Between the Match and the Fuse: Mussar Advice for Day School Parents

When school or student meet or exceed expectations, there is no problem, only delight. But in this real world of ours, the ideal is seldom to be found. It is much more likely that parents will experience disappointment because neither school nor child matches up to their ideal expectations. What then?

I approach this question with a perspective derived from Mussar—a little known but wise Jewish tradition that is enjoying a revival today. Mussar provides wise perspectives on life, the goals we ought to set for living, the path to reach those goals, and the pitfalls we are likely to encounter along the way. As a student and practitioner of Mussar myself, one of the things I have found most valuable is its practical tools and methods to bring about personal change. The Torah tells us that holiness is the highest aim of a human life, and Mussar steps in on the ground to guide the arrogant person in ways to become more humble, showing the tight-fisted what will unclench the hand to be generous, giving practices that will settle the impatient one, and so on, all in service of the journey toward holiness.

Mussar’s insights and lessons are as applicable to the issues we face in our lives today as many preceding generations found it to be. Though much has changed over the centuries, one thing that has remained constant is human nature. We are fortunate to have a Jewish tradition that has as its purpose to guide us on the pathways of human nature, for the sake of our own lives and for the benefit of the community.

When the school, or a teacher, or your child fulfills your expectations, there is no problem. But when someone delivers a disappointment, then you face a challenge. The Mussar teachers call those sorts of challenges nisyonot, Hebrew for “tests.” Calling these situations tests lets us in on an important perspective that might not immediately be apparent to you. When someone delivers a disappointing result to you, it is you who are being tested. The situation is difficult, and the test lies in how you respond.

How do you respond to disappointment? Most of us very quickly and easily find our way to the territory of blame. The school didn’t do its job. The teacher was unqualified. The child didn’t work hard enough. Someone has to be held to account. Indeed, any of those things may well be true but the Mussar teachers tell us that we will do ourselves, the school and our children a major service by inserting a small but crucial process between our disappointment and our response. That process is what will help us pass the test that has come our way.

Some background is necessary before explaining the technique I just alluded to. The teachers of the Mussar tradition encourage us to see our lives as journeys through time in the direction of wholeness (shlemut). The goal of life is to become as whole as one can be, and lest you think that seems like a narcissistic aim, Mussar does not hold out any hope that a person can become whole without skillful engagement with others and the community. Among the many traits of a “whole” person (adam ha-shalem) we find compassion, patience, generosity, gratitude and many other characteristics that require interaction with other people and the community.

At any given instant, none of us is truly whole, but every moment does hold out the possibility of moving yourself closer to the wholeness that is your ultimate potential. Every decision or choice you make, every reaction or response, will either propel you in the direction of becoming more whole, or leave you right where you are, or set you back to some extent.

Everyone is graced with some inner traits that are really quite strong and balanced right now. You may know yourself to be patient or generous or trusting, for example. And yet everyone has certain traits in which there is potential to grow. The patient person may also be stingy. The generous person may have a tendency to worry.

What makes a life situation into a test is being brought face to face with one of your traits that is not fully realized at this time. For a patient person, a long line at the bank is no test at all, but for an impatient person, even a short line can be a test. Someone endowed with generosity can easily handle multiple demands, while a miserly person finds every imagined request to be a difficult issue. The list of traits found in all people is very long; inevitably, we are weak in some of them, and we confront challenges to one or more of those weak traits.

Why do we call these difficult experiences “tests”? Because every experience that tries you is offering you something to learn and a way to grow that is particularly relevant to you and your inner make-up. Put another person in exactly the same situation and your difficult test will be no issue for them at all. If you get the lesson and take a positive step in your own growth, you pass the test, while the opposite is also possible. The test is not so much of you as a person as it is of your ability to stretch a particular trait in the direction of wholeness.

With that Mussar perspective explained, we can now return to the question of how to deal with disappointment when the school, teacher or student fails to meet your expectations. You surely have to respond to the situation, but what response is the best one for this circumstance? Based on the explanation above, before responding, consider this: This trying situation has come to teach you something, and even more than that, it presents you with an opportunity to grow as a person and a soul.

Instinctively, you may want to blame or even lash out, but it is unlikely that the situation has come to teach you how to be angry and defensive. More likely, embedded in the situation there is a challenge to you to exercise a trait like patience, generosity, gratitude, discernment or wisdom. By giving yourself an opportunity to identify where you could stretch yourself toward wholeness in this situation—a process my Mussar teacher calls “opening a space between the match and the fuse”—you are almost certain to come upon a way to respond that is likely to be more effective than blame, anger, etc., in terms of pursuing the very ideals that have been disappointed. At the same time, you will be growing as a person and a soul, coming closer to the wholeness that is your potential and your purpose.

A parent who can respond to a trying situation in this way will find a much more effective intervention to deal with the trying situation. At the same time, he or she will benefit spiritually by fostering personal inner growth. Perhaps most important of all, however, a parent who models for their child how to consider and respond to a difficult situation in a way that fosters the positive in themselves and others will not only have passed their test, they will have given a great gift of modeling to their child. ♦

Alan Morinis holds a PhD from Oxford University and is the author of two books on Mussar: Climbing Jacob’s Ladder and Everyday Holiness. He is also the founder and guide of The Mussar Institute ( He can be reached at

Alan Morinis
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2009