MUSSAR (מוסר) IS A HEBREW TERM usually translated as “ethical behavior/discipline,” or to put it more succinctly, the fine art and science of being a mensch. Its roots are almost as old as Judaism itself — according to Genesius, it’s mentioned about a dozen times in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) — but the so-called “Mussar Movement” (people gathering together to help each other become better people) first flourished in the 19th century, largely among the Orthodox Jews of Lithuania. It has undergone a renaissance of late, and several of the Mussar classics are available today. One such book is The Path of the Just (Mesillat Yesharim). Written in the 18th century by Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato (“Ramchal”), it takes the reader through a step-by-step interpretation of Mussar traits as listed in the Talmud. R’ Luzzato begins his work in typically humble style, apparently siding with Ecclesiastes that there’s “no new thing under the sun”:
The writer says: I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them, for you will find in most of my words only things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts. But to the extent that they are well known and their truths revealed to all, so is forgetfulness in relation to them extremely prevalent. It follows, then, that the benefit to be obtained from this work is not derived from a single reading; for it is possible that the reader will find that he has learned little after having read it that he did not know before. Its benefit is to be derived, rather, through review and persistent study, by which one is reminded of those things which , by nature, he is prone to forget and through which he is caused to take to heart the duty that he tends to overlook.