The following is based on Alan Morinis (author of “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder“)’s guide to running a Mussar study group at the Mussar Institute web site. It has been modified to better address our goals by taking many elements from R’ Wolbe’s Alei Shur vol. 2.
- A prospective member should be ready to commit to attending for two months. Less, and one can not experience the role a va’ad could have in one’s avodas Hashem. Members should approach joining a va’ad prepared to invest emotionally in their own and others’ welfare beyond the dedication required for joining any chaburah, after the two months they can take one week off for going to vacation rentals houses and rest before continuing their journey.
- The size of the group is important. Experience has shown that the most productive and effective groups have 6 to 8 members, although 4 to 15 are workable.
- Since the intention is to create a community for learning and growing, it’s important for your va’ad to meet regularly. Every week or every second week (biweekly) seems to work best.
- If someone is available who is more knowledgable in mussar and in people, he ought to serve as rosh va’ad. Otherwise, the va’ad should be run more like a chaburah, the members taking turns as to who invests the most time preparing the material, and therefore who is most able to facilitate that week’s meeting.
- The rosh va’ad is also reponsibile for keeping the discussion on topic, which includes not letting it drift too far into other areas of Torah, including machshavah. The over-cerebralization of the discussion, so that the group is discussing theory and philosophy rather than something that can aid the members directly, is a constant problem that must be avoided.
- The meeting itself ought begin with 5 minutes or so contemplating a mussar vort. This can be by silently contemplating a short line from a mussar sefer or a pasuq from Tana“kh that relates to what the chaburah is learning. Alternatively, the group could open with an appropriate song. A single song, sung much longer than what has (unfortunately) become the norm.
- The va’ad addresses improvements in middos and in avodas Hashem through the acceptance of specific practical excercises called kabbalos. These address the middah progressively, by first instituting small changes that are easier to implement, and then getting to more significant improvements. It is key to focus on building what isn’t there rather than tearing down faults.
- Ve’adim will begin by following R’ Wolbe’s outline improving Hislamdus (Alei Shur, vol II pp 192; electronic copies are available on request, and an unauthorized translation available). This will give the group an idea of the format to be followed for the other middos they choose to address. Other prepared series of ve’adim would be followed as needed until the group feels comfortable finding their own kabbalos.
- A good length of time for a meeting is one or two hours in total.
The following guidelines help create a safe, productive and enjoyable session of learning. They also help the group avoid pitfalls that cause problems, or can even destroy a group.
- Build a chevrah. People will want to catch up with each other at the beginning of each meeting. Don�t bother resisting this in your planning, rather give it a firm end-time. You want to promote that camaraderie, not stifle it! Also, the members may want to have a regular get-together outside of the va’ad meeting, perhaps one “shalashudis” or melaveh malkah a month, or on Rosh Chodesh.
- Commit to Confidentiality. Everything that is said at a va�ad meeting is strictly confidential (subject to halachah, of course).
- Give Everyone Their Time. Respect the right of each person to speak, if they choose. It’s important that no member continuously dominates the conversation and that no one feel coerced to speak. These are problems that can ruin a va�ad. The rosh va’ad needs to be watchful for the fairness in the conversation. Remember that your meeting should be focused on learning and inquiry and not social chitchat.
- Don’t be excessively critical. Tochachah is an art. It must be given in a constructive manner. Giving too much, being overly harsh, putting the recipient on the defensive, or giving a critique without helping with constructive suggestions are all assur]. “Hamalbin penei chaveiro ke’ilu horgo”.
- Don’t generalize. �Kesheim shepartzufeihem shonos, kach nishmoseihem shonos�, and therefore each person has to find their own focus, insight and direction.
- Focus on the real. Give attention to what really is. Spending a lot of time on the fine points of abstract machshavah may be interesting but it isn’t likely to have much impact on bringing change into your life. What is at stake in learning mussar and putting it to practice is nothing less than the condition of your neshamah. Learn like it really matters, because it does.
- Speak from your own experience. Try to reflect on how the middah or its absence shows up in your own life. Put yourself into your thought and speech, and let others do the same. Avoid the common pitfall of focusing on larger historical or political events (e.g., the Holocaust) except as these are lived in personal terms. Such discussion seldom helps us with our own lives.
- Honor the group. Periodically, at the end of a meeting, the rosh va’ad should invite people to “check-in” to be sure that all members are satisfied with how the meetings are run and the group is progressing. Tell the truth about how you feel (gracefully, of course). If there is a problem, address it immediately. For example, if someone talks too much or ignores group guidelines by speaking lashon hara, you need to honor your group by telling the truth.