Psychology and Mussar

The story so far from the previous two entries:
Contemporary western society puts its trust in science to the extent that things outside its domain are assumed to have a lesser reality. The current stance toward morality is therefore one of uncertainty, which is paraded as the virtues of tolerance and relativism. It also means that instead of lauding free will as the ability to choose to be good, the west values it as an end in itself. There is no common moral code, since morality is perceived as only “true for” a given person, not absolutely real the way gravity is. This then translates into America’s oft-copied rights-based legal system, one in which the law’s only goal is protecting rights, rather than one based on duties to serve a higher goal.This disbelief in an absolute moral standard also shapes the self-help and psychology industries. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV is a guide to diagnosing mental illness. Its definition of illness is that which interferes with the person’s function. IOW, the goal of psychology is to help a person gain the internal freedom to be what they desire to be. Not to align those desires to some particular, more productive goal.The following is from my notes taken of R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04).

Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.

Self-help, tries to eliminate the bumps in life’s paths, eliminate the restrictions of one’s autonomy. Mussar, being about growth as a Jew, sees them as tools.

One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time. Problems in our lives wake us up to inconsistencies in that map.

Miriam Adahan’s EMETT is “Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”. Its goal is not to find the Torah’s definition of the emotional ideal. It’s to help someone with a Torah-based lifestyle find “emotional maturity”. The goal is defined by the zeitgeist, as are nearly all of her tools (despite the words “established through Torah” in the acronym). Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Twersky’s variant of the 12-Step approach is self-help, not Mussar.

I don’t see this as an inherently negative goal. The self-help movement is to my mind a positive thing. But it’s not Mussar. In both cases of the Orthodox writers I named, they believe in the Torah ideal, that there is an absolute goal to which one should be working. However, they keep it distinct from their psychological advice. (With the exception of citing traditional Jewish texts to make their points.) The approach is more that one first strives through self-help and psychology to be a fully productive being, then one applies that increased productivity to being a good and happy Jew.

Mussar is truly a synthesis — fully religion and fully psychology. It’s not psychology as a precursor to being able to live a religious life, but shaping oneself into an eved Hashem. Mussar is the approach to Judaism in which the self-improvement is a defining feature of the Judaism. Inseparable. One is improving oneself not simply in order to be able to reach the spiritual goal, but because that very goal is to constantly “shteig” (Yiddish: climb) as they’d say in Slabodko.

(Because of this relationship, it’s possible for Mussar to use self-help techniques — and still pursuing a distinctly different goal. R’ Leffin of Satanov can adapt Benjamin Franklin’s diaries to produce Cheshbon Hanefesh, and perhaps Rav Dessler’s notes on tolerance are based on a Reader’s Digest version of “How to Win Friends and Influence people” by Dale Carnegie. But they were put into drastically different use. Not merely “how to win friends” but how to embody gemillus chassidim (supporting kindness) and mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (mitzvos between a person and his peer). Even the very title, giving it a value in aiding you produce (“winning friends” “influencing people”) rather than a moral goal, speaks volumes about the difference between self-help and mussar.

Psychology is internal work. Without an anchor in an external value system, its goals tend toward the narcissistic. Mussar is entirely about living in step with the true moral terrain of creation. Therefore, while it too is internal work, it doesn’t end there. The shteiging is to improve relationships that bridge outward from you by improving the one thing in your control – yourself.

Very existentialist. The ideal is to be striving for the ideal. The constant process of becoming, rather than to statically be.

Modern Orthodoxy, Chareidism, and Mussar

Thinking about it, I don’t think the whole Torah uMadah (TuM) vs. Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE) vs. “Torah Only” distinctions which have become the borders between our communities are really compatible with Mussar. To simplify, let’s phrase the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidim as basically whether (1) chol is an opportunity whose risks must be mitigated or (2) it is a set of risks that ought to be avoided and only then we can look to see what opportunities remain of what’s left. (TIDE and TuM then differ as to what the opportunity is, what one stands to gain from chol, and therefore what kinds of chol are more significant.)Both are relatively remedial ways of addressing personal challenge. Methods usable for setting communal policy or for someone who doesn’t really know himself. However, in a community of people who strive to know themselves and judge each situation accordingly, there is no need to rely on such blanket statements.

The current TuM/TIDE sociological groups do not include a TuM/TIDE plus tiqun hamiddos (repairing one’s personality traits. Probably because they are founded on the thought of R’ YB Soloveitchik, from Brisk (“you don’t need any more Mussar than you get from the Shulchan Arukh”), and R’ SR Hirsch, respectively. Modern Orthodoxy sadly collapses into Orthodoxy-Lite for so many of those who affiliate with that community because there is no such introspection. Without that self-awareness, the dangerous gets embraced long enough for the risks to blind the victim to themselves before anyone even thinks to ask the question of mitigating them.

Alternatively, I could say to a yeshivish person that what they need is a different kind of yeshivish, one in which tiqun hamidos tools are used to know when and how to protect oneself from today’s degenerating society without missing out on its opportunities. That the currently pursued alternative, retreating into fortresses, is a position for the weak. And weakening the masses engenders the need for further retreat ad infinitum. But the resulting “yeshivish” would be something that is too new to simply fit within the current movement’s umbrella.

And in fact, both this new Modern Orthodoxy and new Yeshivish would be identical.

The solution, in my humble opinion, is orthogonal to that whole axis. (Or perhaps I’m just one of the “newly converted” who just got a shiny new hammer and sees everying as nails…)

Did you cry?

This morning (Shabbos parashas Mas’ei) we read about the borders of Israel (ch. 34:1-12). We read that the southwest corner of Israel is to be Nachal Mitzrayim, Wadi el-Arish (R’ Saadia Gaon) or the Pelusium arm of the Nile (Rashi).Regardless of what you think about the correctness of pulling out of Azza, whether you feel it’s monumental insanity or as necessary as amputating a leg, the idea of Jews losing homes in our own land must be painful.

So how did you react when you heard these words during leining (assuming you understood them, of course)? Was the contrast painful? Did you cry?

How could there have been a dry eye in shul this morning? Are we really that disconnected from our fellow Jews, or is it that we are so uninvolved in Yahadus that we aren’t moved by the ideas it passes it projects upon us?

Chazal tell us “Mishenichnas Av mim’atim besimchah — when Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Today was not only parashas Mas’ei, it was also Rosh Chodesh Av. A day when we were to reduce our simchah.

Rav Saadia Gaon identifies simchah as the kind of happiness that comes from being connected with the underlying truth. (This idea is explored at far greater length in an essay I wrote for Mesukim MiDevash.) This is why Ben Zoma says in Avos, “Who is wealthy? One who samei’ach with his lot.” Someone who understands the reason for what they have, and that Hashem has an equally valid reason for what they lack. Therefore, they feel no lack.

Aveilus is a state of “aval — but”. We can have all the reasons and explanations, but when living through tragedy they simply don’t connect. We can only stand back and ask “Why me? How could this happen to me?” “Why would Hashem destroy His Beis haMiqdash and scatter His people?” “Why the Holocaust?” The question exists to be grappled with, not explained away. As The Rav writes in his essay “Qol Dodi Dofeiq”, the Jewish question about tragedy is not “Why?” Any explanation of the holocaust would be either intellectually dishonest or emotionally vacuous. The Jew asks “How am I to respond?”

What most of us witnessed in shul today was a lack of connection between our hearts and Judaism’s ideals. How can we experience aveilus, the jarring disjoin between our beliefs and our experience, the reduction of simchah that the season calls upon us even without current events if we do not being from a position of simchah?

Did you cry? II

(This isn’t my usual style or topic for this blog. But as it approaches the deadline, sitting here on Tish’ah beAv afternoon, it would be inhuman not to feel a need to share my thoughts on the subject.)The haftorah for Devarim also must awaken thoughts of current events. “Your country is laid waste, your cities are burned by fire, your land — strangers devour it in your presence, and it is laid waste, as overturned to strangers.” (Yeshaiah 1:7)Perhaps then we should look further at the haftorah, take to heart the message the navi find the navi relays.

In pasuq 10, Hashem calls the Jewish people followers of the inhospitable and cruel people of Sodom and Amora. He then continues (11-17) by rejecting our service of Him when we ignore the basics of interpersonal mitzvos. “What purpose do your offerings have to Me? … So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My ‘Eyes’ from you. Yes, even while you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” One is reminded of the mafioso, who assauges his conscience by giving major donations to the church from his ill-gotten money.

The Jewish People experienced something unique last week. Hundreds of thousands of Jews overflowed the Kotel Plaza and much of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, the area outside the Ashpah Gate… Quite likely the largest gathering at the maqom hamiqdash since the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash. A wide variety of people, all stripes of the observant community, davening together.

And yet, is this the best we can do? Can we celebrate the unity of some small fraction of our people? I didn’t merit being anywhere near the Kotel that night. I was at the far end of an internet broadcast. But the descriptions I get from those who were consistently contain one distressing element.

Kelal Yisrael wasn’t at the kotel. It wasn’t Jews of all stripes, it was all stripes of observant Jews. One person emailed me about the rainbow of people present. But in truth, it was only Orange, maybe some “yellow” and “red”, if I can extend the rainbow metaphor. (Ironically, I mean the people who understand techeiles, not the Blues.) The majority of Kelal Yisrael thinks a prayer rally at the kotel is quaint and pointless, even in these troubled and troubling times.

We need to remember that. We’re one people. Yes, we should celebrate that the glass is “half full”. But not let ourselves get so carried away with it that we speak as though we’re unaware that it’s half empty.

Achdus: Not just a good idea, the only way out of this eimeq habakhah (valley of tears).

We aren’t at a moment of particular unity. In fact, the divide between the Blues and the Oranges (and the yellows and reds, who also showed at the Kotel) is one of the deepest splits in our history. Talk of civil war arises occasionally.

It scares me. The health of a relationship is sometimes tested by times of stress and tragedy. If a couple, G-d forbid, loses a child, it usually pushes them closer together. Surviving a struggle together; relying on each other. However, if the marriage is less healthy, it can push them apart in a cycle of blame and increasing anger. What does it say about us if that is the dynamic we’re following?

But both sides are pursuing what they believe to be noble. Both sides are concerned for the future of Israel and the Jewish people. One must be wrong, but that doesn’t make him evil. And yet, demonization and personal attacks are the tools of both sides.

Sin’as chiham — when we take a disagreement of ideas and make it personal.

I am really concerned about the focus on looking for who is guilty. I think I noticed because I am not as certain as the “theoreticians” that Sharon is an idiot or willing to sell out so many of his people for personal gain. But every single mail I’ve gotten from Israel has had some mention of which Jews are at fault for getting us to this point.

So let me clear that up, just as I did on another forum about a month ago.

It’s my fault. Mine, and every other allegedly committed Jew who didn’t settle Israel, who didn’t make retaining Gush Katif as much of a no brainer as retaining Maale Adumim. It’s that simple. I’m the bad guy; the one who isn’t living up to even his own definition of “right”. So make peace with that secularist in your office building, invite him for a Shabbos meal — and I invite the two of you to vilify me over some chulent. At least then there would be peace in the land!

Don’t take it out on Haaretz, Meretz or the rest of the Blues. They are at least trying their best to live up to their ideals and do what they think is best for their people and land. I can not say the same. Why are we demonizing each other? Why must Haaretz be a collection of dishonest reporters who only count who was there before the rally really began? Why must we assume that Ariel Sharon’s only interest is in keeping his scandals out of the paper? (Was that also Bibi’s excuse?) And why must we assume that when one of “our” r”l emotionally disturbed goes on a shooting spree, it must be some conspiracy and really “their” fault? Everything doesn’t have to get reduced to the question of which Jews one should get angry at.

People are disagreeing over ideas, and somehow it has to be turned into “they are evil”, “they are wronging us”. A discussion of davening at the Kotel has to turn into vilifying the IDF. They are wrong, not wronging. They are assimilated products of the west, not Nazis.

Can’t you see, the reason why Blue and Orange are at loggerheads is not because they’re different, but because of their similarities? Israelis are a passionate people. No one else would move there, and therefore few else will raise children there. The Blues are our misguided children who inherited our kashyus oref, our stubbornness.

Ironically, Hashem sends us a poignant and blatant “knife in the heart”. One needn’t be a prophet to hear the message of His destroying Jewish homes on the very day He let them destroy His. We haven’t learned the lessons of the 9 days — and we use his reminder as an excuse to increase the sin’as chinam?! Rachmanah litzlan, are we really that stupid? How much power do we rob from our tefillos by missing Yeshaiah’s message, by not first addressing our feelings toward our fellow Jews?

Yes, they’re wrong. And yes, we must not cater to moral relativism. Democracy isn’t a higher value than Judaism. Period. So cry for souls that are striving for aliyah, but are mislead by a map pointing in the wrong direction. They aren’t the bad guys. None of the kinos mention the Zealots burning the grain stores in an attempt to force their fellow Jews to fight a rebellion against Roman occupation. Instead, the kinos consistently focus on what we did wrong to warrant a lack of His protection.

Perhaps this is exactly why the rashei yeshiva and rabbis who supported the tefillah rally in Yerushalayim did not similarly back other rallies. Which should people be saying during the 3 weeks and 9 days: “We won’t let Sharon do this to us, he has no mandate!” Or: “We have no one on whom to rely, but our Father in heaven!”

But the name of the city was “Luz” originally

And he [Ya’aqov] called the name of that place Beis-el, but the name of the city was Luz originally.

– Bereishis 28:19

Luz, the original name for Beis-el, is apparently the name of a kind of tree, usually translated “chestnut”. It’s one of the kinds of wood from which Ya’aqov avinu made sticks for the sheep and goats to look at while drinking.

Bereishis Rabba (69:8) discusses the amazing properties of living in the city of Luz:

  • They always told the truth.
  • No one in the city died. When people got old and tired, they needed to move out for nature to take its course.
  • The city was never conquered by Sancheirev, and wasn’t destroyed by Nevuchadnetzar at the end of the first commonwealth. Even though both invaded Luz.
  • Luz is where they made the tekheiles dye.

Luz is also the name of a special bone in the body, where the skull and spine meet. Two medrashim associate the luz bone with Hadrian y”sh. Bereishis Rabba has him trying to grind a luz and failing. There’s a strong parallel to the city of Luz resisting conquest at the end of the first beis hamiqdash, since the Hadrianic persecutions are at the end of the second commonwealth. Second, Qoheles Rabba has Hadrian asking R’ Yehoshua’ ben Chananyah about techiyas hameisim, and RYbC explains that Hashem starts by softening the luz with dew.

(This connection to dew is why the praise of “morid hatal — He Who lowers dew” is in the berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei that ends “Who revives the dead”. It also explains why there is a version in which one says in the summer “morid hatul”, with a qamatz, making it the end of the sentence with “mechayei hameisim”, while in the summer they would say “umorid hageshem” is with two segol’s, connected to “mekhalkeil chaim” — rain being necessary for this life — “bechesed”…)

Luz seems particularly connected with Yaiaqov, the one who renames it. First, his service of G-d centers around emes, truth, the middah exemplified by the citizens of Luz. He uses the luz sticks. And according to the Ben Ish Chai, there is a connection to his father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s names, as well as his own names/titles.

And the mequbbalim write: There is a bone in a person’s body which receives no benefit from food, except from the se’udah revi’is on Motza’ei Shabbos. And this bone does not disintegrate in the grave. It is called variously “niscoi”, “luz”, and “besu’el”. These three names have the acronym of “lavan”, which are also the final letters of Yisrael, Yaakov and Yeshurun, and from this bone the body will be rebuilt at techiyas hameisim, and this is specifically applied to Israel only, as the pasuk says: “Ve’atem hadeveqim Bashem E-lokeikhem, chayim kulekhem hayom — and you who cleave to Hashem your G-d, you are all alive today”.

– Ben Ish Chai, yr. 2, Bereishis 27

So, given that Luz was renamed Beis-el, why does the gemara and medrash sometime refer to the city as “Luz”? (Particularly when referring to the city in the times of Sancheirev and Nevuchadnetzar, after many years of it being the Kingdom of Israel’s Beis-el.) And what exactly is the common theme here between the tree, the city, the bone and all the people?

The mishnah says “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in society is a prerequisite to Torah.” Our aggaditos and midrashim seem to converge on underscoring that point. Luz is the city of truth, it has the permanence of truth both territorially and in the lifespans of its inhabitants. And it’s truth, the personality trait about which Yaiaqov centers his service of Hashem, which determines techiyas hameisim. All of these medrashim refer to Luz, to the trait. When referring to applying the pursuit of truth to Torah study or worshipping Hashem, then we progress from Luz to Beis-el.

The stick shows the influence of environment. As does the longevity only imparted when one is actually in the city. Luz, the trait, is not a personal endeavor. (Which raises questions of emes vs. shalom, coordinating truth and peace.)

The bone luz is situated just where the mind connects to the body. It is therefore, in a very real sense, “beis keil”, G-d’s “home” in this world. Ya’aqov builds a circle of stones in which to sleep at this spot, which — as R’ Hirsch notes ad loc — is the first home of Israel. He gets a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, an externalized luz bone between mind and body.

Once one has the foundation of “Luz”, one has the proper personality and attitude to provide some solidity in time and in social context. Then one is capable of building that derekh eretz into Torah, making their soul a house of G-d.


I am not a political pundit, so I don’t have much to say about current events. But how can we not discuss this topic?The Hebrew for war is milchamah. The root of the word is /לחם/ (bread or food in general). The gemara notes this point in Sukkah 52a, when it , and just read the conjugation, we need to know whether war is the primary meaning of the root and bread/food the derived meaning, or the other way around.R’ Yosef ibn Kaspi, in Sharshos Kesef (a seifer dedicated to this kind of thing), takes the first approach. He says that the root’s primary meaning connotes opposition, and food is in opposition to that which is fed. In this, he cites Artistotle’s “On the Soul”.

Another approach is to identify lechem in contrast to matzah. I.e. symbolic of the vanity of being “puffed up”, of lacking motivation (the haste needed to make matzah), and a lack of contemplation. Thus lechem is emblematic of man’s inner battle.

A more Marxian stand would be to note that wealthy people are less likely to make war. National leadership must keep the masses impoverished if it desires to turn many of them into “suicide bombers”. It is when there is a shortage of resources that nations strive to enlarge their borders. From this angle, one would say that the allegedly religious motivation of those currently attacking Israel is actually more about being able to control more of the world by getting them to follow Shia — as they guide them to.

However, in Judaism wealth is not inherently good or evil. A life that’s about the pursuit of wealth and the control that gives you is evil. But a life of acquiring honestly and with purity and using one’s resources to better serve Hashem… “The righteous value their wealth more than their own bodies” (Chulin 91a) since it is the greater leverage for doing good than one’s biological resources.

People who spend all day merely surviving, trying to eke out enough calories to stay alive, don’t have the luxury of thinking about religion. Greater resources means more ability to do something — but whether that “something” is noble or dehumanizing is up to the owner of the resources.

For example, we fought the seven nations under Yehoshua. Yes — by getting rid of them we purified the land from evil Canaanite practices and culture. But the primary focus of the book is getting land and resources. Is the location on earth with the greatest “spiritual leverage” used for orgies in worship of Asheirah, or to promulgate Judaism’s message of a G-d Who taught us how to maximize the gifts He gives humanity?

Perhaps the synthesis of these ideas is suggested by the gemara in Sukkah (52a):

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him lechem, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For you will stoke coals over his head and Hashem will yeshaleim (pay/repay) you.” (Mishlei 25:21-22) Do not read it “yeshaleim”, but “yashilemanu lakh — will grant you peace”.

To which Rashi elaborates (proof-texts elided):

Feed him lechem: exert him in the wars of Torah….
Give him water to drink: Torah…
Will grant you peace: That your yeitzer hara be shaleim (whole and at peace) with you, and will love you, and will not drag you to sin and to be lost from the world.

Rashi understands the gemara in a manner that suggests ibn Kaspi’s idea that lechem refers to opposition and exertion. But it is also a means of feeding and satisfying the yeitzer hara and thus refers to the Torah. True shalom on the internal front is described as using the war to get the means to satisfy oneself as well as the enemy. Peace comes from a win-win resolution that unifies the parties through mutual satiation. That is shalom as in sheleimus, wholeness.

As I wrote on this blog in the past, my rebbe (halevai I were his talmid!), Rav Dovid Lifshitz, spoke about this concept of shalom often. Shalom is embodied by the words of the tefillah, “Veyei’asu kulam agudah achas la’asos retzonekha beleivav shaleim — and they will all be made into a single union to do Your will with a whole, a shaleim heart.”

To apply this idea to our cousins and neighbors in the Middle East will take a long journey.

Frum or Erlich

I highly recommend the essay “Frum or Erlich” by Dr. Yitzchok Levine. Teaser:

The American Orthodox Jewish community of today is drastically different from the community that existed in America 75 years ago. Orthodox Judaism circa 1930 was struggling to maintain its numbers due to mass defections from religious observance.

In these communities one increasingly hears such statements as, “He is so frum.” “That family is very frum; they don’t have or do this or that.” On the other hand, far too often one hears strong criticism of frum people. The source of this criticism is not limited to non-observant Jews or to non-Jews. One also hears condemnation of the so-called frum from Jews who are committed to Torah and Mitzvos. “He is supposedly so frum, and yet he does such and such.” Could it be that frumkeit is not the end all and be all of Yiddishkeit?

Years ago the highest compliment that one could give to a Jew was not that he or she is frum, but that he or she is ehrlich. The term frum is perhaps best translated as “religious.” More often than not it focuses on the external aspects of observance. It describes a person whose outward appearance and public actions apparently demonstrate a commitment to religious observance. The categorization of someone as being ehrlich, literally “honest,” implies that this person is not only committed to the externalities of religious observance, but also is concerned about how his or her religious observance impacts upon others. Frumkeit is often primarily concerned only with the mitzvos bein odom laShem (between man and G-d), whereas ehrlichkeit, while certainly concerned with bein odom laShem, also focuses on bein odom l’odom (those mitzvos that govern inter-personal relationships.)

Sadly, there are people who are frum who are not particularly ehrlich. Let me relate a personal experience that I had about a year ago. …

A Model of Ehrlichkeit, Reb Yisroel Salanter, ZT”L
The question arises, “If being frum is not the same as being ehrlich, then what does it mean to be ehrlich?” Perhaps the best way to get insight into what ehrlich behavior entails is by studying the actions of those who excelled in such behavior. …

Also of interest is his Daily RYS, a daily thought (often in the form of an anecdote) from Rav Yisrael Salanter. While touring his site, you may want to also see Prof. Yitzchok Levine’s essay “Are You Partially Responsible for the Shevach Scandal?“. I only agree with part of it, though. Here’s the part most relevant to the topics discussed in this blog:

There is another aspect of this scandal that is disturbing. How could a person who appears to be a Frum Jew do such a thing? Such actions are totally inconsistent with being an observant Jew. Yet, it happened, and it has happened before. I doubt that any of us will be surprised if it happens again.

Such an action, aside from being completely against Halacha, is totally dishonest. An honest person would never do such a thing. Therefore, it is most important that we instill honesty in our youngsters. Unfortunately, I do not see this being consciously done as part of the educational process that our children undergo.

I am convinced that every yeshiva should have an honor system. When people hear this, they often react with, “Good idea, but it will never work.” When I point out that I teach at a secular college that has had an honor system since 1908, they reply, “Well, it may work at your school, but is will not work in yeshivas.” I can only wonder why not. Is it because the culture of “dishonesty” when it comes to academics is so pervasive amongst our yeshiva students? If so, then we are in real trouble, because being dishonest in one area often spills over to being dishonest in other areas.

The slogan of the Stevens Institute of Technology Honor System is, “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” Of course, we know that there will come a time when whatever we do will be found out.

Elul is here. Rosh Hashanah is not far away!

The 25th of Shevat

[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.

What can you do about it? Buy a notebook. For many people, the first step into the world of mussar is keeping a Cheshbon haNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul. It need not be in some formal format. Simply get in the habit of taking a few minutes at the end of the day to recall the decisions, reactions and actions you made that day. It’s about your soul, your free will — so it should focus on what you did, not what happened to you. You should be the subject of the sentence, not the object. The daily exercise teaches the ability to step outside oneself and see what you’re doing. It teaches introspection and reflection. And it allows one to see where the areas for improvement lie. Rav Yisrael identifies hargashah, feeling the gap between what one is and what one could be, as the first step.

The 29th of Shevat

Today is the 80th Yahrzeit of R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkelzt”l, the Alter of Slabodka.

The Alter’s school of mussar focused on gadlus ha’adam – the greatness of man. Anavah (modesty) needs to be distinguished from having a poor self image. A person who thinks he is worthless will not try to accomplish much, since he doesn’t think there is much he is capable of accomplishing. An anav is someone who can not take credit for what he did because he is well aware of the gifts Hashem gave him, and much more he could have accomplished.

In the past, I suggested the term anvanus for poor self image, using the gemara in which Rabban Gamliel blames anvanuso shel R’ Zechariah ben Avqulus, when he refused to take a strong stand in the story of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza, for causing the fall of the second Temple. (The essay is about the Purim story, so it may make good reading for Rosh Chodesh Adar.)

The Alter of Slabodka offers this bit of advice to his students. At all times a person should keep in one of his pockets a note that reads “For me the world was created” (Sanhedrin 37a), while in the other pocket he should keep one that reads “But I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27). The Alter recommends that one have a pair of dialectical views about one’s self-worth.

The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished. I would propose that anavah is a kind of synthesis between egotism and anvanus; a keen awareness of the gap between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, unlike shefeilus which says “Who am I to try anything?”, anavah is a powerful motivator.

R’ JB Soloveitchik credits this refocusing of mussar with its absorbtion into mainstream Lithuanian Orthodoxy. That the objections Vilozhin (including his grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker) had toward mussar no longer held.

I believe that of all the schools of mussar, Slabodka may have the most to say to people of our generation. It was the only one to take real root in modernized German soil, in the form of the Seridei Eish, Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan, and Dr. Nathan Birnbaum.

And, the teacher of the greatness of man produced a remarkable number of great men. The Alter succeeded in creating a very large percentage of the Torah greats who planted the Torah in new lands after WWII, fundamentally influencing yeshivos from YU’s RIETS (R’ Yaakov Moshe Lessin) to the Mir (R’ Lazer Udel Finkel), from Chevron (which was a branch of Slabodka) to Lakewood (R’ Aharon Kotler), from Rav Kook to Ponevezh (R Yosef Kahaneman, R’ Schach). There are literally over a dozen yeshivos founded by his students.

The Alter’s shmuessin were written up in a number of journals, and were collected into Ohr haTzafun.

The project Growth and Greatness is distributing an 8 page tribute to the Alter titled “Tzohar leOr haTzafun – A Glimpse of the Hidden Light“. There is a biography, some stories, some Torah, and the eighth page is an impressive list of some of his better known students, and thus a testimonial to a master of the art of showing people how to find their own path to holiness and how to become the kind of person who can walk it.

In our own lives, this is a fine line we must walk. We must always dream high, realizing the true worth of the gifts Hashem gave us, not settle for a life of mediocrity. And yet know that these gifts come with the responsibility to use them, that we must work at honing ourselves to our full potential.

Next time you catch yourself saying “they ought to…” Stop and think. Aren’t I part of the “they”? “In a place where there is no person, strive to be a somebody!”


Here is another guest post. This time, two biographies. Hopefully be”H work will slow down to the point where I can return to writing.

Today is the 14th yahrzeit of Rav Dovid Lifshitz, a man who tried so hard to be my rebbe despite by inability to really listen to what he was telling me… (Some say he was niftar on the 10th of Tammuz, but the Ezras Torah calendar writes that it was the 9th. As Rav Dovid led Ezras Torah for decades, I am taking their version as correct.)

But the closing lines of this article are ones I can attest to. “Getting mussar” from Rav Dovid meant that he sat close to you, held your arm affectionately, and you really knew that rebbe was expressing the pain of watching someone he cared about go amiss.

By the time I had gotten to rebbe‘s shiur, he had given up on filling a shiur in YU if he were to continue in Yiddish, and so rebbe gave shiur in Modern Israeli Hebrew. At least, once rebbe sat down and replaced his hat with a Lithuanian style hoich-kapl (high yarmulka). Rav Dovid tended to walk in the door greeting us with, “ShaLOIM BUCHrim! Mah NISHmuh?” (caps used to illustrate European-style word stressing), which brought a smile to the face (at least the first few times).

Another memory I feel compelled to share were the first two questions on every final. I think Rav Dovid would have preferred something more traditional, but YU required formal written finals. Before giving out the papers, rebbe would ask us who slept eight hours the night before? If you didn’t, rebbe would send you back to the dorm — you need your sleep even during final week! The second question was who ate breakfast? And if you skipped that under the pressure of finals, rebbe handed you a few dollars and sent you to the cafeteria. One’s grade in shiur was correlated to how rebbe thought you were doing (generally an A), not the final anyway.

This last anecdote is something I since found out that Rav Dovid may have learned from his rebbe, Rav Shimon Shkop. A student arrived at Grodno, obviously tired from the long trip. Rav Shimon told him he could attend the yeshiva only if he correctly answered the two questions of his farhehr (oral test): Does he need a rest? Does he need some food?

And with that I give you two biographies of Rav Dovid Lifshitz. The first is by R’ Chaim Waxman, written And with that, I give you R’ Chaim Waxman’s intimate portrait, written for the August 30th, 2004 issue of The Commentator (the Yeshiva College newspaper). This is rebbe as painted by a talmid and later son-in-law who didn’t share my greater interest in the computer room than the beis medrash.“Reb David – Harav David Lifshitz, z”l: An Intimate Portrait”
Chaim I. Waxman
Issue date: 8/30/04

Rav Dovid at the KotelThis is anything but an objective portrait. Reb David was, after all, my rebbi and my father-in-law with whom I was very, very close. And yet, I hope that what follows is not too far from the mark and will offer some insight into the significant role he played at Yeshiva University for almost 50 years. I begin with a brief biographical sketch.

Harav David Lifshitz was born in Minsk, Russia, in 1906. In 1919, his family moved to Grodno, where he was a student of the famed Rabbi Shimon Shkop at his yeshiva, Sha’arei Torah, there. He later studied in the Mirrer Yeshiva, where he stayed until 1932 and received semikha. In 1933, he married Cipora Joselovitz, the daughter of the renowned rabbi of Suwalk (a provincial capital in northwest Poland/Russia), Rabbi Joseph Joselovitz. Upon the untimely death of his father-in-law, in 1935, Rabbi Lifshitz became chief rabbi of the city and its 27 congregations, where he developed the reputation of being a warm, involved spiritual leader, concerned with not only his own congregants but with all Jews, and until his death he served as president of Suwalki Benevolent Society in the United States.

In the autumn of 1939, when war broke out, and Jews were being rounded up by the Germans, Rav Lifshitz chose to stay with his community even though he had opportunities to leave. After the death of his infant child, however, the city’s Jews compelled him to escape. He, his wife, and surviving daughter ultimately secured a U.S. visa, traveling through the Soviet Union, to Honolulu, then to the U.S. mainland.

From 1941 to 1942, he and his family lived in New York, then moved to Chicago, where he was a rosh yeshiva at the Hebrew Theological College until 1944. During World War II, he was active in Va’ad Hatzalah, the official Jewish rescue organization.

Dr. Samuel Belkin [Ed: second president of Yeshiva] actively sought to have him join the RIETS faculty and, in 1944, he came to RIETS as a rosh yeshiva, occupying a position which his mentor, Rabbi Shimon Shkop, had filled twelve years earlier as a visiting rosh yeshiva. He taught upper-level shiurim, primarily in masekhtot Kidushin, Gitin, Ketubot, Shabat, and Hulin.

In many respects, Reb David, as he was affectionately known, helped preserve the old Eastern European yeshiva tradition at RIETS. He had a full beard, dressed in the traditional garb, spoke in Yiddish, and his shiurim consisted of detailed examinations of the gemara as well as the opinions of the major Rishonim and Ahronim on the topic discussed. He also had a distinct stature to his presence. He was always meticulously dressed and he walked in a princely manner.

He was a constant presence in the yeshiva. He lived nearby and, from the time he moved in, the beit medrash was also where he davened. He was at his regular seat in the corner alongside the Aron Kodesh every morning and evening. Indeed, he was typically among the first to arrive before Shaharit and among the last leave after Ma’ariv.

He manifested a unique combination of Lithuanian yeshiva intellect and the spirituality. In addition to his bekiut, encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud and Halakhic literature, he was a very spiritual person. This manifested itself most clearly in his highly inspiring tefilot in the beit medrash, especially during the Yamim Nora-im. His rendition of Avinu Malkenu on Yom Kippur is unforgettable for its awe. Likewise, in the way his entire body shook as he shook the Lulav and Etrog during the Succot tefilot.

He is probably best-remembered as an incredibly warm individual who was genuinely concerned with the well-being of every talmid in the yeshiva. I recall numerous occasions when he would stop students on the street and tell them that they shouldn’t go out without a jacket in the cold of the winter.

His home was always open to his students, and he concerned himself not only with their performance in his class but with every aspect of their lives. Many would consult with him about every conceivable personal question, and he genuinely shared in their all of their achievements and losses.

On the evenings of Chanuka and Purim, chagigot for students, present and past – once you were his talmid, you were always his talmid – were held in his home. The tables were filled with refreshments prepared by my mother-in-law, and the students would talk and sing together for hours. Reb David would have each student there sing a line from one of the songs he selected, and then he gave an inspiring sicha, a talk which usually lasted for close to an hour.

Though he had his own chagigot, he was always present at those held in the Beit Medrash for the entire student body of the yeshiva, and he would always lead the singing and dancing there.

Every year, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, he would have signs posted in the hall near the beit medrash announcing the annual “Hasmada Drive,” his personal campaign to encourage the talmidim in the yeshiva to learn more. His primary focus was always on sacred learning.

Throughout his years at RIETS, he also played a leadership role in communal affairs, especially in Agudat Harabanim, Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and Ezrat Torah. These activities added further to the presence of the old “yeshivishe world” and RIETS.

At the same time, Reb David was quite progressive, especially for someone with his background. When, in the 1960s, he realized that most of his students did not understand the language, he stopped giving his shiurim in Yiddish. However, in contrast to other rabbeim in RIETS, he gave them in Hebrew. Many were very surprised to learn that he was fluent in Ivrit and, to this day, many are unaware that at the age of 12, he co-authored a commentary on the Mishlei (Proverbs) and Daniel, together with his childhood friend, Avraham Rosenshtein, who later Hebraicized his name as Even-Shoshan and authored the most important Hebrew dictionary of the twentieth century.

Few are aware that Reb David was fluent in Hebrew literature and poetry, and that he was able to engage in conversation with students at TI (now IBC) on material they studied in their classes. I vividly recall one day in the summer of the early 1980s, when I drove him from Yerushalayim, that he burst out in praise of the view by reciting a poem on the subject by none other than Chaim Nachman Bialik.

After the establishment of Medinat Israel, Reb David was active in guiding the relationship of American Orthodoxy to Israel. In the early 1950s, he helped create the movement in Israel for a coalition of all religious elements, both Zionist and non-Zionist. The high esteem which he enjoyed in all religious circles enabled him to help establish the Hazit Datit (United Religious Front) which ran on a single slate for the Israeli parliamentary elections.

Eretz Israel and Medinat Israel were among his greatest loves throughout his adult life. His first visit there was in 1952 and, in later years, he spent almost every summer and more there, and he frequently began his first shiur of the academic year with reminiscences of his latest stay in Israel and with a song of love for the country.

Reb David was the unique embodiment of that very special elite type of leader who was combined or “synthesized,” if you will, the role of rosh yeshiva and the role of rav. Even as rosh yeshiva, he was known as the “the Suvalker Rav.” He never relinquished that title. Nor did he ever relinquish his dedication to the rabbinate and his total dedication in carrying out the duties of a rav.

Although Reb David encouraged students to continue learning and, ideally, to become either rabbeim in yeshivot or shul rabbis, he understood that not everyone was cut out for those positions. When he sensed that a student was not going to enter those sacred positions, he encouraged him to do well in his general studies, to go to graduate school, and to be become the best professional he could while, of course, not forsaking regular sacred learning.

Finally, he was a model of beautiful behavior in his interactions with his neighbors, Jewish and not. Anyone who saw him in his many daily walks from his house to the yeshiva could not but be impressed with his warm greeting of everyone he met along the way, in his building, on the street, and in the yeshiva buildings. His very presence and demeanor were a true kiddush HaShem and a rare model.

How fortunate were we to have known him. To know him was to love him and to be loved by him.

Chaim I. Waxman, YC ’63, is a professor of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University.

And here is a more summary, overview, biography sent by R’ Shlomo Katz in the 14 Tammuz 5767 edition of “Hamaayan / The Torah Spring”. Aside from giving an overview rather than R’ Chaim Waxman’s detail, he also includes a thought that I also recall dearly (see my entries “Yom Yerushalyim” and “War” for thoughts based on this theme) and I think R’ Katz found an appropriate quote that characterizes Rav Dovid’s thought.

R’ Lifschitz, known as the “Suvalker Rav,” was a important figure in American Jewish life for nearly five decades, as a rosh yeshiva and as president of the Ezras Torah welfare organization from 1976 until his passing. He was born in Minsk in 1906, but moved to Grodno as a child, where he later studied in Yeshivat Shaar Hatorah of R’ Shimon Shkop z”l. From there he transferred to the Mir yeshiva where he studied under R’ Eliezer Yehuda Finkel z”l and Rav Yerucham Levovitz z”l.

At age 24, R’ Lifschitz married Zipporah Chava Yoselewitz, daughter of the rabbi of Suvalk. Two years later, in 1935, R’ Lifschitz succeeded his father-in-law as rabbi of Suvalk, a title he carried for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz suffered tremendous persecution at the hands of the Gestapo before the Jews were expelled from Suvalk. One-half of Suvalk’s 6,000 Jews (including the Lifshitz family) escaped to Lithuania. In June 1941, R’ Lifschitz arrived in San Francisco on a boat that carried several other leading sages. R’ Lifschitz’s first position was in Chicago, but he soon moved to Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (the rabbinical school of what later became Yeshiva University), where he remained for the rest of his life.

R’ Lifschitz passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753 / 1993.

A small number of R’ Lifschitz’s shmuessen / ethical lectures were printed posthumously under the title Tehilah Le’David. Several of these relate to the subject of “shalom,” such as one from Yom Kippur 1974 when he said:

When we say “Shalom aleichem,” we are not merely greeting someone; we are blessing him. “Shalom” is a name of G-d, meaning “completeness.” “Shalom” / “Peace” means that the whole cosmos has achieved a state of completion through uniting to serve G-d. Whereas man was created lacking, it is his job to complete himself . . .

Israel today [one year after the Yom Kippur War] is in a state of truce. There are agreements, but is that peace? Is a cease-fire peace? Real shalom can exist only when Hashem’s awe is over all His handiwork, united to do His will (paraphrasing the Yom Kippur prayers). Shalom cannot be just the absence of war, because peace is completeness, a name of G-d.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me

.וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַבְּרָכוֹת הָאֵלֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻךָ, כִּי תִשְׁמַע בְּקוֹל ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ

And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you listen to the call of Hashem your G-d.

Devarim 28:2

This verse from parashas Ki Savo recalls a line from Tehillim that we sing often:

.אַךְ טוֹב וָחֶסֶד יִרְדְּפוּנִי כָּל-יְמֵי חַיָּי, וְשַׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-ה’ לְאֹרֶךְ יָמִים

May only goodness and loving-kindness pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the House of Hashem for the rest of eternity.

Tehillim 23:6

What does it mean when we speak of something overtaking or pursuing (or even, as the JPS  translation of Tehillim has it, the milder “follow”) us? Implied is the realization that we so often flee from the very things that are good for us. And with that awareness, we ask Hashem to allow His Good and Loving-Kindness to pursue us despite ourselves!

What is Mussar?

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 125th yahrzeit begins tonight (25 Shevat), and while searching for grist for that mill for an appropriate entry, some Avodah discussion sparked some thoughts.

Foundation Stories

There are two foundation stories about the birth of the Mussar Movement (which should not be confused with mussar as a whole).

The first is where a young Yisrael Lipkin used to follow R’ Zundel Salanter around. Rav Zundel wanted to live privately, secretly, so Rav Yisrael had to sneak around to watch the actions of this ba’al mussar. One time, he followed Rav Zundel into the woods, where Rav Zundel engaged in passionate hispa’alus (pouring out his soul “with lips aflame”). (No, this really isn’t a Breslov story…) Suddenly, Rav Zundel turned around, made eye contact, and instructed, “ישראל, לערן מוסרת, אז דו זאלסט וערען א ירא שמים — Learn mussar so that you will be one who lives in awe of [the One in] Heaven!” In Nesivos Or it writes that Rav Yisrael Salanter called the moment a “thunderbolt” that changed his life.

The second was a time on Yom Kippur when Rav Yisrael didn’t have a machzor with him. At one point he got lost, and needed to peer over the other person’s shoulder. He got shoved in response to his efforts. How dare you shterr my kavanah (harm my concentration)! At that point Rav Yisrael realized that he couldn’t keep Mussar to himself, and had to share it with the world.

Hold onto those, I’ll get back to them.

So to ask again: What is mussar?

I’m going to answer that with a set of three triads.

First Triad

There are three ways to see the relationship between tiqun hamiddos (repairing the dimensions of one’s personality traits) and halakhah. They are far from mutually exclusive.

1- The Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os describes the obligations specific to personality. They are obligations among other halakhah‘s other obligations.

2- Without tiqun hamiddos, one is incapable of making the right decisions at the actual time one is faced with a choice. It is the means by which one is capable of following halakhah to an ever greater extent. Mussar is a central component to Judaism, but logically inferior to halakhah.

While the first notion is universal, for even the gemara asserts (for example) “whomever loses their temper it is as though they worshiped idols”, this one is only nearly universal. It is not consistent with some forms of Chassidus. Chassidus is inherently experiential in nature. Breslov argues that trying to over-analyze or work at it would actually get in the way of the experience.

3- The entire purpose of halakhah is to achieve sheleimus ha’adam (completeness of the person), to finish Hashem’s creation — “let us make man in our image”. The use of plural can be taken to include both Hashem and the person himself. Perfection of the “image” of G-d which by definition must be self made — as He is. Thus, all of halakhah is an exercise in tiqun hamiddos. Halakhah is logically a consequence of Mussar.

And it is fair to assert that the two to coexist symbioticly, seeing mussar is the only way to fully follow halakhah and seeing halakhah as the critical means of achieving mussar‘s goal. Two sides of one integral whole.

This notion is far from universal — it’s the sheleimus (personal wholeness) fork in the road of Jewish philosophy. Chassidus took the other route, deveiqus (cleaving to G-d). Others have argued non-personal perfection as a goal — perfection of society, or of the Jewish community. And Brisk would argue against the entire concept of defining goals; halakhah must be understood on its own terms.

Second triad

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
– There is the real, knowing where one stands
– There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
– There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

There is an interesting contrast in book titles. When R’ Yaakov Hillel wrote a book on Jewish philosophy, he called it “Ascending Jacob’s Ladder”. When Dr Alan Morinis documented his path back to classical Judaism by studying Mussar under R’ Yechiel Perr he titled his book “Climbing Jacob’s Ladder”. (Rabbi Perr is the rosh yeshiva of Derech Ayson, Far Rockaway NY, and scion of Novhardok three different ways.) Ascending, with no mention of work, vs climbing.

To go to primary sources, note that Rav Zundel Salanter told the future Rav Yisrael Salanter “zal tzuzain a yarei Shamayim” — not to gain awareness of the significance of the One in heaven, but to become the kind of person who has such awareness. As I wrote above, Chassidus tries for deveiqus. The Mussar Movement asserted that one must try to become kind of person capable of deveiqus. There could be no other reason why deveiqus isn’t achieved. Hashem would leave no break between Him and us. The break is between us and ourselves.

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

Third Triad

Note that the story with Rav Zundel portrays mussar as the route to becoming a yarei Shamayim. The one about the man who wouldn’t share his machzor for a moment focuses on his being so enraptured in Yom Kippur’s theme of teshuvah he neglects a central part of that — his relationship to the person standing next to him. It tells of the need to refocus the masses who were increasingly looking to rite, to defend our self-definition as Reform tried to tear it away. Following along the tefillah on Yom Kippur to the exclusion of more fundamental mitzvos. And that second theme is central to how R’ Yisrael is portrayed; most of the stories told about him are about being stringent in interpersonal mitzvos over common stringencies in mitzvos between man and the Omnipresent.

Mussar is also very centrally a third theme — tiqun hamiddos. (Thus completing our last triad.) Whether it’s Mesilas Yesharim’s working up the ladder of middos up to divine inspiration or Cheshbon haNefesh’s list of middos that have more interpersonal implications. And this is true even in the “Hilkhos Dei’os” sense of Mussar, never mind the approaches in the first triad that make tiqun hamiddos even more central.

We can view the goals of the Mussar Movement as creating a “holistic Jew”, one who works on his relationship with the Creator, with other people, and with himself. And compared to where the other man in shul and his ilk stood, that means a greater stress on interpersonal and intrapersonal (bein adam lenafsho, between man and his soul, as the Gra put it) mizvos than one sees in other paths to serving the A-lmighty. And if that’s true of 19th cent Lithuania, it’s even more true of today’s society, with its providing grist for “chumrah of the month club” jokes.

That would explain why Rav Yisrael is so associated with stories stressing the interpersonal. Had the Judaism of his day been more centered on that, the stories retold about him would be about prayer, etc… E.g. the Mussar Movement promoted tefillah behispa’alus; a minyan no less passionate (and possibly no quieter) than anything found among Karliner chassidim.

Mussar Today
Using the real-ideal-path concept:

Rav Kook taught a philosophy. He therefore defines an ideal, but no way to become the kind of person who can live up to it. For that matter, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch doesn’t either. Rav Hirsch is closer to the Mussar Movement in ideal — both aim at a refined Jew. Different focuses on refinement, but it’s no coincidence both Slabodka and Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz produced well groomed, secularly informed, doers. But Rav Hirsch didn’t discuss the means to get there.

Mussar in the loose sense is encapsulated in the notion of finding and following a path from the real me to the ideal me. It requires belief that tiqun hamiddos is a prerequisite for being able to follow halakhah. (In shorthand: Embracing the first triad, real-ideal-path, and at least the second but also possibly all three positions about the role of mussar in a halachic life.)

This kind of Mussar can therefore be applied within most derakhim. One can live by Rav Hirsch’s definition of the ideal or the Tanya’s and still seek to transform oneself into the kind of person who better lives that ideal.

And it is in that sense that AishDas strives to promote mussar.

Mussar in the sense of the Mussar Movement requires embracing all three triads in full: adopting the notion that sheleimus ha’adam is the entire tachlis of the Torah, perfecting our tzelem E-lokim. And being whole can only be possible with full attention to all three relationships. Thus Rav Yisrael was lead to balancing all three of Shim’on haTzadiq’s pillars (Avos 1:2) equally: Torah’s perfection of the self, Avodas Hashem, and Gemillus Chassadim toward others.

Notice what I’m excluding. I don’t see the darkness and harshness of the early Mussar Movement, with a focus on the evils of the yeitzer hara, keeping in mind the day of one’s death, the dark candle-lit room, etc… as defining for the Mussar Movement. Rather, mussar inherently is very subject to knowing where you are. And therefore, the same era that created the stereotype fire-n-brimstone preacher called for a very “dark” mussar. It’s as unfair to judge it from where we stand as it is to judge the role of tokhachah in contemporary Sepharadic maggidim.

And thus, the Mussar Movement had to “repackage” itself repeatedly as people changed. Slabodka’s Gadlus haAdam is no less part of the Mussar Movement even if it dovetails well with contemporary Human Potential talk. (The Alter’s Yahrzeit is just four days away, on the 29th of Shevat.) And Rav Shelomo Wolbe (who is somewhat less of the movement, since it was really a casualty of Hitler) wrote in the 1970s about the need to focus on “planting and building” (to quote the title of his seifer on parenting) rather than pruning. Carrots, not sticks, are what work for today’s Jew.

What killed Mussar? Mussar never survived the end of East European Jewry’s golden era. But why not, whereas Chassidus is rebuilding itself?

Two yeshiva students noticed that of all the Slabodka graduates who built post-War yeshivos, only R’ Dovid Leibowitz (founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim) strived to build a mussar yeshiva. Not R’ Aharon Kotler, R’ Yaakov Kamenecki, Rav Hutner, Rav Kahaneman, etc, etc, etc… They actually went around the US asking these rashei yeshiva why. Rav Hutner’s answer is telling. He felt that the American student couldn’t handle the long work that real change requires. Rav Hutner therefore chose the more modest goal (in his opinion) of inspiring them with the Maharal’s thought.

It is easy to be inspired by ideals. The trick is staring at the details, the step-by-step work, and still following through. And so today’s generation of Israeli Orthodox “seekers” find a home in some “chulent” Rav Kook’s and the Tanya’s philosophy and Breslover experiences and Carlebach minyanim. They do not search for a program, a plan for getting from here to there. In the US, Carlebachian Neo-Chassidus is popular because it provides inspiring experiences without that demand of the day-to-day attention to detail and following a spiritual discipline that defies America’s love of the “quick fix”. Rav Hutner, in the founding years of the American Orthodox community of today, thought all we can do is inspire people toward the ideal and hope for the best without conscious work or a plan to get there.

Given the increasing lack of a holistic, three pillar, approach to Yahadus, demonstrating a real need for mussar, and the greater strength of the community and its educational system today providing opportunity, I believe we have a sizable population ready to work for something better. To set out and build idealists — of all the various ways we have formulated the Torah’s ideals.


So, to summarize. The Mussar Movement asserted three essential points, the full acceptance of each of the above triads:

  1. You need to consciously follow a process to reach qedushah (holiness).
  2. That process is the purpose of the Torah. Life is about the completion of the “image” of G-d within.
  3. The whole person is one who perfects his relationships with Hashem, other people, and his own soul. And thus, one can’t overlook interpersonal and intrapersonal mitzvos in the pursuit of qedushah.

The lessons of mussar have value to us today, even for those who choose to view the Torah using a different framework. But one must be willing to work for qedushah if they are to fully use their potential to obtain it.

Brisk and Mussar

This post is a continuation of my previous post on the nature of Mussar, and on an earlier post contrasting Brisker and Rav Shim’on Shkop’s derekh (as I saw Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s variant thereon).

In the earlier post I wrote:

Fundamental to Brisker philosophy is the idea that halakhah has no first principles. It can only be understood on its own terms. As R’ JB Soloveitchik describes in Halachic Man, it’s only through halakhah that man finds a balance between his religious neediness for redemption and his creative constructive self. (Ironically, a true halachic man would never explore the questions addressed by Halachic Man! R’ JB Soloveitchik’s loyalty to Brisk, while true in terms of derekh halimud, style of studying gemara, was compromised on the perspective level by his interest in philosophy.)

R’ Gil Student recently cited sources to make this point (quoted at length for those who get these posts by email rather than chasing web links):

1. R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the great-grandfather of Boston’s and YU’s R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) explains that commandments were not given based on their corresponding historical events, e.g. eating matzah on the night of the 15th of Nissan based on the Exodus. Rather matzah is a “chok” (unexplained commandment) and God arranged history to play out so as to correspond to the commandment. While history can give us hints about the commandment’s true meaning, it is never its true source. (Beis Ha-Levi Al Ha-Torah, Bo sv. de-kevar p. 9d/18) I can’t find it now but I seem to recall the Beis Ha-Levi using this to explain why Lot was eating matzah on Pesach (Rashi, Gen. 19:3) even though there was no historical reason to do so. The commandment of matzah is the reason that history followed the course to necessitate it.

2. In a similar vein, there are some commandments whose reasons seem to be to maintain the world, such as the prohibitions of murder and theft and the obligation to give charity. However, R. Chaim Soloveitchik (the son of the Beis Ha-Levi) is quoted as having said that this is not the reason for these commandments. God theoretically could have created a world in which charity was destructive and murder productive. However, God looked to the Torah and created a world that corresponds to the commandments. The reasons offered by various sages for the commandments are not true reasons because human intellect cannot fathom those reasons. Rather they are personal meanings — human benefits — that we can subjectively find in the commandments. (Haggadah Shel Pesach Mi-Beis Levi, sv. she-anu och’lim pp. 182-183)

3. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes his grandfather, R. Chaim, as rejecting all attempts to explain why God created the world (e.g. because it is the nature of the good to do good) and asserting that it was simply God’s will to do so. Those types of explanations imply that there is a lacking in God, which is impossible. Therefore, the only possible explanation is that it was His will and there is nothing further to investigate. (Halakhic Man, pp. 52-53)

These approaches greatly minimize the effort of the vast philosophical and ta’amei ha-mitzvos literature, that search for reasons for the world and the commandments. One can only find benefits of the commandments and not reasons for them (cf. R. Hershel Schachter, Mi-Peninei Ha-Rav, pp. 68-69). They also seem to argue against a concept of “natural law” that is proposed by many medieval authorities and championed by the Mussar proponents. However, an argument could be made that there is an artificial natural law that God intentionally implanted into the world.

(R’ Student then continues by contrasting the Brisker position with that of the Rambam. They eschew philosophy and invoke the limitations of human knowledge. The Rambam was perhaps our most noted philosopher. And yet the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is a key tool of the Brisker derekh.)

To these examples, let me add a recollection of mine of a shiur by R’ JB Soloveitchik in which he explains that even “lo sirtzakh — do not murder” can not be fully understood, and requires simple obedience to Hashem’s command. After all, is there any objective way to define life? Does murder include abortion? Euthenasia? “Pulling the plug”? Refraining to put it back in when the plug is pulled for regular maintenance? Heart death? Brain death? What about a milkhemes reshus, when the king makes war for the sake of expanding territory?

Similarly, RJBS tells a story of his father. When Rav Moshe Soloveitchik was a rav in Washington Heights, the shofar blower was a Lubavitcher chassid. The shofar blower was preparing for his duty one Rosh haShanah, in a state of heightened emotion, in tears because of the awesome job ahead. Rav Moshe’s attitude: Do you cry before eating matzah at the seider? This is a mitzvah and that’s a mitzvah. No different. (RJBS then continued by citing the Rambam to prove that shofar is a kind of prayer, and thus requires attention to its message that isn’t necessary with most other mitzvos.)

Even RJBS, who I claim (as quoted above) defied the notion of Halachic Man by being concerned to formulate the notion itself, limits his exploration of the meaning of mitzvos to post-facto lessons to be drawn from the experience of the act. Rav Herschel Schachter isn’t quoted as using this term, but RJBS used to call these explorations “halachic hermeneutics”, which illustrates his belief that they weren’t fundamental understandings of the mitzvos.

My conclusion (although not uniquely my idea) in the post on contrasting styles of limmud:

In short, Brisk asks “Vus?” (What?), Telzh asks “Fahr vus?” (Why?) Anyone who has been following this blog should be unsurprised by which one I felt spoke to me.

Brisk doesn’t simply refrain from asking “fahr vus?”, they stress the extent to which it’s unanswerable.

In my previous entry to this one, I gave the following as one defining element of Mussar:

A rebbe-chaveir of mine, R’ Dr Ephraim Becker, describes mussar (in the third sense of the previous triad) as a three part thing:
– There is the real, knowing where one stands
– There is the ideal, knowing where the Creator wants us to be
– There is the process of getting from the real to the ideal

And I wrote:

It is this notion of process, of climbing — literally “shteigin” — that is of value within nearly all derakhim, all paths, all approaches to the Torah. And thus lower case “m”, not specifically the Mussar Movement. The different derakhim define the ideal by stressing different aspects of it. Which will in turn suggests different paths, thus the name “derakhim“. But using tools to become the kind of person who can follow that path, to consciously pursue that derekh’s perspective on the end-goal, makes sense according to any derekh.

I wrote “of value within nearly all derakhim” because I thought of two possible exceptions: Breslov and related forms of Chassidus are so experientially oriented, that they refrain from overanalyzing things. By plotting a path one interferes with the natural emotional experience of having a relationship with the A-lmighty. The second exception was Brisk.

As we just saw, Brisk has as a fundamental assumption that one can not know the ideal. Therefore they can not define the process in terms of that ideal either. A Brisker doesn’t look to go beyond the letter of halakhah for aggadic reasons, neither in finding supportive exercises (Mussar practices or Chassidic hanhagos) nor in his choice of stringencies. A Brisker Chumrah (stringency) is a term used for trying to cover all the bases, all the opinions in the textual halachic process.

There is therefore little utility in Brisker thought for consciously planning a process. If you focus on how much we can not understand of the motivation of mitzvos rather than how much we can, you’re planning a trip without knowing where you’re going! To a Brisker, the process begins and ends with submission to halakhah. It is guaranteed to achieve the unknowable goal.

This was the mindset in Volozhin when R’ Yitzchaq Blaser (“Rav Itzeler Petersburger”, a student of Rav Yisrael Salanter and compiler of Rav Yisrael’s letters into Or Yisrael) visited. The students literally carried him out of the beis medrash. “A page gemara is the best Mussar seifer.” A position to which he would agree, actually, despite looking in that page for Mussar lessons rather than assuming its goals would mystically emerge from a straight focus on halakhah.

This is quite different than the position of earlier rashei yeshiva of Volozhin, such as its founder, R’ Chaim Volozhiner, whose seifer Nefesh haChaim is entirely about the function of mitzvos. It is also in distinction to R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s rebbe, the Gra, who not only writes about the reasons for mitzvos, he also taught that observance was a tool for reaching the goal, not a guarantee. In Even Sheleimah ch. 2, the Gra explains the use of water as a metaphor for Torah. Learning Torah is like watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds.

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan’s metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one’s observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita’s role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives.

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore — it’s a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei chakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. And even among the masses, an entire “under the table” economy designed to violate “dina demalkhusa dina” (the law of the land is the law), which undebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc… we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I’m not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn’t try to explain the tree’s relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we’re to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being idealists.

A Tzadiq Will Flower Like a Date-Palm

I had this thought while saying Qabbalas Shabbos this week. It’s a “Chassidishe Vort” in style, intentionally stretching the meaning of a quote in order to create a mnemonic for an important point — but with a mussar message.

צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח, כְּאֶ֖רֶז בַּלְּבָנ֣וֹן יִשְׂגֶּֽה׃

A righteous person will flower like a date-palm,
Will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

-Tehillim 92:13

So, as I’m saying these words, my mind was wandering through the parashah. (Not advising this. As Tamar’s descendent wrote “for everything there is a proper time…” [Qoheles 3:1) And it hit me…

What is it we laud about Tamar’s actions? She forced Yehudah’s hand to do the right thing, and then even though he had to be tricked into fulfilling his duty, Tamar was still willing to absorb a lot of personal risk rather than shame him.

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּמִשְׁלֹ֣שׁ חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַיֻּגַּ֨ד לִֽיהוּדָ֤ה לֵאמֹר֙ זָֽנְתָה֙ תָּמָ֣ר כַּלָּתֶ֔ךָ וְגַ֛ם הִנֵּ֥ה הָרָ֖ה לִזְנוּנִ֑ים וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוּדָ֔ה הֽוֹצִיא֖וּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵֽף׃ הִ֣וא מוּצֵ֗את וְהִ֨יא שָֽׁלְחָ֤ה אֶל־חָמִ֨יהָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְאִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֵ֣לֶּה לּ֔וֹ אָֽנֹכִ֖י הָרָ֑ה וַתֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַכֶּר־נָ֔א לְמִ֞י הַחֹתֶ֧מֶת וְהַפְּתִילִ֛ים וְהַמַּטֶּ֖ה הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ וַיַּכֵּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן לֹֽא־נְתַתִּ֖יהָ לְשֵׁלָ֣ה בְנִ֑י וְלֹֽא־יָסַ֥ף ע֖וֹד לְדַעְתָּֽהּ׃

And it was at about three months, and it was told to Yehudah saying, “Tamar your daughter-in-law had promiscuous sex! And also, she is pregnant from this promiscuity!” Yehudah said, “Bring her here, and she shall burn.”

She is brought out, and she sent message to her father-in-law saying, “To the man who these belong I have gotten pregenant.” And she said, “Please recognize, to whom are these signet ring, the cords, and the staff?”

Yehudah recognized, and said, “She is more righteous than I. For as much as I did not give her to my son Sheilah.” And he wasn’t again intimate with her.

– Bereishis 38:24-26

There are many stories told of Rav Yisrael Salanter that share a common theme. For example:

One of his disciples had invited him for Friday night dinner. R. Israel had stipulated that he would not dine anywhere till he had satisfied himself that the kashrut was above reproach. The disciple informed R. Israel that in his home all the Halachos were observed with utmost stringency. He bought his meat from a butcher known for his piety. It was truly “glatt” – free of any Halachic query or lung adhesion (sirchah). His cook was an honest woman, the widow of a Talmid Chacham, daughter of a good family, while his own wife would enter the kitchen periodically to supervise. His Friday night meal was conducted in the grand style. There would be Torah discussion after each course, so there was no possibility of their meal being “as if they had partaken of offerings to idols.” They would study Shulchan Aruch regularly, sing Zemiros and remain seated at the table till well into the night.

Having listened to this elaborate account of the procedures, R. Israel consented to accept the invitation, but stipulated that the time of the meal be curtailed by two full hours. Having no alternative, the disciple agreed. At the meal, one course followed another without interruption. In less than an hour, the mayim acharonim had been passed around in preparation for the Grace after Meals.

Before proceeding with the Grace, the host turned to R. Israel and asked: “Teach me, rabbi. What defect did you notice in my table?”

R. Israel did not answer the question. Instead he asked that the widow responsible for the cooking come to the room. He said to her: “Please for give me, for having inconvenienced you this evening. You were forced to serve one course after another – not as you are used to do.” “Bless you, rabbi,” the woman answered. “Would that you would be a guest here every Friday evening. My master is used to sit at the table till late at night. I am worn out from working all day. My legs can hardly hold me up, so tired do I become. Thanks to you, rabbi, they hurried this evening, and I am already free to go home and rest.” R. Israel turned to his disciple. “The poor widow’s remark is the answer to your question. Indeed your behavior is excellent, but only as long as it does not adversely affect others.”

– From “Tenu’as haMussar”, by R’ Dov Katz, as translated in “The Mussar Movement” by R’ Zalman Ury

Another, from the same source:

Or consider this true story. Once, in Salanty, he could not be present to supervise the baking of his matza shemura (observance matza). His disciples who undertook the supervision asked him what they were to guard against. He replied that he asked of them only one thing: that in their zealousness they were not to scold the woman kneading the dough for being slow: “Bear in mind,” he said, “she is a widow and one ought not to grieve a widow.”

A true tzadiq flowers like Tamar, only at her own expense. Never assuming “piety” to the determinent of others.

“A Greater Obligation”

Just sharing a couple of posts from the blog “A Simple Jew“.

A Greater Obligation

Footnote in the Artscroll Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

See Mishnah Berura 1:12 and Shaar HaTziyun 26 who cites Chayei Adam which states that studying sifrei mussar is a greater obligation than that of studying Mishnayos.

He follows up by posting a comment by Rabbi Micha Golshevsky on that first post:

Chazal teach that study is of great value since it leads to action. Clearly, one should learn not only to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study but also with a view to changing his actions. It is for this reason that many authorities state that the first thing one must work on mastering are the halachos of Orach Chaim. Without these halachos one could be the greatest lamdan but have no idea how to really apply his learning.

Interrupting with a brief side-note: I would have said the parts of Choshein Mishpat that deal with the interpersonal laws applicable outside of court should come before Orach Chaim or at least alongside it. After all “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in this world comes before Torah”. Back to the point:

The Chayei Adam, z”l, even writes that it is better to learn the halachos of Shabbos on Shabbos than Mishnayos. To illustrate why, he recounts a revealing story. It is first important to realize that although he served as the Av Beis Din of Vilna, the Chayei Adam was a businessman who never took any money for deciding halachic queries, just as his father before him. As a businessman, he traveled frequently. One Shabbos, he stayed in the same inn as a person whose practice for many years was to learn a chapter of Mishnayos every day.

Understandably, the Chayei Adam was appalled when he noticed this “expert” in Mishnayos weaving on Shabbos! He immediately cried, “Is it not Shabbos today?”

The man was puzzled. “But what possible melachah can this be?”

“How can you be so unaware? Are you not familiar with the mishnah which lists ‘hatoveh‘ as one of the melachos?”

“But I thought that was only if someone does so on a loom like we do at home…”

The Chayei Adam was astounded. “But having learned the mishnah, why would you assume that seeing that it simply says ‘he who weaves’ implies that weaving is only a melachah with a loom?”

“Do you think when I learn I am trying to apply my learning to my actions? I only focus on fulfilling the mitzvah of learning Torah,” the man protested.

The Chayei Adam responded, “Now I understand the words of our sages: ‘One who says I only have Torah does not even have Torah.’ If one does not learn to apply his knowledge, what earthly difference is there whether he learned or not?”

Much like halacha, mussar is the practical application of Torah into action since it is impossible in our day to have a properly balanced relationship with Hashem or one’s fellow man without a genuine path in mussar or Chassidus.

R’ Golishensky’s remarks reminded me of the following story from my childhood.

One Friday night, my father and I decided to review the gemara I was learning. After a very short search, my father remembered that he had lent that volume to the boy next door. The next-door neighbors on one side of the home I grew up in are staunch members of the local Conservative synagogue. The wife taught secular studies at the local Orthodox yeshiva day school, and they sent their two boys there.

So, I went next door. The older brother, “Steve” was home, but “Dave”, the brother who had borrowed the gemara wasn’t. However, this was the 70s, and they had CB radios, and he was whiling away his newly started weekend talking on one. So, Steve went back to his CB, and asked his brother, “Hey, Dave, do you remember where you put the Meseches Shabbos?”

While his behavior in this story may seem absurd, Steve was being consistent with his upbringing. The problem is: What’s my excuse?

Speaking Yiddish

In the US today, when someone needs to pay for a ride to get somewhere, someone in the house may wait by the window to see when it arrives. And then they’ll call out “Time to go, the taxi’s here!”

In pre-war Eastern Europe, they would have called out “Der balagalah iz du — The wagon driver is here.”

And in that, lies all the difference.

זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור

This is the entire Torah, and the rest is explanation. Go learn!

– Hillel (to prospective convert), Shabbos 31a

R’ Moshe Feinstein: Blessing the sun – and a child

The following was outright copied from Da’as Torah, a blog maintained by R’ Daniel Eidensohn (who, among other things, is the compiler of Yad Moshe, the index to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s responsa, “Igros Moshe”). It was just too beautiful not to repeat:

Every 28 years there is a special blessing made on the sun. It is in commemoration of the sun returning to the position it was in when the world was created. On one of those special occasions a large crowd gathered in front of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s apartment building on the Lower East Side of New York. It was just before sunrise and they had come to say the blessing with him.

However shortly before the designated time for saying the blessing, a father brought his young son to Rav Moshe’s apartment to receive a beracha from the great sage. Time was short but he just wanted to take advantage of this opportunity. Rav Moshe greeted them warmly and then seemed agitated about something. “I am sure your son – like other children – would like to have a candy but I can’t remember where my wife put it.”

He started opening and closing the kitchen cabinets trying to locate the candy. The crowd was getting impatient and yet Rav Moshe kept looking. Rav Moshe was focused on one thing – the happiness of that child. However being short in physical stature he couldn’t reach the upper cabinets. So he climbed up on the kitchen counter to reach them and he continued systematically searching. Finally he found it and climbed down from the counter.

He quickly gave the child the candy – and a beracha – and then hurried downstairs. The opportunity to bless the sun – while important – could wait a little while. The greater importance was making sure that the child had a pleasant and memorable experience meeting a genuine talmid chachom.

Finding Spirituality

R’ Rich Wolpoe shared with us on Avodah this challenge:

My friend’s thesis is that Judaism w/o Qabbalah or Hassidus is mechanical and lifeless.

And so he challenged me as follows: To List aspects of Jewish Spirituality that were devoid of Qaballah or Hassidus.

I came up with my own list.

Any other takers out there?

Caveat: Remember that a Sefer like Mesillas Yesharim was written by Ramchal – and so my friend woud claim that it ostensibly has Qabbalistic overtones

One interesting outcome was that it led R’ Simon Montagu to quote the following from he end of Alei Shur Vol 1
Ch. 3 (p.30), explaining why Mesilas Yesharim may not qualify.

Admor Ma’or `Eineinu Maran R. Yerucham zt”l used to say that MY [Mesilas Yesharim] is a summing-up [or “the essence”] of all RMHL’ z”l’s books on Kabbala, and I heard the same from Mori veRabbi Hagaon R. Yitzchak Hutner zt”l. That is to say, it is totally based on Hochmat Ha’Emet — and when we learned it we didn’t realize! This is indeed preparation for the internals[1] of the Tora: by learning this marvelous book early and often, without drudgery or routine, we will gradually become accustomed to finding the internal in his words — and in ourselves. Anyone who hasn’t accustomed himself to this kind of learning, and then comes to books of Kabbala in which the internal is not concealed from view, will turn the internal knowledge into external. The gateway to the truly internal [penimiut ha’emet] is MY.

[1] My apologies: “internals” is a terrible English translation of “penimiut”, maybe one that only a programmer who is used to hearing it as programming jargon would have come up with.

As I see it,  there are a number of definitions: What is spirituality, what does it mean to “find” it, and what is or isn’t included in qabbalah.

I’m not really going to touch on the last question, since it’s big enough for its own post or series of posts. However, I wish to note that if we take the Alei Shur’s point too far, nothing since the Ari, barring some Yemenite works, is entirely untouched by qabbalah. To my own mind the more interesting question is whether it’s based in qabbalah, or doesn’t involve thinking ever-more in those terms.


I was saying there are many sefarim that define and discuss spirituality, but few that tell you how to find it. I see the challenge as not just identifying any hashkafah book, or opening Mishlei or Tehillim, but locating one that actually tells you how to get from the real to the ideal.

Whether Chovos haLvavos has enough how-to orientation to qualify is a second discussion, and more one of personal taste in shiurim (how much help would qualify as “finding”) — so I don’t think it would be a very interesting discussion.


Here are some hand-selected formal definitions of the English that I wish to draw from:

Wikipdeia on “spirituality”:

Spirituality is matters of the spirit, a concept often but not necessarily tied to to a spirit world, a multidimensional reality and one or more deities. Spiritual matters regard humankind’s ultimate nature and purpose, not as material biological organisms, but as spirits or energy with an eternal relationship beyond the bodily senses, time and the material world.

American Heritage:
1. Of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. See synonyms at immaterial.
2. Of, concerned with, or affecting the soul.
3. Of, from, or relating to God; deific.

Merriam Webster:
3: sensitivity or attachment to religious values
4: the quality or state of being spiritual

I present those in order to justify my definition as not being far from the way the word “spirituality” is general used. Here’s what I think it means in a Jewish context:

An orientation where one is focused on man’s higher calling, the one Hashem made us for.

As I see it, this is the point of contemplating the day of death. Remembering what’s really important and focusing on it. In today’s milieu, where people can’t handle the stick, only the carrot, here’s a usable variant, suggested by Stephen Covey (“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Ch. 2 “Keeping the End in Mind”):

Picture your own funeral. Who attends? Who is sitting with whom? Who cares enough to help out? What do members of the family say to each other? Your friends?

Picture four hespeidim. The first one: Who is giving it? What are they saying? What do you want them to be saying? My own addition to Covey’s basic notion: What do you think Hashem wants them to be saying? And now the 2nd, the third, and the fourth…

Take time to really visualize this. Take notes for later reference. Really picture out the entire scene so that it becomes emotionally etched into your heart.

Your results spell out your ultimate goal; to the best of your understanding, what Hashem yisbarach wants out of your life. Know it. Keep it in mind. It may be easy to subdivide into short-term goals, it may be difficult.  (Like in business management theory, where everything is supposed to be able to be tied back to the mission statement.) Particularly, when making a decision, keep those goals and the steps to get to them in mind. Even if it’s just deciding whether to have a salad or “comfort food” for lunch, see how the pros and cons tie back to that ultimate question.

That, to me, is spirituality. Particularly since it’s the neshamah which is aware of our higher calling, which provides the counterbalance to our taavos when making a decision.

I think that R’ Shimon Shkop would call it “qedushah”. To quote my translation of his haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher:
So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” — that we, the select of what He made — should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose — which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on

him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.

In this way, the concept of separation is an aspect of the underlying basis of the mitzvah of holiness, which is recognizable in practice in the ways a person acts. But with insight and the calling of spirituality this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. In relation to this, this holiness is comparable to the Holiness of the Creator in whatever little similarity. Just as the Act of the Holy One in all of creation, and in each and every moment that He continues to cause the universe to exist, all His actions are sanctified to the good of others, so too it is His Will that our actions be constantly sanctified to the good of the community, and not personal benefit.

So, it seems to me that spirituality is qedushah, to stay separated for the purpose of the spiritual goal, the soul’s calling, the Image of G-d, what Hashem made us to be.

Notice there is nothing mystical in that. It could be mussar, it could be R’ Hirch’s Horeb. The Seifer haYetzirah, not so much — even if I had any hope of understanding what it’s getting at, it would tell me more about what the ideal is, but not how to find it.

An Esrog For Your Wife?

Lifted from

An Esrog For Your Wife?

Rav Shalom Eisen, z’tl was a dayan and moreh tzedek in Yerushalayim more than fifty years ago.  He was also known as an expert in the kashrus and hiddurim of esrogim and lulavim.  As each Succos approached, hundreds of people would appear at his house to show him the arba minim which they purchased.

One year, an avreich approached him with a beautiful esrog, mehudar in all its aspects, to receive R’ Eisen’s approval.  R’ Eisen examined it and then shook his head and said, “This esrog is not for you.”  The avreich was astounded.  He had delved into the halachos of the arba minim, and had spent a considerable amount of time purchasing such a mehudar esrog.  Why was Rav Eisen telling him that this esrog was not for him?

He asked Rav Eisen, “Is there an halachic problem with this esrog?

Instead of answering him, Rav Shalom asked him a question, “What do you do?”

The avreich answered, “I learn in a kollel here in Yerushalayim.”

“How much do you get paid?”

The avreich answered him, and told him the exact amount of money he received from his kollel.

“And how much are they asking for this esrog?” inquired Rav Shalom.

The avreich answered that they were asking a considerable amount of money.

Rav Eisen said, “This is what I thought from the beginning. You are right; the esrog itself is mehudar.  But if you listen to me, I would advise you to purchase a cheaper esrog, and with the remaining money, purchase something for your wife likvod Yom Tov.  This is true kavod Yom Tov.”    (Chayim Sheyash Bahem)

Watering our Weeds

The following post (originally written Feb 2009) was greatly expanded into “Watering our Weeds” (MS Word, PDF), an essay in Daas Torah: Child and Domestic Abuse vol. I (pp. 220-233), a book by R’ Dr Daniel Eidensohn with the assistance of Dr Baruch Shulem.

In the full version, I

  • further develop the argument that the evidence of our community’s state is not consistent with the Torah’s self-description;
  • add to the point made by the Gra by comparison to a similar position held by his talmid, R’ Chaim Volozhiner;
  • draw out how our observance falls short of their descriptions of following the Torah; and
  • outline the beginnings of a plan to close that gap.

The perspective of that paper, like this blog entry, is primarily to motivate people to join this great work. The work which not coincidentally is what AishDas is all about.

However in the printed essay I also touch on the spiritual crisis caused by people hurt by an abusive authority figure, or even just disillusioned by reading of some sexual or financial scandal by someone who we thought represented Torah and Jewish Tradition:

This critical issue does not merely invoke pragmatic questions; it harbors the potential to cause a crisis of faith – for the victims certainly and for the rest of us. If we alone follow the Truth, why is it not self-evident in the ethics of our community? Can we be surprised that it leads many victims r”l of the improper behavior to conclude the Torah does not hold the truth? Or that we have “kids at risk” who perceive the gap between expectations and results as evidence of hypocrisy? The Torah describes an appealing ethical community that people would be inspired to join, not something we would have to promote and sell. And yet, despite all our efforts at kiruv, the intermarriage rate in the Diaspora is sixty times the rate of baalei teshuvah choosing to join Orthodoxy

Again, see the published version here. And now, the original, left just to preserve the pieces I didn’t think were fit to print, and to tempt you to read the full version…

In an online discussion, someone lamented the fact that National Public Radio ran a long story about sexual abuse among Chasidim (or perhaps “Ultra-Orthodox” in general; the reporter was inconsistent). He wrote that NPR’s story seemed to imply that abuse was perhaps more common among the Chassidim of Williamsburg than elsewhere.

I’m not sure if that’s true or not. Remember that with so many children, a smaller percentage would still lead to more cases. My bet is that it isn’t, and simply the existence of the study and exploring the topic make it look that way. However, just the fact that it’s not self-evident that our communities are far less plagued by these blights — from this issue to fiscal impropriety to violent crime — is itself very significant.

As I always chime in on such discussions, Torah produces noble baalei sheleimim. And mitokh shelo lishmah, ba lishmah. If our abuse and other crime statistics aren’t clearly superior to those the rest of the country’s (especially after correcting for other socio-ecomic factors) it would be experimental evidence that what the mainstay of our community is practicing isn’t Torah. And it should be obvious.

Or as R’ Harry Maryles pushed me to put it in an Avodah discussion: If we view Torah as a tool, it’s not being used for the purposes for which it was created.

It seems to me the two formulations only differ on the breadth of the definition of the word Torah. In both I’m trying to describe a community that keeps mitzvos anashim milumadah without yir’as Shamayim, simchah, hislahavus, an intent to reach qedushah, etc…. You can call that keeping the Torah but not using it for what it was meant, or you can call it not really keeping the Torah. The difference is terminology.

The topic of Torah to the soul: A comparison to rain for the ground; it causes what was planted there to grow, a cure or a poison. Similarly Torah, causes what is in his heart to grow. If what is in his heart is good, his yir’ah will grow; if what’s in his heart is a “root sprouting poison weed and wormwood” then the bitterness that’s in his head will grow.

As they wrote “the righteous will walk in it, and sinners will stumble in it” [Hoshea 14:10, as explained by Chazal], and as they wrote “To those on the right the medicine of life is in it, and to those on the left, the poison of death.” [Shabbos 88b]

Therefore one must cleanse one’s heart every day before study and after it of impure attitudes and middos with a fear of sin and good deeds.

This [process] is euphemistically called “going to the bathroom”. They were was about this they hinted when they said “Going to the bathroom is greater than all of it.” (Berakhos 8a) And when they said “Whomever spends a long time in the bathroom, it is lofty.” (Ibid 55a) Also when they said, “Get up early and go, in the evening go” (Ibid 62a) they intend to say that in his youth and in his old age he shouldn’t distance himself a great distance from his Creator so that he couldn’t be helped.

One must inspect which evil middah is strong within him, and after that clean it out. Not like those men of desire who wallow in what they want, and the desire grows greater. It requires a lot of slyness, to be “sly in yir’ah” (Abayei, Ibid 17a) in opposition to the “snake was sly”.

One who is lazy in weeding out an evil middah, isn’t helped by all the legal fences and protections that he does. For any disease which isn’t cured from within…Even the fence of the Torah which protects and saves will be useless because of his laziness. (c.f. Rava, Sotah 21a; Bei’ur haGra Mishlei 24:31, 25:5)

– Vilna Gaon as quoted in Even Sheleima 1:11

The Gra, in a quote that pretty much declares the essential need for a Mussar Lifestyle (“Mussar” with a capital M, as later developed by the movement), compares learning Torah to watering a garden. If you have beautiful plants, it will produce healthier, more beautiful plants. If you water weeds, all you get is more weeds. Learning Torah without attention to middos will simply produce more forceful personalities with bad middos. Learning without mussar (lowercase “m”, a commitment to spiritual development in general) is worse than valueless; it can be destructive!

Sadly, I think the Vilna Goan’s metaphor is born out. We live in an era where few seek to understand the ideal at any depth greater than what they absorbed in the early grades. There are few attempts at a systemic study of aggadita, or how to tie that to one’s observance of mitzvos and lifestyle. Aggadita‘s role has been reduced to nice vertlach on the parashah or a thought of Chazal with not grand picture, no grounding, no attempt to define a target to which one should aim their lives. (When it’s not merely reduced to a fantastic tale to keep younger students’ attention.)

I think that is the same social force that brought Brisk to the fore — it’s a style of learning that not only allows one to neglect such studies, but actually invites such elision. (Symptomatic: Making a siyum on a volume of gemara without making any attempt to comprehend large sections of narrative within it.)

And unfortunately we see weeds in our garden. Well watered weeds. Talmidei chakhamim who make a splash in the national media for tax fraud. Schools founded and funded on embezzled money. Someone who prepared and teaches daf yomi who sold treif chickens for years. Or today’s news — someone selling shaatnez talisos. And even among the masses, an entire “under the table” economy designed to violate “dina demalkhusa dina” (the law of the land is the law), which undebatably applies to taxation. Disdain for Jews of other stripes. Etc… we all know the communal problems, no need to wallow in them any further.

I’m not blaming Brisker Derekh for these ills. I am actually saying the causality is in reverse: We want answers about what to do next, with no eye toward the forest for all the trees. That kind of culture will cause people to gravitate toward a modality of learning which doesn’t try to explain the tree’s relation to the forest. But also, I think that if we’re to cure the problem, advocating other modalities in our children may be part of the solution.

An aside:

I don’t think the current problem dates back to R’ Chaim’s day. In R’ Chaim’s day, the battle wasn’t against apathy, it was against competing Isms. (Thus all his antipathy against Zionism.)

Also, in R’ Chaim’s day, his message wasn’t only his lomdus. It also included his amazing lifestyle. I Googled looking for stories of RCB’s gemillas chessed, I couldn’t find a good source, so here’s some chapter headings: playing horsey with the local children (no one wanted to be the horse), playing Cowboys and Indians and being left tied up (and he wouldn’t let the gabbai untie him, the children would be disappointed; instead he waited until they got back from dinner), people coming in and out of his home (the time he put down a pen in the middle of writing chiddushim and a homeless guy walked away with it was just typical), the time he forced Brisk to be mechallel Yom Kippur to bring money for pidyon shevuyim — and the captured man was actually guilty of being an (atheistic) Communist!, etc, etc, etc…

Along the same lines as introducing means of teaching gemara which more frequently links the halakhah to the question of values is one that actually addresses rather than skims the aggadita. Few of us were given any methodology for learning those portions of the gemara. The Maharsha and Maharal are useful source texts for deriving the underlying meaning of some of those fantastical-seeming stories.

Similarly, few men have the tools to learn nevi’im acharonim, sifrei Eme”s (Iyuv, Mishlei, Tehillim), and the other parts of Nakh that inculcate basic values. (Women are sometimes more fortunate in this regard.) When we teach “Dinim Class”, we need to spend as much time on the mitzvos that lack well-defined units of measure and limits of obligation, or that relate to interpersonal or fiscal law as we do to the rites in Orach Chaim.

Much can be done without a change in what is taught, but in how it’s taught. After all, our current emphasis on Talmud Bavli dates back to before Tosafos. To them, it was already an old practice to center education on the Bavli, and they need to explain why that’s so, despite the beraisa‘s recommendation one divide one’s time equally between Tanakh, halakhah and gemara. They expected Bavli to be learned in a manner so that one pulls out from the mixture all three. These lessons of machashavah and mussar, of the inspiring conceptual ideal and the means to live up to them, could in theory be pulled from gemara alone. I believe it’s more difficult, but that question should be seriously considered before toying with a priority system that predates much of what we do from how we wash our hands upon waking up to the choice of prayers with which we embellish qeri’as Shema before going to bed.

These are the questions me must seriously explore if we are to weed our garden.

And of course, and really first, we need to constantly think about these issues in our own lives and in setting educational policy. These ideas are just to get the ball rolling, not a canonical list.

And in fact, that underlies the concept behind The AishDas Society . (Please see our Mission Statement paper. For all the time the chevrah put into honing it just so, it would be nice if people actually read it.) To quote from that paper, “To be observant not merely out of habit or upbringing, but to connect with every deed on an intellectual and emotional level.” The intellect needs the Maharal, or RSRH, or Besh”t or… AND the heart needs to be refined so that one actually translates that to action. And THAT becomes AishDas, “the synthesis of the fire and the law, a whole that is greater than its parts.” (The mission statement itself is about what TADS offers to help that actually happen.)

Let every page of gemara studied remind our youth that we not only must follow halakhah, we must do so for the sake of building and being qadosh.

Whomever gets to the water first…

אמרין עליו על רבי חנינא בן דוסא שהיה עומד ומתפלל ובא חברבר והכישו, ולא הפסיק את תפילתו. והלכו ומצאו אותו חברבר מת מוטל על פי חורו. אמרו “אי לו לאדם שנשכו חברבר, ואי לו לחברבר שנשך את רבי חנינא בן דוסא!” מה עיסקיה דהדין חברבריא? כד הוות נכית לבר נשא – אין בר נשא קדים למיא חברברא מיית ואין חברברא קדים למיא בר נשא מיית. אמרו לו תלמידיו “רבי לא הרגשת?” אמר להן “יבא עלי ממה שהיה לבי מתכוין בתפילה אם הרגשתי.” אמר רבי יצחק בר אלעזר “ברא לו הקב”ה מעיין תחת כפות רגליו, לקים מה שנאמר ‘רצון יריאיו יעשה ואת שוועת’ ישמע ויושיעם’ (תהילים קמה:כ)”:

They say about Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa that he was standing and davening and a snake came and bit him, and he didn’t stop his prayers. They went and found the snake, dead on its hole.

They said, “Woe to the person who is bitten by a snake, and woe to the snake that bites Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa!”

What is the story with this kind of snake? When it bites a person — if the person reaches water first [after being bitten by this kind of snake], the snake dies; and if the snake reaches water first, the person dies.

He students said to him, “Rebbe, didn’t you feel it?”

He said to them, “It would come upon me [something bad; i.e. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa made an oath] from how my heart was focused on the tefillah if I felt something.

Rabbi Yitzchaq bar Eliezer said, “The Holy One, blessed is He, created [ex nihilo] for him a wellspring under the palms of his feet, to fulfill what it says, “The will of those who fear / are in awe of Him He does, and to their cries He listens and saves them.” (Tehillim 145:20 [Ashrei])

— Yerushalmi, Berakhos 5:1, pg. 38a

This snake doesn’t sound like a natural phenomenon. I would suggest that this story is told to relay the following message.

The snake, as per the story at the beginning of the Torah, represents the yeitzer hara. The water, as is usual, is Torah.

If the person reaches the Torah first, the person fulfilled the advice written outright in the Bavli (Qiddushin 30b):

If this monstrosity [i.e. the yeitzer hara] encounters you, drag him into the study hall where you will destroy him.

If we translate R’ Chanina ben Dosa’s response literally, without interpolation, he said, “Something from what I thought about during prayer should come upon me if I felt it!” Meaning, he had been momentarily distracted, giving the “snake” an opportunity. But, had it been more than that slight hesitation, the yeitzer hara would have been able to get him. However, since his tefillah was pure, R’ Yitzchaq ben Eliezer says Hashem rewarded him by creating a wellspring of Torah under Rabbi Chanina’s feet, Rabbi Chanina focused on the Torah thoughts that flowed from his prayer, and was immobilized, freed from that momentary thought planted by the yeitzer hara.

Within this understanding of the message of the story, the second part of this warning about how this snake operates is very powerful: If the yeitzer hara reaches the water first, so that it uses selective quoting and manipulation of the Torah to convince the person that his deeds are holy and that he is doing Hashem’s will, then all is lost. Nothing is as dangerous as a “pious” sinner.

Wisdom from Eeyore

The month that starts today, אִייָר‎ or אִיָּר, borrows its name (as do all the months) from those of Babylonia, in commemoration of our exile there — and our redemption from it. In Akkadian, the month name is “Ayyaru”, meaning “blossom” — logical enough for this time of year. But that brings to mind a piece of wisdom from an eponymous character:

Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.

 – Eeyore; A.A. Milne



It’s a human decision that differentiates weeds from wildflowers.

(For more on the subject of how we choose to perceive the world we encounter, see this entry on the relationship between free will and environment.)

Shavuos Reading

I just wanted to share some of what I came across this Shavuos…

1- From YU’s “Shavuos-to-Go”, R’ Mordechai Torczyner writes about the connection between Shavuos and chessed. Often cited is the idea that Rus, a book about chessed, is read on Shavuos to highlight this connection. R’ Torczyner opens with a different point of connection:

[A] midrash describing the scene atop Har Sinai places the credit not with Moshe, but with Avraham:

At that moment the ministering angels sought to harm Moshe. God shaped Moshe’s face to appear like that of Avraham, and God said to the angels, “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?” God then turned to Moshe and said, “The Torah was given to you only in the merit of Avraham.

But what I found particularly intriguing is that he builds the connection from the following observation:

Adam and Chavah were charged with working in their garden and protecting it, and they would have been the sole beneficiaries of their work; every plant they grew, nearly every fruit they cultivated, was theirs to eat. (Bereishis 2) Only in one case were they told to labor benevolently without expectation of reward: The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would receive their care, but provide no benefit. All work for that tree would be purely chesed shel emet, kindness without any anticipation of reciprocity. This was their own opportunity to engage in עולם חסד יבנה, bringing into reality a world founded on kindness. Instead, though, the first human beings took that fruit for themselves.

The sin of the tree of knowledge was a flaw in chessed, in acting for the other with no intent to get benefit from it. I would suggest that this notion of chessed was in fact the very da’as the tree was supposed to impart.

And it’s not until we get to Avraham, who not only performs chessed but commits to transmitting it down the generations that Hashem finds a nation worth of the Torah. This is the reason why humanity required 26 generations between the giving of derekh eretz and the Torah.

2- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the Naso 5770 issue of his weekly Parashah Sheet “Covenant and Conversation” carries two essays.

I will comment on the longer essay in a forthcoming blog entry. (Shorter version used to appear here.)

In a short thought on the last page (taken from “To Heal a Fractured World” pp 252-253), Rabbi Sacks discusses the nature of heroism. I found this interesting because the question of whether heroism is a Jewish value is still open for me. What does “chazaq ve’ematz” really mean? R’ Jonathan Sacks quotes Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity:

I once had occasion to observe in connection with Wordsworth that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea. The Rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character. The indifference of the rabbis to the idea of courage is the more remarkable in that they knew that many of their number would die for their faith.

3- Another favorite topic often visited in these pages is the subject of Jewish Values — the notion that there are demands the Torah makes of us beyond those of halakhah. Whether we view these as obligations of being (“be Holy, for I Am holy”) rather than halakhah‘s obligations of doing; or as obligations that are simply too subjective to be codified, each person capable of a different level of reaching beyond the letter of the law in different areas; or as the Ramban describes the obligation “and you shall do the honest and the good” — that there are just too many human interactions for a specific halakhah to cover each and every possible decision.

Rav Yehudah Amital wrote on this subject, and it was included in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s “Virtual Beis Medrash” mailing for Shavuos. A teaser:

The Gemara in Makkot (23b-24a) states:

Rabbi Simla’i expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moshe…

David came and condensed them to eleven…

Yeshayahu came and condensed them to six…

Mikha came and condensed them to three…=

Even though Rabbi Simla’i opened with a reference to the 613 mitzvot, some of the things mentioned in connection with David, Yeshayahu, and Mikha – such as “walking humbly with God” and “shutting one’s eyes from seeing evil” – are not included among the six hundred and thirteen commandments! The verses cited here deal not only with mitzvot, but also with values – values that are an integral part of the Torah. Mikha reduced the 613 mitzvot to three values, and these values have binding force just like mitzvot.

Rabbi Chayyim Vital develops a parallel idea regarding character traits (Sha’ar Kedusha I:2):

The good and bad traits depend on this soul; they are the seat, foundation, and root of the rational soul, upon which depend the 613 mitzvot… It is for this reason that the character traits are not included among the 613 mitzvot. They serve, however, as the primary preparation for the 613 mitzvot… because the rational soul is not strong enough to fulfill the 613 mitzvot through the 613 organs of the body, but only through the fundamental soul that is connected to the body itself… Hence, one must be more careful about bad traits than about fulfilling the positive or negative precepts. For when a person has good traits, he will easily fulfill all the mitzvot.

The Torah does not relate to positive character traits as commandments, but nevertheless Rabbi Chayyim Vital sees them as being even more basic and fundamental than observance of the mitzvot.

4- Returning to YU’s Shavous to Go, in last year’s edition Rabbi David Horwitz touches on many of the themes R’ Amital discusses.

He too looks at the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai as to which principle is more primary to the Torah:

Love your neighbor as yourself: R. Akiba states, this is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai states: This is the book of the descendants of Adam (Genesis 5:1): This is even a greater principle.

— Sifra, on Sefer Va-Yiqra 19:8

Among R’ Horwitz’s observations:

Ben Azzai comes to teach that the ground of Jewish interpersonal ethics is not merely a social contract between disparate individuals but is rooted in the fact that every human being was created in the image of God. Hence, the end of Genesis 5:1 is the crucial key. That is the point of the Torah stating “This is the book of the descendants of Adam”. It is precisely the fatherhood of God that is the ground of our duty to embrace the brother hood of man. Hence, even if one has broken the social contract and harmed someone else, one dare not retaliate. Every human being is created in the image of God, and no one may ever forget it.

He then also casts this dispute in terms of Kant’s Categorical Imperative in a manner I found interesting, but unconvincing.

An imperative is called hypothetical when it indicates which means must be supplied in order that the something further, the end, is realized. Thus, if one acts nicely towards someone else because one wants some reciprocity, e.g., some favors from that person, one is only acting in terms of a hypothetical imperative. The categorical imperative, on the other hand, is a category based upon the concept of duty, and is not based upon what end or result one might receive from a particular action. Any act of goodness based upon the hypothetical imperative is only conditional and cannot form the basis for a system of ethics. Only the categorical imperative can be the ground of unconditional goodness (Cassirer, pp. 244-45). Only the categorical imperative is worthy to be the foundation of morality.

Armed with these categories, we can now return to the debate between R. Akiba and ben Azzai. Ben Azzai disputes R. Akiba’s citation because in his view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and Hillel’s notion of “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man,”  expresses only the hypothetical imperative, and not the categorical imperative. And the hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one is harmed by others, and feels that it is indeed a legitimate source of pleasure to retaliate. Alternately, the  hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one personally does not consider an act that others consider harmful to be, in fact, harmful. Ben Azzai, when responding with “This is the book of the descendants of Adam” responds by asserting that Jewish ethics is grounded upon a categorical imperative. And that itself is based upon the verse that concludes “In the likeness of God made He him”.

The Categorical Imperative, in its first formulation, states:

Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This too requires knowing how universal is “universal”. Suppose someone is a skilled shoemaker. Should they not become shoemakers because we wouldn’t want a world of only shoemakers? Perhaps the Kantian response is that each person should take the profession for which they are most fit. Abstracting away this person’s particular skill at shoemaking.

Similarly, the question of whether someone’s desire for revenge or personal taste about what is harmful is not necessarily a hypothetical imperative. It could also be a single situation’s application of something that is always, categorically, true.

I therefore don’t this as a core feature of the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. As I see it:

Rabbi Aqiva’s verse has the disadvantage of being particularist, and not speaking to the need to show respect and love for people who aren’t our brothers  in Judaism.

However, Ben Azzai’s verse has the disadvantage of turning chessed into a derived value. By making the love we show others derivative of our love and awe for their Creator, we risk turning them into objects of mitzvah performance (like tefillin) rather than fully connecting to them as people.

Qorach’s Heart

The title verse of this week’s parashah reads “ויקח קרח” (Bamidbar 16:39). The simple translation would be “And Qorach took”. However, the Midrash Rabbah takes it slightly differently, using an equally valid if less obvious translation. “‘And he took Qorach’ — meaning, his heart took him.” The Ramban notes that the word “vayiqach” consistently refers to a non-physical move. This connects our chapter to the previous one of tzitzis. “And you shall not explore after your heart and after your eyes, after which you stray.” (15:39). Rashi explains that the heart and eyes are spies for the body. The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body commits the sin.

Why was he moved to rebel? In what direction did Qorach’s heart take him? Moshe appointed Elitzafan ben Uzi’el to be the leader of the clan of Kehas. The Tanchuma (ch. 1) writes that Qorach, being older than his cousin Elitzafan, thought that the job would be his.

Had they focused more on character development than on theology, their fates would have been much more for the better.

Qorach could not belittle Moshe’s authority — the Jewish People all saw the beams of light radiating from Moshe’s face when he came down from Sinai. Instead, Qorach built up the masses. “The whole community, every one of them is holy, and Hashem is among them; and why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of G-d?” (16:3) He attacked Moshe politically by trying to make him redundant religiously.

This is the meaning of the two slogans a third midrash (Midrash Rabba, quoted by Rashi) attributes to Qorach. “If a garment is all blue, does it need tzitzis?” The whole garment is techeiles, reminding us of heaven and of G-d, so why would we need an additional blue thread? The whole community was at Sinai and had experienced the heights of prophecy at the Red Sea; we do not need priests and leaders. Similarly, “If a room is full of Sifrei Torah, does it need a mezuzah?”

R. Moshe Feinstein (Derash Moshe), stresses a second aspect that builds on the first. As his very examples show, Qorach assumes that anyone can interpret the Torah for themselves. That, somehow, at Sinai they were imbued with the “spirit of the law” and can use that to guide practice.

The meaning and purpose behind halakhah is critical. It is true that we rule that mitzvos do not require intent. However, as the Mishnah writes, “From [acting] shelo lishmah, not for its sake, one comes to act lishmah.” The purpose in the mitzvah performed by rote observance is in its bringing the person closer to later performing it with intent.

Rav Hirsch likens the relationship between halakhah and lishmah to that of experimental data and scientific theory. G-d gave us the halachic process; its results are the objective data with which we work. Our theories about the meaning and purpose are just that — theories. In a scathing comment against Reform, and Geiger’s notion of a “science of Judaism”, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch likens deriving practice from ideas about the purpose of the law to alchemy. (The 19 Letters of Ben Uziel)

Qorach’s rebellion is held up by the Mishnah as an archetype of lacking lishmah. “Any controversy which is lesheim Shamayim, for the sake of [the One in] heaven, will in the end persist; and that which is not lesheim Shamayim will not in the end persist. Which is a controversy for the sake of Heaven? The controversy between Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of Heaven? The controversy of Qorach and his entire congregation.”

Amazingly, Qorach was not inherently an evil person. The Arizal associates his name with the last three letters of the words “צַ֭דִּיק כַּתָּמָ֣ר יִפְרָ֑ח— the righteous shall blossom like the date-palm.” (Tehillim 92:13) The Ari concludes from this that Qorach will eventually have a place in the World to Come.

Where did the gap emerge between this Qorach and the one who challenged Moshe’s authority? He was hurt by being passed over for an honor. He did not rebel for the sake of heaven, although he might have convinced himself that his position was the more reasonable way to worship Hashem. A tiny seed of jealousy, and all objectivity was lost. Without deriving values from the grounding of halachah, all was lost.

A tiny gap opened between his heart and his mind, between his subconscious and his righteous ideals. And so Qorach “explored after his heart”. Such gaps are all too common. As we say in Aleinu, “וְיָֽדַעְתָּ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם וַהֲשֵֽׁבֹתָ֮ אֶל־לְבָבֶךָ֒– And you will know today, and you will respond to your heart.” (Devarim 4:39) The mind can know something even while it must still be answered to the heart.

Through the study of Mussar one can close that gap. Bridging mind and heart, mitzvah and lishmah, is critical. From the smallest of imperfections in his control of his inner self, Qorach took to leading a full rebellion. Mussar has the power to cleanse our hearts from all impurities — both conscious and subconscious. It gives depth and meaning to our observance of halakhah; it connects the act to the lishmah.

With thanks to Rabbi Zvi Miller of The Salant Foundation, who provided the core thought. Originally appeared in Mesuqim MiDevash, Qorach 5764.

The Call of the Chatzotzros

כל הכלים שעשה משה כשרים לו וכשרים לדורות, חצוצרות ־ כשרות לו ופסולות לדורות.

All the vessels that Moshe made were valid for him and valid for future generations, [except for] the chatzotzros ([silver] trumpets) which were valid for him but invalid for future generations.

-Menachos 28b

While it is permissible to use a 100 year old shofar, or in the beis hamiqdash, an ancient menorah, mizbeiach or shulchan, each generation that has a beis hamiqdash in which to use it has to make its own chatzotzros. Why the difference?

Yahadus walks a tight balance between the permanence of its message, and its relevance to people in very different contexts who are living in different times. The call of the shofar is eternal, and thus a shofar is not invalidated by age. However, in contrast to the raw, natural, shofar, the silver chatzotzros are man-made. Their message changes as people do. The call of the chatzotzros is distinct for the generation.

This thought dovetails well with the one I played with in “My Life as a Pendulum“. Some excerpts:

Many science museums have a large Foucault Pendulum. This pendulum is typically strung from a point on the ceiling, and the weight barely touches the surface of a sand stable on the floor. Over time, a trail in the sand develops, showing you where the pendulum has been.

Obviously, the pattern is primarily repetitive, back and forth.

However, the line that swinging draws rotates over time. In reality, the pendulum doesn’t rotate. It is fixed, absolute, staying on the same plane. It is the world that is changing, rotating beneath it. …

His students asked Rabbi Zakai, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never urinated within a distance of four amos from where I prayed, I never gave another person a nickname, and I never failed to recite kiddush; I had an elderly mother, and once she sold her hat in order to obtain the means to bring me wine for kiddush.” …
His students asked Rabbi Elazar bar Shamua’, “For what [were you granted] long life?” He said to them, “In all my days, I never made a shortcut out of the beis medrash; I never tread on the heads of the sacred people; and I never lifted my hands [to bless the people as a kohein] without making the blessing first.”
His students asked Rabbi Pereidah…
His students asked Rabbi Nechunia ben haQanah….
Rabbi Aqiva asked Rabbi Nechunia haGadol…
Rebbe asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorchah … long life?” … He said to him, “In all my days, I never looked at the image of an evil person.”

Notice that all these rabbis gave multiple answers, and one one of them coincided. One theme does shine through, “miyamai — in all my days”. Consistency. What’s the key to long life? Finding one’s approach to serving Hashem, and sticking to it, day in day out.

The pendulum.

This is not simple repetitiveness; the consistency must adapt itself as the world we find ourselves in changes. It is sacred commitment to our mission, and thereby maintaining the connection to the Absolute Immobile Source.

רבי יוחנן מפקד מלבשוני (ביריריקא) [בורידיקא] לא חיוורין ולא אוכמין אין קמית ביני צדיקייא לא גבהת אין קימת ביני רשיעיא לא גבהת.  רבי יאישה מפקד אלבשוני חוורין חפיתין.  אמרין ליה ומה את טב מן רבך.  אמר לון ומה אנא בהית בעבדאי.

Rabbi Yochanan arranged [for his death]: Dress me not in blue [shrouds], not in white ones or in black ones. If I will arise among the righteous, I will not be uncomfortable [because I won’t be in black]; and if I arise among the wicked, I won’t be uncomfortable [because I won’t be in white].

Rabbi Yoshiyah arranged: dress me in  in nicely sown white shrouds.

They said to him: And what? Are you better than your rebbe [Rabbi Yochanan]?

He said to them: And what? Do you think I am afraid of my deeds?

— Yerushalmi Kelayim 9:2, 42a; Bereishis Rabba 100:3

(This is not the usual Rabbi Yoshiah, who was a second century tanna and thus couldn’t have been a student of Rabbi Yochanan over one hundred years later.)

How does Rabbi Yoshiyah answer their question? Why was he less afraid of his deeds than Rabbi Yochanan was?

Rav Shelomo Wolbe zt”l writes an essay in Alei Shur vol I titled “Hahevdel bein haDoros” about the need to speak to each generation in its own voice — and in particular, that Mussar is particularly sensitive to this phenomenon. Each generation has its own Mussar. The Mussar of dark rooms and fear of death of the early movement wasn’t that of Slabodka. And of our generation R’ Wolbe writes, “The beginning of the way of anyone who learns Mussar today needs to be: learn the elevatedness of a human. He must climb the ladder that leads to awareness of greatness.” One generation is motivated by one thing; people in a different milieu living within a different culture need a different presentation. Loyal to the same truth, but cognizant of the strengths and weaknesses of its people and of the lives they lead.

I would suggest that the difference between Rav Yochanan and Rav Yoshiah was not as much that one was uncertain of his merit, and the other wasn’t. Rather, Rav Yoshiah’s generation is one in which he must make them feel secure. “And what? Do you think I’m afraid of my deeds?” The means of motivating the masses changed in the generation between them.

Perhaps this is why some parts of our goal in life were not spelled out in the shofar‘s tones of halakhah and its process, but instead left as values that we, through Mussar, must determine for ourselves how to inculcate. The call of the chatzotzros.