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.