[This is an expansion on an earlier yahrzeitz’s post.]
Today is the 25th of Shevat, the 124th yartzeit of Rabbi Yisrael Ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin of Salant. Rav Yisrael’s best-known work, his Iggeres haMussar is available on line in English (translated by R’ Zvi Miller as part of Or Yisrael) and in a bilingual edition (by R’ Menachem G. Glenn, from his book “Rabbi Israeli Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker“).
Mussar is mandatory for three reasons. First, because without developing one’s middos, one is unable to overcome as many of the challenges of following halakhah. Mussar enables better observance. Second, there are many mitzvos of the mind. The middos required in the Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os. The six perpetual mitzvos listed by the Chinukh and cited in the beginning of the Arukh haShulchan (1:14), Chayei Adam (kelal 1), and Biur Halakhah (1:1) — (1) belief in a Creator who (2) alone is in charge of the universe (3) and is unique and indivisible, to (4) love and (5) fear Him, and to (6) protect oneself from sin. Mussar is not only needed to perform the mitzvos ma’asiyos, the mitzvos of action, it is itself the subject of a number of mitzvos. Last, is the realization that man’s entire task in life it to perfect himself.
To my mind, the essence of Rav Yisrael Salanter’s innovation is to extend this notion that Mussar is the goal of life to conclude that one must therefore actively engage in self perfection. Second, that this self perfection is a rational concept, one measured in personality, reactions and decisions. Mitzvah performance without the concomitant “Duties of the Heart” are unlikely to be sufficient to reach that goal. And in fact, Rav Yisrael took the idea even further, and applied man’s duty to be holy, as the Ramban puts it “Sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” to find acts that go beyond the law to help one improve in particular areas that require work.
However, Rav Yisrael’s focus on the self and self-improvement didn’t make the Mussar Movement’s approach narcissistic. Man is to perfect himself — but perfect himself at being what? Man has three primary relationships: mitzvos between himself and other people, mitzvos between himself and the Omnipresent, and mitzvos between himself and his [own] soul. The first two categories are classical, the third was first articulated by Rav Yisrael. However, in perfecting the bridges outward to other people and to G-d, one can only work on their side, on the stanchion at their end. Mussar is about self-perfection, but that means perfection at relating beyond oneself. Which is why a characteristic of his Mussar Movement is stories of its greats, and how they saw ways to address the needs of others that the rest of us wouldn’t have even noticed.