A Mussar Shmooze is a talk given with the intent of reaching the heart and rousing emotion. It became an effective tool in the Mussar movement, an undertaking that educated students in a program of self-knowledge, self-growth and learning how to fulfill one’s potential. Although the Mussar movement began in the 19th century, the first Mussar Shmooze was thousands of years ago and recorded in the Torah.
Cain and Abel were brothers, sons of Adam and Eve, who brought offerings to G-d. Abel brought the best he had; Cain brought inferior produce. G-d accepted Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s.
This greatly annoyed Cain and his countenance fell. And G-d said to Cain, “why are you so annoyed and why has your countenance fallen? If you will do good (from now on and not bring cheap offerings)then you will be forgiven. But if you will not improve, then the evil inclination will be with you forever. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it” (Genesis 4:7).
This is the first recorded Mussar Shmooze. What happened next? The very next verse says,
And Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
There is an obvious question: We are told that Cain said something to his brother but we are not told what he said; what did Cain tell Abel before he killed him? Ibn Ezra (Spain,1089-1167) answers with a straightforward interpretation that fits in with the flow of the verses. He says that Cain repeated to Abel the contents of G-d’s ethical lecture (I.e., even though internal negative urges-yetzer hara-might be at your doorstep on a daily basis, you have the internal fortitude to overcome them). Basically, he told Abel what he heard from G-d, and then proceeded to kill him.
Cain heard a Mussar Shmooze from G-d Himself, yet what was the outcome? He went out and murdered his brother. The result of the first Mussar talk was the first murder. Why? Because he didn’t put it into action. As soon as Cain was told his offering was unacceptable, he should have rushed out and done something because that would have made the Mussar Shmooze real. When someone informs us of a deficiency in our character or conduct and we don’t do something about it, we have an internal spiritual imbalance because the demands are not being met. It’s dangerous to live with unpleasant self-awareness when we don’t want to take the necessary measures to improve.
The take home from this is that when someone tells us that our behavior is unacceptable, we should take it seriously and do something about it. The biggest challenge is when the remark comes from a spouse, parent, or child because they are closest to us and there is usually some truth in their words. Although we don’t want to kill the person, we can often end up killing (or at least sabotaging) the relationship.
What should one do when this happens? The best option is to fight the emotion of feeling uncomfortable with the “rebuke” we were given. Although it is a challenge to face an unpleasant emotion, experiencing this discomfort is a necessary pain for anyone who wants to get more pleasure out of life. If one is not willing to do so, s/he is resigned to live with the deficiencies or negativity that are him or her from getting inner peace.
What should one do if s/he finds it too difficult to confront criticism? Pray. One does not need to come to shul to do so, one merely needs to articulate the painful thoughts s/he is having and ask G-d to remove them. One might need therapy, the support of a good friend or take other measures understand and to validate his or her feelings, but that does not preclude seeking G-d. Why take on the entire emotional pain yourself when you can unburden yourself by a prayer that only needs to last for a few moments? What do you have to lose?
We’re not alone; most of us are surrounded by caring people who will be there for us in our time of need. In addition, we have a loving G-d Who desires our prayers. Cain knew what to do but chose to destroy (what he perceived as) the problem rather than confront it. He had an opportunity but lost it because he was not willing to confront himself or G-d. This lost prospect should serve as a lesson for us to not to be afraid to confront our inner demons; we have the good people in our lives and G-d to support us.
Life is a series of choices; choosing to have an open mind when one hearing an unpleasant truth about oneself is crucial to being happy. If one does not make this choice, s/he is doomed to a life of self-delusion. Our ability to justify our negative behavior seems limitless and is never a source of sustained happiness. How does one avoid the life trap of Cain? The first step is not being afraid of what others-even those we dislike-tell us about ourselves. When we surround ourselves with supportive people we trust, and sincerely seek help and guidance from Above, we will realize that we have the fortitude necessary to deal with the painful aspects of ourselves that we have been avoiding. “No pain no gain” is used when speaking about physical fitness but the same concept applies to spirituality and happiness. The only way to avoid becoming Cain is to be willing to deal with the pain.