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