Mesilas Yesharim and the Haggadah

Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto opens Mesilas Yesharim with this questionable claim:

הקדמה – אמר המחבר: החיבור הזה לא חברתיו ללמד לבני האדם את אשר לא ידעו, אלא להזכירם את הידוע להם כבר ומפורסם אצלם פירסום גדול. כי לא תמצא ברוב דברי, אלא דברים שרוב בני האדם יודעים אותם ולא מסתפקים בהם כלל, אלא שכפי רוב פרסומם וכנגד מה שאמתתם גלויה לכל, כך ההעלם מהם מצוי מאד והשכחה רבה. על כן אין התועלת הנלקט מזה הספר יוצא מן הקריאה בו פעם אחת, כי כבר אפשר שלא ימצא הקורא בשכלו חדושים אחר קריאתו שלא היו בו לפני קריאתו, אלא מעט. אבל התועלת יוצא מן החזרה עליו וההתמדה. כי יזכרו לו הדברים האלה הנשכחים מבני האדם בטבע, וישים אל לבו חובתו אשר הוא מתעלם ממנה.

Introduction — the author said: : This work, I didn’t author it to teach people what they did not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is famous among them, very well known. For you will only find in most of my words things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts. But because they are so very well known and their truths revealed to all, so is the hiding from them rampant and forgetfulness prevalent. Therefore, that there benefit will not be gotten from this work is not in a single reading. Because it possible that the reader will not find that he has learned anything new after having read it that he did not know before reading. The benefit comes from the review of it and persistence, whereby he will be kept reminded of those things which people naturally forget, and will take to heart his duty which hi hidden from him.

I say this claim is questionable because in my experience, there is a lot in Mesilas Yesharim which are not ideas everyone knows.

However, the Ramchal is making it clear that his intended purpose is not to teach us new concepts and inform the intellect. Instead, he is providing a tool for keeping an idea in mind until its internalized. So that it undermines the escape mechanisms we use to avoid our duties in life, and keeps these truths in both mind and heart.

I want to compare the Mesilas Yesharim’s self-description with a quote from the Haggadah, the second half of Avadim haYinu:

… וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח.

… And even if we were all wise, we were all brilliant, we were all learner elders, we all knew the Torah, it would still be a commandment for us to talk about the Exodus from Egypt. Whomever enlarges their discussion of the Exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.

Notice the similarity — the Hagaddah too self-describes as not being specific to those who need to learn or even better understand the narrative.

The point isn’t to learn the story of the Exodus on the seder night. (At 50, it’s “been there, done that”.) It’s to internalize its lessons and keep them alive in our psyches as we go through daily life.

Experimental Evidence of the Efficacy of Hispaalus

Scientific American just (June 24,2013) put up a podcast titled “Teaching People To Be Nice” by Christie Nicholson on their “Mind & Brain :: 60 Second Mind” series. To quote (in full):

Can you train someone to be a nicer person? A recent study using meditation techniques shows that it might be possible. (The research is published in the journal Psychological Science.)

One group of subjects learned to practice what’s called “compassionate meditation” by focusing on a specific person while repeating a phrase like, “May you be free from suffering.” The subjects concentrated on five different people: A loved one, a friend, themselves, a stranger and then someone they were in conflict with. Another group of subjects performed general positive thinking. Both groups did the exercise 30 minutes a day for two weeks.

Then everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional character who had been treated unfairly.

And the subjects who did compassionate meditation were more likely to spend their money to help than those who trained to just think more positively. The researchers also did brain scans of those who behaved most altruistically, before and after training. And people who were most altruistic after training showed the biggest increases in activity in brain areas involved in empathy and positive emotion. So empathy appears to be like a muscle—it can be built up by exercise that causes actual physiological changes.

Nothing Rav Yisrael Salanter didn’t already say when he spoke of learning mussar texts behispa’alus. But it’s nice to see Western Civ finally provide the experimental data to back him up, a mere 150 years later.

Vayiqra 2

A second thought on the first / title word of parashas Vayiqra…


וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.

And He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Ohel Moeid, saying.

Vayiqra 1:1

 

“וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה” – (יומא ד’ ת”כ) הקול הולך ומגיע לאזניו וכל ישראל לא שומעין יכול אף להפסקות היתה קריאה ת”ל וידבר לדבור היתה קריאה ולא להפסקות ומה היו הפסקות משמשות ליתן ריוח למשה להתבונן בין פרשה לפרשה ובין ענין לענין ק”ו להדיוט הלומד מן ההדיוט

“And He called to Moshe”: The voice went and reached his ears, and all [the rest] of Israel didn’t hear.

[You] could [have thought] that even for the pauses there was a calling. Therefore it says “vayidaber — spoke”. For speech there was a calling, but not for the pauses.

And what [purpose] did the pauses serve? To give Moshe time to contemplate between parashah [paragraph] and parashah and between topic and topic. All the more so [they are necessary] for a normal person learning from a[nother] normal person.

– Rashi ad loc, quoting Tr. Yuma

Notice that our sages’  default assumption is that the pause between topics, that whitespace between paragraphs of the chumash, would be that G-d would call Moshe when it was time to review, contemplate and work out the material He already taught, just as He did for the teaching itself.

Why?

Rav Reueven Leuchter, opens his series on Concentration (first va’ad) contrasting between using the mind to problem-solve, and using the mind to create and refine an idea. People think of thinking in terms of knowing how to solve problems. But an idiot savant can solve math problems well beyond the reach of normal people. Problem solving isn’t a measure of being an ideal human being. Where the mind is spiritual is in its ability to hold and create intangible entities, ideas.

Picture it as circling the idea, seeing it from every angle. For example (his example), assuming you’re exploring the verse, “Da lifnei Mi atah omeid — Know before Whom you stand.” Turn it around…. “DA lifnei Mi atah omeiad. Da LIFNEI Mi atah omeid… Know before WHOM you stand. Know before Whom YOU stand. Know before Whom you STAND.”

Polish each facet of the idea to a good shine. Make the idea real, massive. (Mass: someone who is contemplating a weighty thought can’t simply be pushed aside by the allure of a shiny object or other distraction around him.) Make it a fine brick in a palace you build in your mind. A piece of a whole world of spirituality.

I would like to suggest that Chazal assumed that the pauses would require Hashem’s calling because this kind of creating has such holiness. But instead the pasuq tells us to dismiss the idea. The beauty of each “stone” of the palace within the soul is very much that it is our creation, not gifted from the Almighty.

Teaching Mussar

I recently commented on a post on Cross-Currents by R. Jonathan Rosenblum (RJR), an article that originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on July 30th 2011, titled “Dr. Middos is not Just for Kids“. A good article, worth reading, a discussion of the centrality of middos to the entire Torah. Despite the subject line, RJR concludes, “I would like to hear from parents and educators about interesting materials and initiatives in middos development to be shared with other parents and educators.

The truth is, we have numerous middos curricula produced by organizations like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, or shared among Torah uMesorah schools. And we have had them for decades — at least since my childhood. But as far as I can tell it is not self-evident they actually impart much.

And, as RJR laments:

Too often developing good middos is treated as something primarily of concern for young children. Much creative energy, for instance, has been devoted over the years to producing excellent children’s tapes on the subject. But while middos development ideally starts early in life, it is far from child’s play. Certainly, the Ramchal and later the ba’alei mussar did not see it that way. The fullest middos development requires an intimate knowledge of the human psyche and all the stratagems of the yetzer.

Yet too often today, middos development gets pushed towards the bottom of a crowded curriculum. If a yeshiva describes itself as placing a strong emphasis on middos development, our initial reaction is likely to be that it is not for “top” boys. Some of the most innovative materials I’ve seen for inculcating middos have been developed for use in the state school system in Israel. That is fantastic. But the subject is not only relevant for introducing Torah ideas to non-observant students, who do not learn Gemara.

I would also argue that stopping so young is a consequence of the nature of these curricula. At younger ages, we can tell stories to get children to confront fundamental truths like: anger is bad, egotism is bad, generosity is good, trust in G-d is good, etc…  But as that child approaches Middle School ages, this kind of lesson can come across as trite, as teaching the self-evidence. And at those ages and into adulthood, we deal more with questions of when various values conflict, and when are those allegedly “bad” middos actually appropriate. “For everything there is a time, and a season for every goal…”

Second is the entire concept of “Middos Curriculum”. Middos need to be inculcated, not taught. As R’ Elya Lopian zt”l, “Mussar is the art of moving something an ammah [cubit] — from the head to the heart.” Getting the ideas to the head is the far easier part.

In addition, by looking at curricula and imparting mussar the way we do halakhah, it is difficult to avoid  making it a set of required actions rather than actual character development.  This is what happens in most yeshivos that have a period for Mussar Seder. Aside from that period usually being 15 minutes that are poorly attended immediately after breakfast, the topic is typically the Laws of Lashon Hara from one of the Chafeitz Chaim’s works. Behavior, not attitude. This feeds into an attitude of doing these mitzvos the way one does the more ritual ones, reducing the other person to a cheftzah shel mitzvah, an objects used as a mitzvah. As I heard it put by a single who is tired of being invited to Shabbos meals where “I get to be their tefillin“. We teach people the mitzvah welcoming guests, so they need a guest, but they don’t relate to the person on a human level. My son with Downs tires of teens who come by to entertain him on Shabbos. As some point he realizes that teen views him as a chessedproject rather than a real friend.

Perhaps parenting tools are therefore more important than school ones. (And as Bob Miller noted in his comment on RJR’s article, “Even though yeshivos should place a proper emphasis on middos, are all essential functions of the home to be delegated now to schools? Is there such a thing as too much outsourcing of parenting?” What is parenting about if not imparting values, middos, and character?

So if we agree that a curriculum is not an effective way to impart middos, am I saying there is no role for a school?

First, there is something important about middos that is an educational project. As the first chapter in the Vilna Gaon’s Even Sheleimah is titled, “”Explaining all the ways of breaking the evil middos in general, for that is the root of the entire service of Hashem.” This is an idea, and therefore more amenable to an academic curriculum than character, but it has the potential to color the student’s entire outlook to Judaism and life. And hopefully motivate more adults to continue pursuing middos refinement through adulthood.

We could also try an entirely different approach to teaching the middos themselves. Instead of relaying assessments of each middah, We could instead interevene one step earlier and impart a middos orientation. Say there is an incident in class. Picture the effect of a teacher reframing the issue to be one of middos. “Oh, Shloime won’t share the ball? How did that make you feel? Which middos caused that feeling?” And separately, with Shloime, “Shloimele… Which middahcame out when Duvidl asked for the ball?” “Why that one?” “Do you think it was the right choice?” (And it might have been, David may be a greedy kid…) “Which middah should you have responded with instead?”I am proposing that future middos programming for schools be aimed at get children used to being aware of their middos and how they interact. Then they can be aware of when they are applying or misapplying those values they were taught about. Combined with teaching them the centrality of middos work to being Torah observant, and we are giving them the motivation to improve their middos themselves.

Similarly, the best advice I could give those potential role models, including the one writing this blog entry, is to keep a cheshbon hanefesh, a journal or some other record of their actions and reactions throughout the day. That too habituates us in being more aware of our decisions. Only once aware can we actually apply the truths we learned from teachers, rabbeim and books when the actual decision is before us.

Shechitah as a Guide for Personal Evolution

I found the following on R’ Mordechai Torczyner’s blog “The Rebbetzin’s Husband“, in a post titled “Shechitah: A Guide for Evolution“. I thought that was a little confusing, like perhaps the topic would be about how to shecht animals that evolved from our current ones, so I bowlderized the title for this post.

One might be forgiven for thinking of shechitah (kosher slaughter) as a dry topic, mind-numbing in its emphasis on minutiae. Indeed, the sage Rav (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1) argued that the point is obedience, and there is no inherent value in those fine points. Rav said, “Why would G-d care whether one performed shechitah from the front or back of the neck? The mitzvotwere only given in order to refine [G-d’s] creations.”Others would disagree, though. Many chachamim, and particularly the mystics, have contended that the design of each element of a mitzvah involves deep arcana and is of cosmic importance. And beyond that, our masters and mentors, particularly among the chassidim, have attached ethical and moral lessons to the most dry legal codicils.

In a striking example, Rav Yaakov Yechezkel Greenwald, author of “VaYaged Yaakov” and Pupa Rebbe until his passing in 1941, taught lessons in personal evolution based upon the five central potential disqualifications in an act of shechitah:

Shehiyah (pausing)
Shechitah is disqualified if the shocheit pauses during the act. So, too, we who would improve ourselves must act with alacrity, not pausing and not allowing ourselves to be distracted. It is not for naught that we are encouraged, “Those who are energetic rush to perform mitzvot first.” Or as Pirkei Avot warns, one should never stall and say he will study when he finds free time, for with such an attitude he will never have free time.

Derasah (pressing)
A shocheit must slice an animal’s trachea and esophagus in a back-and-forth cutting motion; if he becomes impatient and presses down into the neck, the shechitah is disqualified. In the same vein, we must be on guard against impatience with our own growth. We are expected to learn patiently, taking time and making certain that we truly understand the Torah we study. Further, we are expected to work on our character and our intellect simultaneously; one who sacrifices his personal growth in pursuit of rapid intellectual growth is guilty of derasah, pressing and trampling upon important components of self-development.

Chaladah (tunneling)
The shechitah knife must be visible to the shocheit as he cuts; tunneling into the neck so that the knife is hidden from view disqualifies the shechitah. Similarly, we must make sure not to hide our self-improvement from the public. Legitimate concern for modesty, or for embarrassment, might grow and cause us to go underground with our growth, but our commitment to HaShem and to Torah must include pride in our beliefs. As the Tur wrote (Orach Chaim 1), “One must be bold like a leopard, and not reticent before those who would mock him.” If all who are committed to Torah will plead modesty, the result will be a world devoid of visible Torah.

Hagramah (veering)
Shechitah must be performed within a specific vertical space along an animal’s neck, and veering out of that space invalidates the shechitah. The same applies to our development – a Jew must recognize that certain sites are better suited for growth than others. Rabbi Akiva warned his son (Pesachim 112a) not to set up his studies in the town square, lest passersby distract him from his learning. Pirkei Avot instructs us, “Go into exile, to place of Torah study.” For a practical example: Our homes are comfortable, certainly, but they are as filled with distractions as the town square; better to go to a beit midrash or shul to study.

Ikkur (uprooting)
There is some debate regarding the proper definition of ikkur; students of Daf Yomi will recall Rashi Chullin 9a and Rosh Chullin 1:13 as essential sources. Rav Greenwald chooses to explain ikkur as shechitah with a flawed knife, such that the trachea or esophagus is pulled rather than sliced. Comparing the act of shechitah with our actions of self-improvement, Rav Greenwald adjured us to aspire to flawlessness in our actions, since each defect will affect our results.

Rav Greenwald saw in shechitah and its laws a metaphor for the work we do in evolving our best selves, slaughtering our old identities and replacing them with a new and improved version of ourselves. Pairing energetic alacrity with patient care, being unabashedly public in our commitment, selecting our venues for growth wisely, and demanding a commitment to excellence at all times, we will perpetually create ourselves anew, each day better than the last.

This thought reminded me of the middah Rab Wolbezt”l calls hislamdus. Quoting the first va’ad on the subject in Alei Shur vol II (translation mine):

… The Rambam teaches us through this that the purpose of Torah study is hislamdus, and someone whose intellect isn’t ready lehislameid — he is released from the obligation of Torah study. We can see what this hislamdus is in all the books of his Yad haChazakah. For example, someone who learns Tractate Nega’im in depth, and he toils at it and in the decisions of the Rambam in the Laws of Nega’im in great detail — when he reaches the conclusion of the laws in the Rambam he will find there ideas burning with flames of fire on the prohibition of lashon hara — and it is as though the blinds where torn from his eyes and he is compelled to realize that the entire tractate in truth deals with the book Chafeitz Chaim and the laws of malicious speech! And this student will be devastated, how he, with all his development of the tractate, didn’t sense that he was busy with the severity of the law of lashon hara. And is it not an explicit verse in the Torah: “Watch the affliction of tzora’as to guard well and do etc…. Remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the way as you left Mitzrayim” — Rashi: “If you want to be careful not to be afflicted with tzora’as, don’t utter lashon hara. Remember what was done to Miriam, who spoke about her brother and was afflicted.” (Ki Seitzei, shishi) And it’s good for someone who learned this, for he learned Tractate Nega’im, but without hislamdus

Dr. Alan Morinis often repeats the thought that life is a curriculum that Hashem sets before us. An essence of mussar is to see life as a learning and growing experience. I think it’s that attitude which R’ Shlomo Wolbe is calling “hislamdus“: to always find practical and personal lessons in everything we encounter.

Whether that’s in the people we meet, an “act of G-d” that adds pain to one’s life, watching our own actions, or studying the laws of tzora’as or shechitah.