Hispa’alus, or: Yismach Moshe

One of the critical tools of Tenu’as haMussar is hispa’alus, “learning ‘with lips aflame.'” Literally, the word is the reflexive of “to work”, in other words “to work on oneself.” Hispa’alus is such a useful practice it even became part of their davening, tefillah behispa’alus.What is hispa’alus? The Alter of Kelm describes a four-step process:

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response. As does the use of melody and chanting.The Alter of Novorodok focuses on this emotional component. In his version of hispa’alus, the melody and volume are more critical.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush a new insight into the thought.As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.

    Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.

  4. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

How does this become a style of prayer? Obviously, saying every line of the siddur with five minutes of concentration apiece (and that’s just when you’re starting out!) is impossible, both humanly, and because of the finite time of the day. Instead, certain parts of tefillah call for this kind of attention: the first berakhah of the Amidah, the first line or paragraph of Shema, maybe the verses in Qorbanos about bitachon (trust in G-d) which the siddur rells us to repeat three times each, whichever tefillos speak to you and where you’re up to in life. In adapting hispa’alus to contemporary prayer in a contemporary synagogue, perhaps Kelm’s style of hispa’alus that is quieter then Novorodok’s passioned cry would be more useful.Perhaps it’s best to explain by inviting you to experience it. I ask you to try the following next Shabbos morning, and write about your experiences on the “comment” section for this post.

The middle blessing of the Shabbos Amidah begins:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy
bematnas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Why does it say “yismach” in the future tense? Wasn’t Moshe’s happiness at the time?

“Yismach” is from the word “simchah”. Think of some of the other words for happiness: sason, gilah, etc… How do they differ in usage? What does the choice of “yismach” here indicate?

“Bematnas” with the giving of his portion. What does it mean that Moshe is happy with the giving of his portion, his lot in life, rather than referring to the happy is caused by the portion itself? The mishnah says “Who is wealthy? One who is samai’ach bechalqo — happy with his lot.” Nearly the same phrase, but without “bematnas”. The lot itself. Am I to be happy with my lot, or with the giving of it?

“Ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant…” Rashi says the word “ki” has 7 meanings, “because” is only one of them. The others are: rather, when, that, perhaps, if, reason. Why did they choose a potentially ambiguous word? What happens to the meaning of the phrase if we try some of these other translations?

“Eved ne’eman.” What does it mean to be an “eved Hashem”, servant of G-d. What’s the added point of being “ne’eman”, a reliable servant in particular?

“Karasa lo” — You called to him. Why not “qarasa oso”, that Hashem called him, why “to him”?

Why does being a servant make Moshe happier with his lot? Or, in light of the above questions, why does being called to as a reliable servant make him happy — and the kind of happiness we call simchah — with the giving of his lot? And is “because” and “why” the only connection implied?

And most important, what does this say of my worship and my happiness?

Look! “Treasures buried in the sand”, repeated with minimal or no thought every week holds worlds of meaning about ourselves and how we should relate to G-d. Through hispa’alus we can not only find them, but use them to enrich ourselves.

As I wrote, I invite you to explore this line of the siddur yourself. See what hispa’alus can bring to your middos and your prayers. And, if you’re comfortable, share your experience with the other readers. (Recall that you can always post anonymously.)

Yismach Moshe II

As an example for explaining the idea of tefillah behispa’alus, I raised a number of questions about the meaning of the phrase “Yismach Mosheh“. I wrote:

Yismach Mosheh — Moses will be happy bematenas chelqo — with the giving of his portion,
ki eved ne’eman — because a reliable servant
qaraso lo — You have called to him.

The line looks simple enough, however riches lie underneath, with a little concentration. Rather than spell out what they are, and my opinion on what they mean, I am going to list some questions to think about and give you a chance to find your own chiddushim, your own relationship to the text.

Well, some time went by, and during the intervening nine months, we raised a number of issues that shed some light on one of many kavanos possible when saying these words. But there is one last piece.

Why is Sukkos called in our tefillos “zeman simchaseinu“? Why is simchah associated more with Sukkos than with Pesach or Shavu’os? If anything, I would have thought the reverse: we still have the peoplehood granted us on Pesach, and the Torah given on Shavu’os. But the mun is gone, the cloud of glory that protected us have dissipated, Hashem’s guiding pillar no longer shows us the way. Yes, we can still get food, shelter and guidance from the natural means He gave us — but the same was true before the desert! What is so special about the things celebrated by Sukkos?

This past yom tov, R’ Ron Yitzchak Eisenman repeated an idea he saw in two very disparate sources: the Satmar Rav, and R’ Avraham Yitzchak haCohein Kook, a cousin of the more famous Rav Kook who is of this generation, but also of the same school of thought. (As Rabbi Eisenman put it — if the Satmar Rav and a Rav Kook agree, it must be true!)

As we say in the Yom Tov Amidah, “Atah bachartanu mikol ha’amim — You chose us from all the nations, you loved us and desired us…” Being the chosen people required national identity and freedom from servitude to Egypt. It required the Torah, the articles of our mission. However, it did not require being cared for during the trek through the desert. What did we get on Sukkos that was so special? We got the giving itself; the manifestation of Hashem’s Love and Desire. “It’s the thought that counts”, the act of giving is itself more precious than the thing being given. Especially when we find no other motive.

What then causes Moshe’s joy in our quote? Not only the portion Hashem gave him. Yes, “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his portion.” But even greater was that Moshe was happy with the pure fact that Hashem gave him something. We analyzed ahavah using Rav Shimon Shkop’s idea that love is the unity between I and Thou, and extension of the idea of “me” to the realization that you and I are parts of one whole. The act of giving is the bridge across the wall between us. Giving is therefore both the embodiment of and the cause of love.

Yismach Mosheh. In the entry on Hebrew grammar, I presented the notion that the future tense in Hebrew is actually derived. The more primary idea is the imperfect tense. The “yi-” prefix is more about the fact that the simchah is not yet finished than when it began. Moshe’s joy is continuous.

Why? Because man is not a static entity. On parashas Mas’ei, we looked at “the journey as the name of G-d” and the existential idea that man has the ability to change his essence. The ideal is becoming, not being. See also the contrast between people, who walk, and angels, which are portrayed as only having one foot. Or, to again paraphrase the Kotzker Rebbe put it, man’s measure it not the height of the rung on which he stands, but whether he is climbing the ladder or descending it.

What is Moshe’s happiness? It’s the emotion we more specifically call simchah. In looking at idealism, joy and mourning, our focus was on Rav Saadia Gaon’s definition of simchah. To him, it’s related to laughter, which in turn is a sudden perception of the deeper truth. Simchah comes from a focus on ones ideals, on knowing that there is a reason why one has what one has, and a purpose to living through what one has to endure. In a different entry, we looked at how this focus provides a connection between one’s heart and one’s observance of halakhah.

We also looked at the burning bush, and why this moment was what marked Moshe as Moshe Rabbeinu. The anavah that it took to see Hashem similarly “constraining Himself”, an act of tzimtzum, to the center of the bush. That this anavah is what it took to hear the voice within rather than the original flashy image of a bush totally aflame.

When you combine anavah, a tzimtzum-like constriction of oneself to make room for another, with that notion of life as a journey, one gets avdus, a life of service.

How then can we say these words this Shabbos morning?

Yismach Mosheh — The ultimate humble one, who moves himself aside to hear the Divine calling, is continuously joyous, in a happiness that will continue into the future. That calling is the only true source of simchah, because it alone gives our lives meaning.

What causes this joy?

Bematenas chelqo — Hashem expressed his love of Moshe in giving him his portion in this world. Not only in the fact that we have lives that are scripted to fit that meaning and calling, but also in that Hashem Himself gives it to us.


ki ‘eved ne’eman’ qarasa lo — Hashem called Moshe His “reliable servant”. One who takes that continuous simchah and anavah and combine them into reliable and continuous service. But again, not only in the opportunity to have such a life, but also that Hashem called him such.

As such, the opening words of the berakhah are a very powerful statement. They are a realization that happiness only comes from a meaningful life. That a meaningful life comes from both anavah, which makes room to live for a higher purpose rather than the self, and simchah from a full awareness of that meaning. That such a life is one of constant progress and growth — and therefore of constant happiness, even through the struggles that growth often requires. And last, that such a life is lived in a partnership with the A-lmighty. Moshe is His eved in a relationship of Love and giving.

“I have a dream…”

I mentioned twice recently the connection between dimyon (imagination and the ability to recreate experiences) and desire, and the number of rishonim and acharonim who therefore associate it with the yeitzer hara, as in the sense of “and you will not veer after your hearts or after your eyes, which you often stray after”. (See this entry on the role of dimyon in thought, and this one on the yeitzer hara.)

The ba’alei mussar realized, though, that desire cuts both ways. If dimyon can create destructive desires, it could also be harnessed to create sacred and ennobling ones. I had this idea in mind when I wrote:

I think therefore we must conclude that the key of Rav Yisrael [Salanter]’s thought is more in the contrast between free and confined than in dimyon vs. muskal. Dimyon is far more readily uncontrolled. Emotions are more readily fired by events rather than ideas, and so of our thoughts, our ability to create and recreate events has a strong ability to shape our desires.

This link between dimyon and desire is also seen in the English word “dream” — the same word is used for describing the free-wandering experience of dimyon at night and for a person’s desires and aspirations. (As per the quote used in the title line, which was written when I thought this entry would be complete on time for Martin Luther King Day. That day was also the 25th of Teves, which is Rav Dessler’s yahrzeit. This devar Torah draws heavily from his Michtav meiEliyahu, so I wanted it to be in tribute.)

The Alter of Kelm, R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv, called the use of mental imagery to create holy desires and ahavas veyir’as Hashem (love and awe for G-d) by the term “hisbonenus“. (Described in Kisvei HaSaba veTalmidav miKelm I pp. 108-170.) Hisbonenus is a controlled visualization in which you try to create and internalize change through the power of dimyon.

Rav Dessler explains the idea at length (Michtav meiEliyahu IV pp 249-257, “Darkhei haHashavah el haLeiv“). If we are trapped by the number of negative images we dream up, the only way to fight it is to choose to imagine situations that increase one’s ahavas and yir’as shamayim. To thereby find a better balance in our desires.
Rav Zalman Vilozhiner (Toledos Adam, also cited in Michtav meiEliyahu) gives a powerful example of a second use of dimyon. Not only does it motivate desire, but dimyon is also key to emotion in general. When Rabbi Aqiva was being tortured to death, he happily said Shema. His students were amazed with his ability to do so. Rabbi Aqiva explained to them that he spent all his life wondering if he would have an opportunity to serve Hashem “bekhol nafshekha — with all my living-soul”, “miyamai nitzta’arti al mitzvah zeh — all my life I pained for this mitzvah”. Rav Zalman explains that Rabbi Aqiva imagined this possibility his entire life, and thus, having practiced it through imagery, he was capable of following through when it happened in reality.

Rav Dessler starts by speaking about a different use of imagery and builds from that to hispa’alus. Visual aids are a powerful tool in education. We use this idea both in the classroom and in mitzvos like the seider. We don’t just tell our children about the exodus, we eat matzah and maror and we reenact the slavery and departure from Egypt. Rav Dessler understands this visualization as the difference between the seider night’s commandment of sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim and the daily mitzvah of zeikher yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
This is a central them in R’ SR Hirsch’s philosophy. Rav Hirsch classifies many mitzvos as osos, signs. In his thought, Hashem communicates basic truths to us through the symbolism of mitzvos. Symbols are at the intersection of emotion and thought. For things we accept but do not analyze, they provide a metaphor for study and further understanding. For ideas that we understand intellectually but do not internalize, they give us the means for internalization.

Rav Hirsch writes that it is for this reason that prophecy too was through the medium of metaphor. The prophet not only receives the ideas he immediately apprehends, but can also get more understanding by contemplating and analyzing the metaphor in all its detail.

Similarly, Rav Dessler points to the text of our tefillos. We don’t merely say on Rosh haShanah that Hashem judges each of us. We create the image of sheep going past the shepheard’s crook, counting off each one to separate ma’aseir. Something we can visualize and focus our attention on, and thereby impact our souls. To truly get the full value of these symbolic mitzvos we must take the time to absorb and feel the imagery. Not just say these tefillos or follow through the actions, but actually imagine.

Illness spread throughout the Jewish community and Hashem commands Moshe, “make a venemous snake for yourself”. Rav Dessler notes that Hashem didn’t tell Moshe what to make the snake out of. Moshe chose bronze because its name resembles the word for snake. He made a “nachas nechoshes“. Why? Was Moshe composing poetry? Moshe’s example teaches us something important. The more detailed and precise the image, the greater it moves the heart.

Imagery is our most powerful tool for shaping our desires and emotions. This is channeling the very same power that is at the core of many of our aveiros.

We discussed three environments in which imagery helps: symbolic mitzvos (and prophecy), identifying with our prayers, and in hisbonenus. We saw that such imagery is more effective when as detailed as possible. And, we saw that imagery can be used to create desires, allow one to practice how to respond to situations without actually having to live through them, and thereby change one’s emotional response.

Hisbonenus is something we all did as children, but as adults, it can be both difficult and alien to our routines for many of us. Find some quiet time and try picturing a scene. Perhaps an image from tefillah, a historical event, or a midrashic story. When Rav Dessler was writing, there were Holocaust survivors who traveled by boat trying to fulfil the dream of living in Israel only to be turned back at Cyprus. Try picturing being on such a boat. Feel it rock on the waves. What color is it? Who are on the crowded deck with you? What are they doing? Who brought their children? Who brought their chess set? Did you strike up a friendship with anyone? Once spending the necessary minutes to make that voyage is made “real”, look out in the distance. Land! What is it? Did we really reach Israel? No, the next fellow tells you, we were redirected to Cyprus. And so on. Initially, our attention spans are short, but with practice one can spend many minutes fully developing the scene, creating the detail Rav Dessler tells us is so critical to the process. After spending the time it takes to place yourself in the shoes of the person who just have their dreams so cruelly dashed, realize — this is the experience of the soul upon death. Just as it thinks it was freed from the body to return to heaven, it learns that no, there is a detour first…

Through hisbonenus exercises like this one we can pierce the orlas haleiv, the callousness of the heart, to allow Hashem’s mitzvos and ideals reach the core of our being.

I have a dream… part II

This morning I read an article I printed off Time Magazine‘s web site that relates to a similar topic as my previous entry. The author addressed the impact of imagination or recollection on the brain, not the soul. But given my position that the form of the brain is the “shadow” cast by the soul, different manifestations of the same Light of creation, the two observations coincide.

How The Brain Rewires Itself
Sharon Begley
Friday, Jan. 19, 2007

It was a fairly modest experiment, as these things go, with volunteers trooping into the lab at Harvard Medical School to learn and practice a little five-finger piano exercise. Neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone instructed the members of one group to play as fluidly as they could, trying to keep to the metronome’s 60 beats per minute. Every day for five days, the volunteers practiced for two hours. Then they took a test.

At the end of each day’s practice session, they sat beneath a coil of wire that sent a brief magnetic pulse into the motor cortex of their brain, located in a strip running from the crown of the head toward each ear. The so-called transcranial-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) test allows scientists to infer the function of neurons just beneath the coil. In the piano players, the TMS mapped how much of the motor cortex controlled the finger movements needed for the piano exercise. What the scientists found was that after a week of practice, the stretch of motor cortex devoted to these finger movements took over surrounding areas like dandelions on a suburban lawn.

The finding was in line with a growing number of discoveries at the time showing that greater use of a particular muscle causes the brain to devote more cortical real estate to it. But Pascual-Leone did not stop there. He extended the experiment by having another group of volunteers merely think about practicing the piano exercise. They played the simple piece of music in their head, holding their hands still while imagining how they would move their fingers. Then they too sat beneath the TMS coil.

When the scientists compared the TMS data on the two groups — those who actually tickled the ivories and those who only imagined doing so — they glimpsed a revolutionary idea about the brain: the ability of mere thought to alter the physical structure and function of our gray matter. For what the TMS revealed was that the region of motor cortex that controls the piano-playing fingers also expanded in the brains of volunteers who imagined playing the music–just as it had in those who actually played it.

“Mental practice resulted in a similar reorganization” of the brain, Pascual-Leone later wrote….

The article then continues discussing the plasticity of the brain into adulthood (which ran contrary to earlier opinion) and how brain “real estate” is reclaimed for other uses after a limb is amputated r”l.

On the subject of using thought to heal mental illness:

AS SCIENTISTS PROBE the limits of neuroplasticity, they are finding that mind sculpting can occur even without input from the outside world. The brain can change as a result of the thoughts we think, as with Pascual-Leone’s virtual piano players. This has important implications for health: something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought can affect the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can treat mental illness or, perhaps, lead to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion. It may even dial up the supposedly immovable happiness set point.In a series of experiments, for instance, Jeffrey Schwartz and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can quiet activity in the circuit that underlies obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), just as drugs do. Schwartz had become intrigued with the therapeutic potential of mindfulness meditation, the Buddhist practice of observing one’s inner experiences as if they were happening to someone else.

When OCD patients were plagued by an obsessive thought, Schwartz instructed them to think, “My brain is generating another obsessive thought. Don’t I know it is just some garbage thrown up by a faulty circuit?” After 10 weeks of mindfulness-based therapy, 12 out of 18 patients improved significantly. Before-and-after brain scans showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically and in exactly the way that drugs effective against OCD affect the brain. Schwartz called it “self-directed neuroplasticity,” concluding that “the mind can change the brain.”

The same is true when cognitive techniques are used to treat depression. Although she writes of Buddhist Meditation, it could certainly be speaking of hispa’alus or hisbonenus.

… With the help and encouragement of the Dalai Lama, Davidson recruited Buddhist monks to go to Madison and meditate inside his functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tube while he measured their brain activity during various mental states. For comparison, he used undergraduates who had had no experience with meditation but got a crash course in the basic techniques. During the generation of pure compassion, a standard Buddhist meditation technique, brain regions that keep track of what is self and what is other became quieter, the fMRI showed, as if the subjects–experienced meditators as well as novices–opened their minds and hearts to others.

More interesting were the differences between the so-called adepts and the novices. In the former, there was significantly greater activation in a brain network linked to empathy and maternal love. Connections from the frontal regions, so active during compassion meditation, to the brain’s emotional regions seemed to become stronger with more years of meditation practice, as if the brain had forged more robust connections between thinking and feeling.

But perhaps the most striking difference was in an area in the left prefrontal cortex — the site of activity that marks happiness. While the monks were generating feelings of compassion, activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal (associated with negative moods) to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity. By contrast, the undergraduate controls showed no such differences between the left and right prefrontal cortex. This suggests, says Davidson, that the positive state is a skill that can be trained.

For the monks as well as the patients with depression or OCD, the conscious act of thinking about their thoughts in a particular way rearranged the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity, in particular the power of the mind to change the brain, is still too new for scientists, let alone the rest of us, to grasp its full meaning. But even as it offers new therapies for illnesses of the mind, it promises something more fundamental: a new understanding of what it means to be human.

The Tools of Mussar

There is a comment of the Vilna Gaon’s on a line in Mishlei (Proverbs) 4:26 that is included in an introduction to Cheshbon haNefesh. Here’s a translation, any errors are mine:

פַּלֵּס, מַעְגַּל רַגְלֶךָ;    וְכָל-דְּרָכֶיךָ יִכֹּנוּ.

Straighten the path of your feet, and all your paths will be established.

I already wrote that there are two kinds of middos, which are those that are the middos which are born with him by nature, and those that he acclimated himself to. Those that were born with him are called “derakhav” (his paths), for they are his derekh (path) from the beginning of his creation. Those that he habituated himself to are called regel, because he made a habit (hirgil) of them.

To those he made a habit of, he must guard and straighten them a lot. When he guards them, then they which were in his nature, they will of course be guarded. This is “paleis ma’gal raglekha” [straighten the circuits of your feet; the first half of the verse in discussion]. Those which he became used to he needs to straighten and to pass little by little from the bad middos, like a peles, and not to grab right away the other extreme.

Until he habituates himself and it will be to him like nature. (And it says “ma’gal” (circuit) because to those [middos] that he habituated himself to he has to go around and revolve…)

Vekhol dirachecha yikonu” [and all your paths will be established; the 2nd part of the verse] of course those middos that are his derekh since birth are established (yikonu), from the term of “kan ubasis” (branch and basis, perhaps: branch and trunk). If you don’t guard those [middos that are] from habit, even “derakhav” won’t be established. For middos are like a string of pearls — if you make a knot at the end, then all are guarded, and if not, all are lost. So too are the middos. Therefore [the pasuq] says that if one straightens the circuit of his feet (raglav), then his ways (derakhav) will be set.

The Vilna Gaon refers to “derekh“, a path, and “raglav” which can translate to “his feet” or “his habits”. This being the book of Mishlei, which is literally “Metaphors”, obviously one is meant to stand in (sorry for the pun) the other. Middos are classified as being either an innate propensity or the product of habit — or a combination of the two.

With his metaphor of pearls, the Gaon writes of two sorts of middos, those with which we are born and those that we acquire by habit. If we are trying to modify a middah from what one was born with, the primary tool for doing so is hergeil, habituation.

In Ohr Yisrael, R’ Yisrael Salanter spells out a three-stage process to improving a midah.

1- Hargashah: feeling. Obviously one can not work on a broken middah until one is aware that it exists. As the cliche goes, “Realizing you have a problem is halfway to the cure.” I’m not sure if by “hargashah” (feeling) R’ Yisrael is referring to the awareness of the middah‘s state, or the feeling of a moral imperative to fix it. I could not be aware that I am too timid. Or, I could be aware of my timidity, but think that that it’s proper.

If I may be so bold as to suggest breaking this down into multiple steps:
a- awareness of an ideal,
b- internalization of that ideal until one is motivated to act on it, and
c- developing consciousness of when you are exhibiting the issue.

2- Kibbush hayeitzer: conquering the desire. Don’t start by trying to fix the attitude, rather, start with trying not to act on it. To give a personal example (that I have yet to succeed at): Kibbush of anger doesn’t mean not losing my top when my kid tells me he broke his toy “Because.” It means not acting on that anger.

The route to kibbush hayeitzer can be understood from the mitzvah of the eishes yefas to’ar. A Jewish soldier finds a woman in the enemy camp attractive and wants to take her. He is told that he must shave her head, dress her like a person (rather than booty), and allow her to mourn her family for a month. In short, the Torah allows the relationship but sets limits by requiring that the man take steps to insure treating her like a person. Rashi (Devarim 21:11) quotes Chazal, saying, “The Torah only spoke against the yeitzer hara.” This is usually taken to mean that while the act itself is against Torah values, Hashem realized that banning it altogether would be beyond the soldier’s ability to obey. However, that overlooks Chazal’s use of the word “keneged — against”. We are being given a key tool in fighting against the yeitzer hara.

To conquer a middah one does not try to eliminate it in a single step. Rather, one takes a single step, followed by another and another. It is a process of shteiging, of ever ascending upward. Kibbush HaYeitzer requires deciding to take that small step, to acquire a habit that whittles down the improper middah. Because these practices are accepted upon oneself, they are called qabbalos. Ideally, a qabbalah should meet the following criteria: the content should be (1) small enough that the person has a reasonable chance of following through on it, and yet (2) large enough to be measurable. Third, the length of a qabbalah should be a fixed period of weeks or months, and not an open-ended commitment. At the end of the period, one can assess whether one is ready to progress, or perhaps if the qabbalah was overly ambitious and needs to be rethought.

For example, if someone is working on savlanus (patience), a reasonable qabbalah might be to accept upon oneself not to lose one’s patience for the first five minutes upon returning home, or perhaps not to ever yell at the dinner table. It is not going to conquer the yeitzer all at once, but it is a measurable change that is small enough to actually follow through upon and yet also significant enough to build upon.

The first kind of qabbalah is most direct — picking part of the challenge, and choosing to act appropriately when it arises.

Moshe and the elders of Israel command the Jews, “Observe all the commandments that I will command you today. It will be when you cross the Jordan to the land which Hashem you G-d is giving you, you shall set up for yourselves large stones, and cover them in lime. Write on them all the words of this Torah…” (Devarim 27:1-3)

Crossing the Jordan need not have been a reminder to observe the mitzvos. Moshe commands them, though, to perform a commemorative act, to use the moment. This corresponds to a second kind of kabbalah, an acceptance to use a moment and artificially connect it to the desired goal. This could be because the triggering event is frequent and therefore would serve as a regular reminder to establish a habit. For example, one friend accepted a kabbalah to remember the six basic mitzvos of the mind every time he enters the car, using its ceiling, floor and four sides as a mnemonic for the six beliefs.

A third kind of kabbalah aims to change what used to be a preconscious decision into a conscious one. Dr. Alan Morinis tells of one such, recommended to him by Rabbi Yitzchok Perr, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Derech Aisan in Far Rockaway. Rabbi Perr recommended that whenever one feels impatient or angry, one should slip a rubber band, one loose enough to be comfortable but yet small enough to be felt, on one’s hand. (Alan Morinis, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, pp. 47-48) This is also hergel; it is practicing making the process of getting impatient or angry a conscious one, rather than an immediate reaction that short-circuits our free will.

3- Tiqun hamiddah: fixing the desire. This happens as a consequence of prolonged qibbush. The habit changes the middah. As we saw above, from the Vilna Gaon.

This is one reason why giving causes love. It was one of the better-known techniques of the ba’alei mussar; when someone irritates you, or you simply dislike him, give to him more. (See this post on the subject.) Kibbush isn’t just a half-way step to true tikkun, it’s a necessary precondition. It’s through acting as though a feeling exists (or doesn’t) that the change in character occurs. (I found it interesting to compare
this to the approaches of behavior therapy.

A sibling to this notion is a basic part of Jewish observance. Many of the Chinuch’s explanations for each of the various mitzvos begin with the phrase (or a variation of it) “man is affected according to his actions”. It sounds nicer in Hebrew, where the words I translated as “affected” and “actions” have the same root and shares the same letters as “according to”: ha’adam nif’al lefi pe’ulosav.

Four of the above are procedural steps, and the tools developed by the ba’alei mussar can be divided by which of these steps they address.

1a- Learning the ideal:

Mussar Study: This doesn’t only mean opening a Mesilas Yesharim. It’s also how one is listening to what one learns in other subjects. Reviewing parashas Pinechas twice and once in translation isn’t just a means to get through the parashah, it provides lessons in violence by giving an exceptional case where it’s appropriate, it teaches something about leaving a legacy when Moshe ordains Yehushua and appoints him his successor, and when Tzelafchad’s daughters worry about the loss of their father’s legacy, it speaks to us even in the census and the sacrifices of the holidays, although there the language is more obscure.

Of course, it does also mean Mesilas Yesharim, Orchos Tzadiqim, Shaarei Teshuvah, Mishlei…

1b- Internalizing the ideal

Hisbonenus: visualization. People are far more moved by experiences than by ideas. This is why Hashem “speaks” to a prophet in visions, and through the symbols of halakhah. Through the koach hadimyon, one can invent pseudo-experiences. See my earlier entry “I have a Dream“.

Hispa’alus: find some quote (sentence or paragraph length) about the middah in question or about something you feel is one of the causes of it in your own case. Spend time (10 min to start with, working your way up as you get used to it) each morning chanting it in a singsong, until you’ve gleaned some new insight into the problem. For more on hispa’alus, see Mesukim miDevash on parashas Ki-Seitzei (pp 2-4).

For example, if dealing with jealousy (ayin ra), a quote might be “Al tira ki yashir ish, ki yirbeh kevod beiso, ki lo bemoso yiqach hakol, lo yeireid acharav kevodo — Do not be overawed when someone gets wealth; when the honor of his home accumulates; for when he dies he won’t take it all, his honor will not descend after him.” A good line for many in the Orthodox community because it’s pretty well known from songs — but don’t sing it unless the tune helps the line penetrate! Now think about that line. First about the plain meaning, but as you say it REALLY think. For example, why the repetition? How do wealth and honor differ from eachother, and how do they differ from what one really does take with them when one dies, after 120

Tefillah is also far more effective behispa’alus. See this treatment of “Yismach Mosheh” (questions, thoughts) for an example.

Batei Mussar (the Mussar Kloiz): without the proper social setting, doing this work will remain “weird”, and fall into neglect. Peer pressure is a powerful force, too powerful to neglect in our toolset. Also, with continued use of a given space just for Mussar, simply entering a beis mussar places someone in the right mindset.

1c- Consciousness of the real

Cheshbon hanefesh: Keep a diary of all the times you’ve experienced the middah in question and what triggered it. Also keep track of what worked in getting rid of it. Just getting one’s conscious mind involved in the process is a major help.

For more on the centrality of hispa’alus and of keeping a cheshbon see Mesukim miDevash for parashas Shofetim pp2-4.

2- Kibbush haYeitzer

Qabbalos: Slow incremental change is the most sure. So, accept upon yourself one small step away from jealousy. (See Mesukim miDevash for parashas Eikev pp 2-3 for an exploration of how habit can be used to fulfill the mitzvah of loving Hashem.) For jealousy this is difficult, since you don’t want to encourage a habit of “sour grapes” (“what they have ain’t so great anyway…”) Perhaps something that encourages sharing in someone else’s joy in what they have.

A possible qabbalah (perhaps more relevent for a woman) might be that every time you go to shul you’ll find three things to compliment other women about their attire. No back-handed compliments!

Pe’ulos: this is more of a Novhordok thing, so I’m speaking more as an outsider. Basically, this involves role playing. It might even include intentionally going out in a manner that belittles the very thing you’re jealous of. To return to the problem of clothing competition: Not letting yourself go to shul in anything from this year’s (frum) fashion for a period of n months.

Va’ad: a “committee” (literal translation) of friends that can learn the subject and work together on qabalos. Peer pressure and support can be powerful things! See Mesukim miDevash on parashas Nitzavim (pp 2-3) for more on the value of ve’adim and the mussar community.

I’ve often felt that the shemiras halashon (watch your speech) campaign would go further if we organized ve’adim rather than classes. We all know it’s wrong; the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge in the head. It’s getting the heart caught up that takes work.

Book Announcement: Every Day, Holy Day

Cover PictureNow available. Alan’s newest book!
(assisted by Rabbi Micha Berger)

“You shall be holy,” teaches the Torah, and the masters of Mussar have always taken that command very seriously. Mussar is a system of introspective practices that help you identify and break through the obstacles to your inherent holiness, using methods that integrate easily into daily life.

Every Day, Holy Day is a year long program of Mussar practice that focuses on a system of traits (middot)–such as strength, generosity, watchfulness, loving-kindness, and awe–each of which is worked with for a week at a time in order to develop and refine the quality in yourself. It’s remarkably simple and effective.

Click the book image to order your copy of Every Day, Holy Day, or to send someone a gift that will change their life.

Tefillah Behitpa’alut

These are notes from a talk I gave in Zion Il at the 8th Mussar Kallah. As a favor to those who asked me to publish notes, as the talk was given on Shabbos, I tried to use a more Israeli-sounding transliteration scheme than I’m used to. The result is probably sadly inconsistent.

Defining Tefillah

Our forefather Jacob, lying on his deathbed, tells his son Joseph:

וַֽאֲנִ֞י נָתַ֧תִּֽי לְךָ֛ שְׁכֶ֥ם אַחַ֖ד עַל־אַחֶ֑יךָ אֲשֶׁ֤ר לָקַ֨חְתִּי֙ מִיַּ֣ד הָֽאֱמֹרִ֔י בְּחַרְבִּ֖י וּבְקַשְׁתִּֽי׃

Also, I gave you one portion (or perhaps, “one thing, [the city of] Shechem”) beyond that of your brothers, which I took from the control of the Emori — becharbi uvqashti — with my sword and with my bow.

Bereishit 48:22

The Targum Yonasan renders “with my sword and with my bow” as “betzeloti uva’ut-hi — with my prayers and my requests”. This is also in Bava Batra 123, “‘Charbi’ — this is tefillah, ‘qashti’ – this is request.”

The Amidah is such an archetype for the former kind prayer, Chazal simply refer to it as tefillah or tzelotana (depending on the language). The Amidah, even in its immediate requests speaks in the plural, referring to the Jewish people as a whole, not my own immediate needs, and the majority of its requests are a progression describing the ultimate redemption. We have the list of prayers in the gemara (Berakhos 16b) that various tannaim, “after tzelotana — his Amidah — he would say like this”. In contrast, E-lokai Netzor, the post-Amidah petition that made it into our liturgy, is written in the first person, about my own religious needs and protection from those who want ill for me personally.

The Vilna Gaon characterizes two kinds of prayer: tefillah and tachanunim. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik note, lehit-pallel is in the reflexive; something we do to ourselves. Teaching ourselves to turn to Hashem, and what things ought to be our priorities. Our primary tefillah was therefore organized by Anshei Keneses haGdolah in the sunset of the prophetic period, as a means of impressing us with the art of dialogue with the Almighty.

Turning to our Father with the needs actually on our mind is called tachanunim. An ideal time for requests of Gcd is immediately after tefillah, as we find in the above-mentioned list of tannaim’s requests. As well as the prayer named “Tachanun.” Common among many of our grandmothers or greatgrandmothers was the old, worn, Techines, a collection of Yiddish informal prayers. Requests.

Tefillah is always in the plural, placing ourselves in the context of the community. Requests, like E-lokai Netzor, can also be in the singular. Because E-lokai Netzor exists as a framework for what should essentially be spontaneous, we have a long tradition of adding various requests to it, rather than preserving the tanna’s original coinage untouched. Similarly also, in the blessing said early in the morning, “E-lokai Neshamah”, also written about “E-lokai”, my Gcd, without expecting me to connect to the rest of the nation and speak to “E-lokeinu — our Gcd.” And we begin the blessing, “My Gcd, the soul which you placed within me is pure”. Note that we don’t speak of the truth, of our being the soul who is placed within the body. Rather, we phrase this techninah, this request, in terms of how the world too often seems to us. That there is some “me” that the soul is placed within.

Just as the requests we make as part of regular davening has this element of a pre-written trellis, of tefillah, upon which we are to grow our natural expressions of our longings for Gcd, we also do not call for pure tefillah with no element of personal outpouring. We ask for the health of a sick friend with an insertion in “Refa’einu”, or Hashem’s help showing our children how to embrace the Torah’s wisdom in “Atah Chonein”, etc… “Whomever makes their tefillos fixed has not made their tefillos into tachanunim.” How is it possible inculcate the proper way to turn to Gcd to ask for someone’s health and yet still be able to remain silent when at the same time we know someone ill?

This inseparability of these two modes of worship might be an implication of the opening words of Mesilat Yesharim. The Ramchal begins, “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה – the foundation of piety and the root of work/worship…” The words’ initials are an acronym spelling out the four letter name of Gcd. However, three of the letters used in the acronym are prefixes. The Ramchal could have equally written “יסוד העבודה ושורש החסידות – the foundation of worship and the root of piety” and still have had the same acronym. Why did he choose to associate the more artificial “foundation” with piety, and the image of the more natural “root” when it comes to avodah, which means work? It would seem to me he is intentionally showing that the two are inherently mixed. That conscious work on our relationships with Hashem and with other people must flow from natural growth from the root, and our free emotional expression can’t be divorced from consciously building a foundation.

Returning to the Vilna Gaon’s distinction, the core difference between tefillah and requests is that requests are a raw primeval reaching out to our Parent in heaven, and tefillah is an exercise in how we are supposed to reach out to Him.

In this light, the core of the metaphor in the original verse, “my sword and my bow” as modes of prayer, is usability. A sword in the hands of an expert is formidable, but even in the hands of a klutz, a sword can be dangerous. Arrows shot by someone with no experience at marksmanship are pretty much useless. Thus, tefillah, like those pre-composed by the Men of the Great Assembly or the sages of the Talmud, is more like a sword — of utility to anyone. The art of techinah, of personally composed requests — that requires greater skill and for the person to already feel that connection to the A-lmighty that their reflexive response is to cry out to Him, to be of any value.

The words of the Targum also appear in the Full Qaddish, the version used for the first recitation of Qaddish after the Amidah. “Titqabel tzelot-hon uva’ut-hon dekhol Yisrael — accept the tefillot and the requests of all of Israel…” And when Tachanun is said, this Qaddish isn’t said until after Tachanun — after the core mitzvot of tefillah and requests.

And so, our siddur has a long preparatory section and a cooling down section after the Full Qaddish. In between are three mitzvot:

  • Shema — accepting Gcd as Monarch, a distinct biblical mitzvah
  • Tefillah
  • Tachanunim


We noted that the verb usually used for tefillah, lehitpalel, is the reflexive conjugation — which is called hitpa’el. Hitpa’elhitpa’alut! The notion of tefillah behitpa’alut is not some Mussar Movement innovation, it’s inherent in the very language used.

Defining Hitpa’alut

Encounters with text:

The old way of doing things, from the Enlightenment until the middle of the 20th century, was to encounter texts by trying to determine the author’s original intent. This requires finding the historical context of the author, learning about his mental state, etc…

Of course, it was rapidly found to be error prone. Whether we wish to or not, we can’t really recreate the world and the mind of the author, and we are still encountering the text based on our own definitions of things. While the classical academic tried to find the original intent of the text, the postmodern found this impossible and therefore doesn’t try. Instead, he looks to see what social constructs the text implies for the primary purpose of questioning it.

One can see a central theme of Judaism, or almost any religion, is to make a point of imparting a metanarrative. Questioning the metanarrative means never really encountering a religious narrative. You can’t sit on the outside peering in and truly experience a religion. Without “טַֽעֲמ֣וּ — taste”, one will never get to “וּ֭רְאוּ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֑ — see that Gcd is good!” (Tehillim 34:9)

Both the classical academic and the Deconstructionist share one thing in common — they see themselves as encountering the text. The idea is that the material is “other”, outside, to remain objectively studied. One looks for the context for which the text was written. The other looks for how the text can be understood with minimal assumptions about context.

Mesorah is a living tradition of a development of ideas. The Oral Torah is oral, a dialog across the generations. If we see a quote in the talmud from Rav Yochanan, we might be curious about the historical intent of Rav Yochanan. But in terms of Torah, important to us than what R’ Yochanan’s original intent is what R’ Ashi (a redactor of the talmud) thought that intent was, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of what the Rosh and the Rambam understood R’ Ashi’s meaning to be, which in turn can only be understood through the eyes of the Shaagas Aryeh and R’ Chaim Briskerm and so on down until the rabbis of today.  That is the “true meaning”, in terms of Torah, of Rav Yoachanan’s statement.

Definitionally, Torah study is entering the stream of Jewish Tradition. Not seeing a statement as a point to isolate in time and space, but as a being within current that runs through history from creation to redemption.

Hitpa’alut is not standing outside the text and interpreting it — it’s achieving unity with with the text by letting it interpret and shape me. Notice this definition isn’t limited to any particular practice or technique. It’s an attitude toward how we study Mussar texts, Torah texts in general…

… and in how we pray. The siddur becomes a set of truths and values that a millennium of rabbis — from the last of the prophets through the Second Temple period, the Talmudic era, and all the way until the 9th century CE and the transition from geonim to the rishonim of Sepharad and Ashkenaz (after which all our differences were very minor) — thought were so crucial to being a Jew they wanted these ideas repeated daily and internalized.


Hitpa’alut is therefore an attitude one takes to how one learns a text. Not a specific technique or practice. It is learning a text to seek ways to be changed and refined by the encounter with it.

That said, the Mussar Movement did produce such techniques. [Below I divide them by the schools in which each technique was more common. However, after giving this presentation, Rabbi Avi Fertig noted that while this distinction may be accurate, that kind of analysis is itself something the members of those schools would not have made.]

I would like to relate the various kinds of hitpa’alut to the siddur’s description of the prayers of the angels, as it appears in the first blessing of the morning Shema. More than an aid for remembering an organizing the modes, it itself may aid in hitpa’alut when saying these words. Don’t just think of it as a description of events in heaven, as perceived by Ezekiel and Isaiah. Rather, it is an example for us to emulate of how yir’ah is felt and expressed. The blessing reads (in part):

…וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם על מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם זֶה מִזֶּה.
וְנותְנִים רְשׁוּת זֶה לָזֶה
לְהַקְדִּישׁ לְיוצְרָם
בְּנַחַת רוּחַ – Spiritual tranquility
בְּשפָה בְרוּרָה – Clear language: cognitive
וּבִנְעִימָה. – Pleasant voice: aesthetic
קְדֻשָׁה כֻּלָּם כְּאֶחָד עונִים, וְאומְרִים בְּיִרְאָה…

And they all accept the yoke of the kingdom of [the One in] heaven one from the other
and give permission, one to the other
to sanctify [proclaim the sanctity] of their Maker
with a tranquil spirit
with clear language
and with a pleasant voice.
They declare sanctity as one
and say with yir’ah…

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that the angelic prayer is described as having perfection on three planes:

  • spiritual – tranquil spirit
  • cognitive – clear language, and
  • aesthetic – pleasant voice.

And so we’re going to find that tools for hitpa’alut are also designed to move man on each of these planes.


Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Ohr Yisrael has a chapter (#30) about hitpa’alut, but it too focuses on the attitude toward texts and its role in Mussar more than giving any particular methodology. I think that it’s from here that Rabbi Zvi Miller draws his sources for a chanting practice. Rav Yisrael does speak of two specifics:

  1. Studying with “sefatayim dolqot – lips aflame”
  2. Repetition with tune, volume and passion.

So Rav Yisrael is speaking of chanting or passionate singing. But as I wrote, there isn’t enough there to really be sure about a specific practice. We will revisit this issue when we get to Novhardok and their take on “lips aflame”.

Kelm – Cognitive

Rav Yisrael Salanter opens his Mussar Letter with the words “A person is constrained in his intellect and free/undisciplined in his imagination.” To Kelm, this meant seeing Mussar in terms of imposing will, conscious thought, on our decisions. Rather than reacting reflexively, react after reflecting. This is demonstrated in how they practiced hitpa’alut as well.

The Alter of Kelm describes a five-step process (broken down into clear steps from the original letter in Kitvei haSaba miKelm — Letters of the Alter of Kelm by Rabbi Hillel Goldberg in “The Fire Within”, which is out of print but available used via Amazon’s sellers) :

  1. Intense and single-minded concentration on a single thought. One phrase, sentence or paragraph, repeated out loud and with a tune, to help keep away extraneous thoughts.A beginner should start with five minutes and work his way upward.
  2. That much focus on a single thought creates an emotional response.
  3. Through the extended concentration, one can find a chiddush, a new insight into the thought. As many corporate managers learn, if you want your employees to “buy into” a new project, you hold a brainstorming session. By getting each person to contribute ideas to the project, they get a sense of possession. The project becomes “theirs”.
  4. Through this chiddush the person develops an attachment and “takes ownership” of the idea.
  5. Last, the person deepens the insight into profundity on Torah, one’s own nature, and the interaction of the two. How the Torah speaks to my condition, and how the uniqueness of who I am and how I see things speaks to the Torah.

Rav EE Dessler was a third generation Kelm disciple. In “Strive for Truth” vol I, the chapter “How to reflect on a Mussar Statement: A meditation on Messilat Yasharim chapter one” the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim” he describes the layers of meaning that can be found in that chapter. Mesilat Yesharim would be studied, repeated, absorbed, innovated, applied to one’s life at a rate of a couple of lines per day with 20 minutes to a half an hour dedicated to the exercise. Their goal wasn’t to study or learn the book, but to create an emotional bond and unity with it.         That was hitpa’alut as understood in Kelm.

Novhardok – Music

In Novhardok, hitpa’alut had both of these elements. One would begin with the contemplations and analysis that we saw attributed to the Alter of Kelm. But rather than relying on the sense of intellectual “ownership” alone to internalize the message, they would take a second step, using aesthetics to make an impression. They would chant the idea, sing the idea, repeat it to themselves in a heartful song for fifteen minutes or more. Dance, if that’s what they were moved to do.

Slabodka – Visualization

Rav Yisrael speaks in the Mussar Letter not only of intellect vs. emotion, but of intellect vs. imagination — meaning both what we normally call imagination, but also the impact of having images and sounds of what we experience copied into our heads. (What philosophers of the mind call “qualia“.) In Slabodka, this meant that hitpa’alut would require drafting that mode of thought, sublimating the path usually taken by the yeitzer hara. A pamplet by R’ Yehudah Mendelson (of Kollel Daas Shelomo in J-m, named for R’ Shelomo Wolbe) develops this notion of hitpa’alut — Visualizing.

[We heard this too on Sunday, in Rabbi Avi Fertig’s description of hitpa’alut. It includes visualizing how we would handle a situation. Visualizing how the text being studied would call for the situation to be played out. There was much more in his talk about how to do hitpa’alut that wasn’t touched on in my talk, but trying to include it all would broaden the scope of this write-up beyond my ability to complete.]

In prayer, we can just say “Barukh”, calling Hashem the Source, the Wellspring (Bereikhah) of existence. Or we can visualizing getting our vitality as light or water from an infinitely far away Source. We can speak of the Divine Wisdom in the apple we are about to eat, or we can spend time picturing the beauty of an apple tree. Or an apple seed somehow containing all the information necessary for us to watch it grow into a tree, bear fruit, and have new seeds.


Tefillah is something we do to ourselves, to make ourselves a prayer. What is greater praise of Gcd — to say “You are worthy of our service” or actually serving him? And so, tefillah is about internalizing those things we say in order to be better able to live up to those ideals, so that the prayers do not remain empty platitudes.

We see in the liturgical poem, Nishmat, “Even if our mouths were as full of song as the sea, our tongues — of joyous noise like its high waves, our lips — praise like the expanse of the sky, our hands outstretched like the eagles of the heavens, our feet as swift as ibexes” we would still lack the skill necessary to praise Gcd. “Therefore,” we continue “the limbs that You attached to us, and the will and soul which You breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that You placed in our mouths, they themselves shall praise…” How is this? First we say they are grossly insufficient, therefore they should do the praising? The answer is in the words “heim heim — they themselves.” The existence of a mouth that can do all the right motions, of a mind that can put together the concepts and the words, they themselves embody more praise of Gcd than the words I use them to utter.

And so the goal of my prayer is to commit them to the tasks for which they were made. To embody their highest potential. To take the words we were given and impress them on those limbs, will, soul, tongue and mouth.

This requires changing how we view the siddur. It is not quiet calming ritual, an abstract book, or a text for me to pick and choose what relates to me as I am now. Rather, it is an active encounter between real and ideal. Me facing the stream of Jewish tradition since the prophets, and trying to join that momentum.

To do so, we need to employ deep study of the words, to continually find new meaning in the words. We need to employ the aesthetics of song and the power of visualizing to add emotional impact, to move both body and heart, so that, as King David wrote (Tehillim 35:10):

כָּ֥ל עַצְמוֹתַ֨י ׀ תֹּאמַרְנָה֮    ה֗’ מִ֥י כָ֫מ֥וֹךָ

All my bones shall say, “Hashem, who is like you?”


(These are the examples I prepared for the talk. They don’t really work as examples without the presentation.)


אַשְׁרֵי יוֹשְׁבֵי בֵיתֶך עוֹד יְהַלְלוּךָ סֶּלָה.
אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם שֶׁכָּכָה לּוֹ: אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם, שֱׁיְ-הוָה אֱ-לֹהָיו.

Ash-rei yo-sh’vei vei-te-cha, od y’ha-l’lu-cha, se-la.
Ash-rei ha-am she-ka-cha lo, ash-rei ha-am she-A-do-nai e-lo-hav.

Enriched [in their pursuit of self-refinement] are those who dwell in Your house, they are forever praising You, Selah!
Enriched [in their interpersonal unity] is the nation for whom such is the case,
Enriched [in their cleaving to Hashem] is the nation that Hashem is its Gcd.

מַלְכוּתְךָ מַלְכוּת כָּל-עֹלָמִים, וּמֶמְשַׁלְתְּךָ, בְּכָל-דּוֹר וָדֹר.

Mal-chut’cha mal-chut kawl o-la-mim, u-mem-shal-t’cha b’chawl dor va-dor.

Your kingship [by the acclimation of the governed] is a kingship for all ages
Your rule [as imposed by Your Will] is from generation to generation [even before Kingship is manifest].

פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת-יָדֶךָ, וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל-חַי רָצוֹן.

Po-tei-ach et ya-de-cha,u-mas-bi-a l’chawl chai ra-tson.

You open Your “Hand”
and satisfy the desire of every living being.
… and willingly satisfy every living being.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to be desirable.
… and satisfy the need of every living being to have desires and goals [rather than ennui].


אֲ-דנָי שפָתַי תִּפְתָּח
וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ:

A-do-nai s’fa-tai tif-tach,
u-fi ya-gid t’hi-la-te-cha.

Hashem, open my lips[, remove my surface distractions],
and my mouth [expressing my more inner thoughts] will tell of Your praises.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְ-הוָה
וֵ-אלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ
א-ֱלהֵי אַבְרָהָם
אֱ-להֵי יִצְחָק
וֵא-להֵי יַעֲקב….

a-tah A-do-nai
E-lo-hei-nu, Vei-lo-hei a-vo-tei-nu,
E-lo-hei Av-ra-ham, E-lo-hei Yitz-chak, Vei-lo-hei Ya-a-kov…

You are Blessed the Source of all increase
the All-Merciful Cause of all existence
Our Lawgiving Gcd [of natural law]
the Lawgiving Gcd of our ancestors [who better lived by Your moral law]
the Gcd of Abraham [who emulated Your kindness]
the Gcd of Isaac [who cleaved to you]
the Gcd of Jacov [who saught to internalize your wisdom]….


לְשַׁבֵּחַ לַאֲדון הַכּל
לָתֵת גְּדֻלָּה לְיוצֵר בְּרֵאשִׁית.

l’sha-bei-ach La-a-don ha-kol

It is upon us
to praise to the Master of everything
to give greatness to the One Who gave form to the beginning…

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.