Coping with Life using Mussar

            June 2012    
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google

Search our




Mussar Moments at the End of My Mother’s Life

By Bonnie G. Lindauer

Spending three to four days every week with my 89 year-old mother over nearly a three-month period affected my relationship with her, as well as gave me a deeper appreciation for hospice care and the Jewish practice of Mussar. My relationship to her became much more intimate and, as is typical of such situations, my role reversed to become more motherly. But even as she grew more dependent on me and other caregivers, I gained a deeper understanding of certain Mussar teachings as a result of our interactions.

Mussar is a Jewish ethical and spiritual practice. Alan Morinas, a contemporary writer and Mussar practitioner, explains that Mussar is “a spiritual perspective and discipline of transformative practices.” Another current writer and practitioner, Rabbi Ira Stone, offers an important additional understanding of Mussar, as he writes, “Critical to Salanter’s Mussar is the idea that service to and responsibility for other human beings is the single most important human value.”

The Mussar movement, which developed in 19th century Eastern Europe, influenced the curricula of yeshivas, primarily in Lithuania, under the leadership of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin Salanter. In addition to the Torah, Salanter and his disciplines based their Mussar work on the writings of certain sages and rabbis across three previous centuries. The word “mussar” means “correction” or “instruction” and also serves as the modern Hebrew word for “ethics.” Salanter and his disciple Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv developed an integrated method and curriculum based on readings, reflection, individual analysis of ones behavior, study partners and service. The reflective analysis of ones character traits, called “heshbon hanefesh,” accounting of the soul, is a key component of Mussar practice. It involves identifying character/personality traits that one feels need improvement. After identifying these traits, Mussar practitioners go through a process of daily focus and actions related to the trait being worked on that week. I refer interested readers to the two books and websites listed at the end of this article for more information and online learning opportunities.

Caring for a loved one at life’s end is both a challenge and a gift, especially if the loved one is living 100 miles away, as was my mother. Few are prepared for the daily ups and downs, but I feel fortunate that I had three months to accept the reality of what was happening and that my Mussar practice was strengthened by the experiences I had at her bedside. Using five Mussar traits that are part of my spiritual curriculum – patience, gratitude, loving-kindness, enthusiasm, and trust – I’ll illustrate how ones Mussar practice takes place as part of ones daily life. These expanded reflections and observations come from my Mussar journal, which is part of the daily practice.


My mother endured a fairly long recovery and recuperation after intestinal surgery. Both in the hospital and in the rehabilitation facility she demonstrated such patience and focus on the present moment. Patience is definitely a challenge for me. Several times I was growing impatient because a nurse was slow in responding, or the nutritionist didn’t follow my request for a particular food, but when I realized that my mother wasn’t ruffled I understood how trivial my feelings were in relation to the overall situation. Slowing down to the pace of hospital life and learning to appreciate each minute with her gave me a new perspective which translated into more patience. I observed my ego occupying a place on the sidelines, as the important things of each day centered on my mother. It’s amazing how much more patience is possible when the ego is not trying to run the show on a particular schedule.


My daily morning walk includes expressing gratitude for specific things I witness and think about, and the six weeks my mother was institutionalized provided me with more compelling opportunities to express gratitude. Surviving the surgery at her age was perhaps the most dramatic. Moreover, in the first two weeks after the surgery, as I noticed small positive changes, I explicitly expressed gratitude for each.

Mom thanked me nearly daily and told me how much she appreciated me. I didn't expect or need her to say these things, but she taught me that even with family and what may be considered by some as familial obligations, one still expresses gratitude for what is felt in ones heart. Even while she was in hospice care and didn't talk very often, when she did, she would tell me how glad and appreciative she was that I was with her.


Because of two infections she caught in the rehabilitation facility, she had to be readmitted to the hospital, which was a giant step backwards. About a week and a half after her readmission she was discharged with what the doctor called “failure to thrive.” She could not return to the rehab facility since she was unable to walk and was eating poorly, so the doctor suggested hospice. Just hearing the word "hospice" alarmed me, although I knew next to nothing about it. Little did I know how loving and caring hospice care is.

Fortunately, a close family friend had the room and wanted to help provide care for her in his home. From the first day to the last, nearly five weeks later, all the hospice staff and the family friend cared for her tenderly and lovingly. The hospice staff never seemed hurried or impatient. Observing their behavior I learned so much more about the calming power of loving-kindness.

In my adult relationship with my mother, I hadn’t always felt close to her, as we shared little in common. But the time I spent with her in those final weeks allowed my heart to expand from a surge of feelings. I was able to tap into and share easily with her this deeper love that I had not known was there; it flowed freely.

Enthusiasm Changed to Trust

The first week in the home setting sparked my enthusiasm, as I hoped that my cooking, fresh air and getting her to sit up every day might bring recovery. My attitude must have been contagious as my mother responded by eating a bit more. She would sit in the wheelchair for several hours, even enjoying a “walk” around the block, or spending several hours outside soaking up the sun’s warmth.

Somewhere in week three her energy and desire to keep trying lessened. She had not gained any weight and she began eating less. I overheard her at night praying to God to “take me to You.” I encouraged her to talk about her feelings, but it was difficult for her to express them. I knew she didn’t want to disappoint me, so she never admitted that she wanted to die. My enthusiasm expired with the realization that she was slowly dying, especially after she refused to eat in the last several days. Deeply saddened and feeling helpless and a failure for not being able to help her gain weight and recover, I came to realize that I had to put my trust in God. What would be, would be. At the point I was able to put my trust in God, I felt less helpless and somewhat comforted.

The Last Days

She slept deeply her last two days, curled slightly in a fetal position. I sat by her most of the day, holding her hand, giving her a foot massage, and singing and talking in her ear, hoping that she knew I was there. During her last evening, at some point I realized she wasn’t breathing. I knew she was dead but I remained next to her for another two hours, not wanting to let her go yet. As I lay there I lovingly recalled so many wonderful memories of her, of our trips together and weekends spent together just doing chores. The feeling of loss remains, but I also feel fortunate to have spent so much time at her bedside, witnessing deeper changes in my relationship to her and observing my Mussar work in practice.


Alan Morinas, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008. p.8.

Ira F. Stone, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar. New York: Aviv, 2006. p. xxii.

Mussar Institute, British Columbia. No date.

Philadelphia Mussar Institute: Mussar in the Climate of Conservative Judaism and the Teaching of Emmanuel Levinas. 2006.


from the June 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Material and Opinions in all Jewish Magazine articles are the sole responsibility of the author; the Jewish Magazine accepts no liability for material used.