Now that the season has ended sadly, I believe the time has come for some words of wisdom for our “Mad Men” provocateurs. As I, like many a viewer, have voyeuristically tuned in to witness the various foibles of our favorite diabolical personas, it has not been easy to refrain from engaging in imaginary exchanges aimed at setting each of them straight. On that note, they probably each need more than just a heart-to-heart. They need some Torah! Any luck that you would consider giving at stab at this exercise with some fictitious reproof?
Far be it from me to turn down an opportunity for “Mad Men Mussar!” Especially knowing to what degree each of the series’ characters is fertile ground for some genuine character refinement. Some might ask, “Why waste a good Mussar moment on the fantasy folks from TV-land, fun as it may be?” But it is often noted that in fiction are the lies that tell the truth.
We humans love stories. Stories offer us the opportunity to carefully scrutinize the behaviors of others without risking the vulnerability of speaking openly about ourselves or those close to us. We crave the thrill of observing; it allows us to search for our own meaning and to probe our own values as we watch and explore our reactions to the shenanigans on the small screen.
The AMC series “Mad Men” just completed its fourth season. Its characters have grabbed our imagination, portraying a collection of deeply complex personalities while catapulting us back to an age that looms large in our minds: The watershed years of the ’60s. Given that, let’s give it a go, and explore a few of these efforts at middot — character trait improvements — that may even resonate for us real folks.
Here is a quick refresher: Mussar is a path of personal growth within everyday life, with meticulous attention to specific character traits — your own life curriculum — that repeatedly present themselves to you in the form of pitfalls and ongoing conflict within yourself and others. Becoming more widespread, as a result, in no small way to the popularity of Alan Morinis’ first book Everyday Holiness, and his new hands-on volume, Every Day, Holy Day. Mussar urges us to use reflection, study, coaching and journaling to realize our potential through tough inner work, as a mode for spiritual perfection. So, using the Mussar tradition, onto “Mad Men.”
Don Draper, the central protagonist, has been struggling with his identity. Don, it is time for some truth in your life. The author of the Cheshbon HaNefesh, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov, writes:
Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true. One must stand guard even against something which only hints at deception or ambiguity — including lies that are not specifically said and mistaken assumptions which one leads people to make. One must continue to exercise caution until one’s eyes are opened and one sees the beauty of truth.
Viewers have certainly noticed that you are taking some strides in this regard with your new practice of journaling and even your small acknowledgment to your children that Dick was once your nickname. With more of this next season, you may begin to feel more true to yourself and perhaps experience some respite from the pressure of your troubling internal conflict.
I confess, upon first coming across Betty, Don’s now-ex-wife, I was impressed with her demure demeanor. I was immediately a fan. That has all changed. I am disturbed by her parenting methods — or perhaps the lack thereof. Her firing of longtime housekeeper and nanny Carla and her continuous lashing out and appalling lack of compassionate connection with daughter Sally greatly concerns me. Betty, the time has come for some work on the middah of chesed, loving kindness.
Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, author of Sparks of Mussar, tells us that chesed means being careful of another’s honor and dignity, helping others, having one’s heart overflow with love and kindness, utilizing every opportunity to benefit others, even greeting others with a pleasant countenance, because it makes the other feel good and binds people together in friendship.
Peggy, the favored character of all, displays many positive character traits: Diligence, strength and responsibility. As a woman in the work force, Peggy experiences the struggles and anxiety of the birth pangs of the feminist movement. She is talented, creative and her boldness is on par with her male counterparts, but it is painful to watch this proto-feminist age with not only blatant discrimination and indignities but outright disrespect and cruel workplace abuse.
Peggy, if we could only sneak you a peek of what lies before you; you are destined to come a long way, baby. Therefore, even as you share a commiserating smoke with Joan, please keep in mind that good things come to those who wait. Channel your inner middah of patience. Alan Morinis writes that the Hebrew word for patience, savlanut, also means “tolerance.” The same root gives rise to words that means “suffer” (sevel) and “burdens” (sivlot).We learn from this that patience is not necessarily a pleasant experience. That may mean enduring and tolerating, and the experience may even mean bearing a burden. Peggy, your day will come.
Speaking of Joan, our Batsheva-esque character — carrying another man’s baby while her husband is off at war — it is time, oddly enough, to find some joy. Joan’s carrying is not limited to her being in a family way; she seems to have the world on her shoulders as well. Her misstep with Roger notwithstanding, Joan, you would do well to embrace the teaching of Rabbi Dovid Bliacher: “If trouble comes upon you and you think that it has come as a punishment for a past lapse, do not be filled with guilt and despair. Rather, rejoice in this new opportunity to rise up by the medium of the test that you now face.” Joan, you certainly have it in you!
Roger, resident bad-boy, is our last beneficiary of unsolicited “Mad Men Mussar.” Roger, grow up! A heavy dose of responsibility for you! Achrayut demands of us that we, in the words of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, should first put our house together, then our town, then the world. Roger, if you continue on the path on which you are headed, this world has no chance. If only you would consider anticipating the consequences of your actions and take responsibility for your repeated bad choices, perhaps there might be a smidgen of a chance for some redemptive moments ahead.
Could this season have contained some of our own perilous hidden demons? Many thanks, Mathew Weiner, for providing us with countless opportunities for inner growth. We’ve got a few months ahead for self-improvement till the start of season five!