Wednesday, February 28, 2024 -
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Where does the gift of generosity begin?

I have never written a book review like this because I have never read a book like this. I’m not looking for the thread to tie the book together, to tell you what the book means, to sum it up.
I can’t, because each page jumps out.

Each sentence — so singly sucking me in that I can’t flee the vortex.

I suppose the book has a thread. But why should I deny you the stir of the segments?

It’s a serious book, but it has a lilt. A rhythm. Sympathetic vibrations. A way of pulling you up short and also of making you smile. So here’s what I’m going to do. Honest. I’m not making this up and did not revise all that follows and did not refine it once I finished. I just let it rip.

As follows:

I read the book, but then went back and decided to open any page at random and give you what’s on that page.

You’ll be the one to put it all together.

Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just ponder the pieces.

Let’s start with the cover of Ruchi Koval’s Soul Construction: Shape Your Character Using 8 Steps from the Timeless Jewish Practice of Mussar. Whew! What a heavy title. Very much unlike the book.

Also on the cover: the 8 steps. Acceptance. Generosity. Forgiveness. Silence. Renewal. Happiness. Speech. Favorable Judgment.

So here goes.

I’m flipping the pages and opening at random.

Page 69: “‘I actually have three children. John and the girls.’ [John is the husband.] Since their husbands are not providing the emotional bonding they seek, these women begin to view the men as simply more ‘children’ to look after, clean up after, and feed.”

What to do?

What might mussar recommend?

“ . . . these attitudes cut very deep. Men need to feel respected by their wives more than they need to be respected by anyone else, and they need to feel respected in general a lot more than they let on.

“Of course, women also need to feel respected and not diminished.

“Everyone needs validation and connection to feel whole, even if they may pretend they don’t.”


“This is exactly the gift of generosity that we human begins need from one another.”

That’s my snippet from the chapter titled “Generosity.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to read more. How can you be generous to a person who is not generous to you?

But I’m not reading more just now.

Next: Page 121.

“The reality is that as awesome as my family is, they don’t maintain the home exactly as I do. Part of the price I pay for traveling is a differently maintained home. Let’s picture that when I survey the fallout, I think all the same thoughts but don’t say them aloud.

“What if I just wait, recognize this as a ‘mussar moment,’ creating a space . . . and saying nothing. Instead I ask myself The Question: ‘Is what I’m about to say or do going to bring us closer or further apart?’ And if the answer is ‘further apart,’ maybe I can achieve something amazing: saying nothing at all.”

That’s a snippet from the chapter titled, “Silence.”

Page 26.

“Thankfully, I can now literally turn my critical eye on and off. And it no longer drives me bonkers! My critical eye is a tool and I use it for a specific purpose. When I’m working with a client, I’m able to focus and turn that eye on, but in a non-judgmental, helping, ‘bring out your best self’ kind of way. Again, I think mussar has helped in the way I deliver the message as well. And then when the session is over, I put the tool away, until it’s needed again.

“Can you imagine if a plumber walked around all day with his plunger at the ready, just in case? . . . Mussar has helped me learn how to better use that tool [of judgment] and how I can be in charge of it, not allowing it to be in charge of me.”

This, from the chapter titled “Favorable Judgment.”

Let’s take Page 150.

Ditzah [a Hebrew word, a synonym] is awe-inspiring joy that makes you want to dance.

Gilah [another Hebrew synonym] is a strong sensation that bursts forth but can dissipate quickly.

Hana’ah means to enjoy something specific, such as a fine meal or beautiful sunset.

Nachas is the satisfying contentment arising from joy, especially from our children or something we have created.

Osher is a deep sense of joy, feeling blessed in a way that satisfies our yearning for inner peace and meaning.”

There are seven more Hebrew synonyms, duly defined, on Page 150 in this, the chapter titled “Happiness.”

I promise. I did not cheat. I opened to these pages strictly at random, and based on them alone I can summarize this book, just as I could summarize it (I bet) based on any other random set of pages.

I summarize based on the very first page I opened, Page 4, when the author, Ruchi Koval, defined mussar as it was defined by Israel Salanter, who “revived and organized an ancient path toward spirituality, based on personal ethics and character development . . . refining one’s character traits as a primary path toward becoming a G-dly person.”

That’s Soul Construction. It’s the title of Ruchi Koval’s book because it captures the ancient path that Israel Salanter revived and organized.

One final word. Let me let you in on a secret. Mussar isn’t meant to be able to be summed up. Koval’s book, like just about any good mussar book, is meant to be snippeted. Look in here. Look in there. Skip around. Ponder this, ponder that. Mussar is a personal discipline, not a systematic piece of knowledge, and since my person, my life, is messy, taking in a snippet here and a snippet there, a chapter here and then skipping around the rest of the book to find just the topic I need at this moment . . . that’s how a soul is constructed.

A piece at a time, based on the piece I need to focus on now, or, based on what the unpredictable events in my life tell me I need to focus on now.

Ms. Koval.

Thank you.

Soul Construction is published by Lifecodex Publishing.

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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