Mussar for Rabbis: Order

Jul 8, 2014 by

Mussar for Rabbis: Order

Alan Morinis teaches that each נשמה (neshamah – soul) has its own “curriculum.” In other words, each of us is out of balance with respect to this or that מידה (middah – soul trait) in ways that are unique to us.

When we come to סדר (seder – order), one can be out of balance in either direction. As Morinis writes, “The soul-trait of order is all about the middle way. Too little order gives birth to chaos, while at the other end, too much order ties us up in obsessive rigidity” (“Everyday Holiness,” p. 87). Most of us have “order” on our “curriculum,” even as each person’s challenges may be so different from another’s as to be opposite.

For rabbis, these extremes can be particularly problematic.

The disorganized rabbi may be chronically late for appointments, fail to submit a signed marriage license, or even miss a life cycle ceremony commitment.

The rigid rabbi may burden others with unrealistic expectations of timeliness and precision. We could become such “yekkes” that we insist on starting a service on time, even if the bus with the family and out-of-town guests has broken down, causing distress to the very family we are ostensibly serving. Order is by definition obsessive if we are valuing precision over human beings.

Alan Morinis has also taught me that imbalance with one מידה (middah – soul trait) is often best addressed by emphasizing another. Awareness of a need to change, while essential, isn’t sufficient to bring about the improved behavior. For example, a person who is chronically disorganized may well be aware of that shortcoming. S/he may even say to him/herself: “I need to become better organized!” We often know such things about ourselves; but if change were so easy, we would simply change.

Let me offer examples of how imbalance on the מידה of סדר (the middah, soul trait, of seder, order) may be addressed by emphasis on another virtue altogether.

Perhaps the disorganized rabbi is nevertheless filled with זריזות (zerizut, enthusiasm) for a particular project. This rabbi will not make or keep a schedule for its own sake. S/he may typically be less than responsive to calls and emails. And yet, by summoning the passion s/he is devoting to the project at hand, perhaps the rabbi can summon a level of organization that doesn’t come naturally.

Are you that disorganized rabbi, whose passionately-pursued project is foundering? Perhaps you despair that you can suddenly become punctilious, even to accomplish a cherished goal. Try this method, adapted from Alan Morinis’ prescribed Mussar practice: Journal each evening about the project’s progress. Where is it succeeding, and where is it stalled? Who is questioning and criticizing you and what are their stated reasons for doing so? Even if your initial impulse is to ascribe those critiques to others’ impatience or lack of flexibility, try an experiment: Make a game out of just how timely and responsive you can be. Revel in the repentance of your erstwhile critics, and understand that their newfound partnership is a result of your סדר (seder), of your orderliness, however manufactured.

At the other end of the spectrum, the rigid rabbi may find relief in the מידה (middah, soul trait) of דן לכף זכות (dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt). The hyper-organized may become frustrated when others don’t reply with our desired alacrity, constantly complaining that our colleagues or lay partners are poor at follow-through. Unable to imagine misplacing important papers, we may deem a less organized co-worker to be grossly irresponsible. We may not even believe that the bus with the out-of-town guests is lost, but rather assume that cousin Joe or Joanne was dawdling!

Soon, we start that service ruthlessly on time or pepper our partners with harassing emails. The disorganization of others is simply intolerable!

The ultra-organized person isn’t likely simply to accept that others’ standards of סדר (seder, order) are different and equally acceptable. Instead, we may work toward another solution. We may think twice about the motive (or lack of motivation) we ascribe to the less organized person. Make דן לכף זכותך
(dan l’chaf z’chut, benefit of the doubt) a “game.” Be imaginative! Work to make a list of all the possible good explanations for what you have regarded as disorganization. Perhaps the source of your frustration is absorbed in a critical project of which you’re unaware. Maybe he is stressed at home. Perhaps her computer crashed. Maybe the bus really is lost.

I close with a personal anecdote. I’m a pretty organized guy. All the same, from time to time, my office desk has become a disastrous mess. When that has occurred, I haven’t been able to summon סדר (seder, order) itself to clean my desk. I couldn’t convince myself to make order for its own sake. When I began studying and practicing Mussar, I considered what other מידה (middah, soul trait) could help me clean that desk. I identified כבוד (kavod, honor), and came to see that I was dishonoring the people who came to see me — in my case, to see “the rabbi” — indeed, that I was dishonoring the synagogue itself with that disgracefully messy desk. And so, I cleaned it.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Barry! Just what I need at the exact right time (hmmm, more food for thought).

  2. Beth

    Barry, now I have to find a way to keep my desk organized…

  3. Steve Birch

    Good motivation to clean my desk!

  4. Love the practical mussar solutions here! Kol hakavod.

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