“Mussar Practice”, Chapter 5 Hislamdus [Teaching Oneself]

In this chapter we arrive at practical avodah. It is incumbent on us to find a path in avodah that does not awaken pridefulness. This is a difficult thing, a bit of a contradiction, because how can a person not become prideful when he is becoming a “man of deeds” that from a strict legal perspective he is obligated in, and it’s as though it’s a gift of his heart that he is developing them? This difficulty requires us to devise for ourselves a new lifestyle: the path ofhislamdus. What is it?

A woman who learned Torah receives reward, but not like the reward of a man, because she isn’t obligated. Etc… And even though she receives reward, our sages commanded that a man not teach his daughter Torah, because most women’s intellects aren’t ready lehislameid. Rather, they find the words of Torah to be words of emptiness according to the poverty of their intellect. Our sages said that one who teaches his daughter Torah is like he taught her foolishness.

— [Rambam, Mishneh Torah, chapter] 1 [Laws of] Torah Study, law] 13

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 Tetzei, shishi) And it’s good for someone who learned this, for he learned Tractate Nega’im, but withouthislamdus

The Rambam, in Laws of Torah Study, opens before us a new path in toiling in the Torah — the way of hislamdus. And with this we are able to learn even a tractate that appears not to have any practical impact, such as Nega’im, and to hislameid in it great yir’ah. Hislamdus — this is a new and wondrous lifestyle, not only in Torah study but in all aspects of life. It’s a clear mishnah, and because of the great force of the subject we will explain at length:

Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person. As it says ‘from all my teachers I have become intelligent.'”

— Avos 4:1

R’ Ovadiah from Bartenura (ad loc):

Who learns from every person — and even though he is lesser than him, since he isn’t standing on his honor and learns things from those who are blatantly lesser. For his wisdom is only for the sake of heaven, and not something with which to get glory and splendor.

Chochmah and Mussar from Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm:

Every person who has talent in some area will really feel something when he sees some thing in this area. For example: a tailor who sees a person will look in particular at his clothes. A cobbler — at so-and-so’s shoes. A hat maker — at so-and-so’s hat. Similarly a shopkeeper in the market will be very alert to speech or action that will bring him some gain in his sales. Unlike another person, who wouldn’t hear or see these things, for his heart isn’t given over to ask and look into these thing, for he has no desire in them.

Therefore, in avodas Hashem, one who has awe of G-d, for example, guards the simple things that are explained in the Shulchan Aruch, willhislameid from others when he sees them by him. Unlike in things that he isn’t acclimated in them — will notice it in others, such as the love of other people, bestowing kindness in act or word, or sharing a friend’s burden, to prevent loss from many by applying wisdom — all this if he has no feeling in this won’t understand to hislameid other people. If so, “one who learns from all people” he is a great merchant, with merchandise inevery domain, therefore he will understand to hislameid from that which is lacking in it, and therefore is called “wise”.

Chochmah uMussar vol 2, ch 113

The intent of our rav, Rav Simcha Zissel, is this: that tailor looks only at another’s suit, the shoemaker only at the shoes, and the hat maker only at his hat. So the one who has yir’as shamayim looks only at the details of the mitzvos of others, and people of kindness only in his acts of kindness. But “one who learns from all people” is mislameid from others all that is there to be learned, and also the things that were until then beyond the limits of his interest, he understands to be present in his friend and learn from them.

Someone who “learns from all people” is open to anything he sees in the world to learn from it. We will even add: not only will he learn from people: he will learn also “modesty from the cat, theft from the flea, and sexual morality from the dove, and derekh eretz from the rooster that romances and only then copulates.” For “before him from the animals of the land and the birds of the skies will make him wise” (Eiruvin 100b). For our sages were great “mislamdim” and they show us how to learn even from beasts, animals and birds.

This too we are adding in this: “Rebbe says, ‘why is the chapter on nazir next to the chapter on sotah? To tell you that whomever sees a sotah in her downfall should guard himself from wine” (Sotah 2a). The mislameid knows that every sin that he sees by another — he himself also is prone to trip up in, as he is a person with an evil inclination just like him. Therefore, when he sees a sotah in her disgrace he is alerted to this destructiveness. However, he immediately considers how she reached her current low state, and he understands that certainly flirtatiousness and frivolity were her undoing, and drinking wine undid her — and immediately he accepts upon himself restraint from wine that he won’t drink he too to descend to the depths… Even from sinners they are mislamdim! How far is this approach of the mislameid from that of most people who take the joys of their life from the sunkenness of the sinner without being hisbonein about how close ch”v they too are to stumbling in similar sins that they have evil inclinations like his!

This hislamdus is a large and rich “tractate”, and is it upon us to be busy with is at least half a year until we are changed into being mislamdim in all our issues. For this is not a single character trait, but a signpost for life of someone who works at mussar. And if we only did it for this, is would have been enough: if all the mussar work were to bring us hislamdus alone, this would already be a great goal.

— Let us return to the beginning of the chapter: We have sought a path in avodah that prevents any awakening of egotism — how will we find this in the path of hislamdus? R’ Ovadiah from Bartenura on the mishnah “who is wise?” already hinted about this: with hislamdus there is relevancy to egotism! If I dosome good thing — I have done nothing that I can take pride in, since I am only hislameid! And when I hislameid — I always readily see that the act wasn’t as complete as necessary; a talent that pulls me in every act informing me about what could be improved. And if hislamdus becomes a way of life for me, and in all my issues I am “only” hislameid, and I always see room for improvement and greater perfection — I will never come to egotism because of the things I do.

Someone who wants to “work on himself” must understand well the depth of these things, and he must agree to establish his life, from now on, on this foundation of hislamdus. That in all his issues he will only hislameid and this literally until his last day. Also when he reaches the day of death he won’t die — he will hislameid how to die. This is the way of someone who toils in the work of mussar.

Now we will hislameid practical hislamdus.


First Va’ad:

We will start our avodah with something easy: we will teach ourselves how to say in the morning “Adon Olam“. Lest we err in this: our intent in this is notto increase kavanah (because it is hard to avoid the pitfall of frumkeit which draws every avodah toward the appearance to be more frum). The intent is to teach oneself how we say “Adon Olam“. Each one will quickly conclude that he almost never contemplates what is written there. And from now on he will teach himself to pay more attention to what he is saying. Literally there will be revealed before him a new “Adon Olam“. This hislamdus should continue a number of weeks, until they receive the “ta’am” of this kind of hislamdus.


Second Va’ad:

In order to better feel for themselves what “hislamdus” is, they should set for themselves a time to hislameid in some berakhah. This is also according to the same program: the intent is not to add more kavanah but to learn how one makes a berakhah.


Third Va’ad:

From now on we touch on a harder topic. “Who is wise? One who learns from every person. As it says, ‘from all my teachers I have been enlightened.'” There is what to hislameid literally from every person: some small behavior, some personality trait, or some bit of wisdom. We will try, somehow, tohislameid from our friends three things every day.

In the beginning, they will struggle with it greatly, because they aren’t used to acting like this. To be alert during encounters with friends at all times, just to find in them some good thing that we can learn from — this is something we have never attempted. Many days will go by and we succeed to reveal within friends some good thing that is worthwhile to hislameid from him. But do not give up on it, and in small steps we will succeed in the end to pay attention every day in finding in our friends small things that are worthwhile to hislameid from them.

After we revealed things like this, we will continue for a number of weeks. From this point it will be substantive hislamdus, that we will pay attention to some good behavior of his friend and to say to ourselves, “How nice is this behavior, and I will also act like him in this thing!


Fourth Va’ad:

Now we will continue more a shade further. Every day we encounter many different people: a shopkeeper, a postman, a bus driver, a mother’s aid, and small children. Now we will try to hislameid on every day three things. Something like this didn’t cross our minds at all that from the commoners of the nation one can also learn some good thing. Even as our sages say, “who learns from every person” without exception! We never spoke about big things, however, some good element, some good word we can learn from every person.

In this too we will struggle a lot in the beginning, and as time passes a new world will be revealed to us, of simple people who are full of mitzvos like a pomegranate [is of seeds]. It is worthwhile to teach oneself in this hislamdus for a very long time. As was already said by one of the holy ones of above who learned a number of things from thieves and children. From thieves he learned that the essence of their work is at night, and what they worked for at night they sold during the day at half price, and they have a good friendship with other thieves. From children he learned that they not once sit still and do nothing, and when they need something they cry…


Fifth Va’ad:

There is nothing in creation that one can’t hislameid from, because that is why HKBH created so many things. As our sages already said, “Had the Torah not been given, we would learn modesty from the cat, theft from the flea, and sexual morality from the dove, and derekh eretz from the rooster that romances and only then copulates” (Eiruvin 100b). In this way we hislameid something from all living things three times a day. And if there is nothing to learn from then in behavior, we will hislameid to see in them the wisdom of the Creator, may He be blessed.


Sixth Va’ad:

Here we turn in a new direction: events in the world. In general we listen to various news events. From near and far, each day’s in its day, and it’s enough for us to simply listen, without becoming emotional. A person reads in the newspaper in the morning about some terrible tragedy r”l and continues to quietly sip his coffee. Because the matter doesn’t touch him at all, and does say anything to him. This is a large opportunity for hislamdus. Aside from the subject of our avodah, one can see in it not a small amount of callousness of feelings. That we are so blasé about a tragedy that afflicted a number of people and more if it afflicted people of the covenant r”l.

Here we want do be “mislamdim” at the core of our beings, and of course no news events should pass without us hislameid some thing from them. What can we hislameid from this? Whether it’s the recognition of the trait of Justice or the trait of Mercy that is revealed in it, whether it’s to hislameid to carry the burden with those who are touched by some trait, or whether it’s to learn from the inner strength of those people who are in such a situation.

Evidently it’s necessary for this to be a natural reaction, that no event that we read or hear about would pass without some thought on our part. But what shall we do, callousness of the heart dominates us, and we don’t feel, and we don’t react at all aside from a few words of dismay and “action” from the lips outward.

We will perform, somehow, some avodah to hislameid some small thing three times a day when we listen or read about various events.


Seventh Va’ad:

Perhaps among the hardest things in our topic is for a person to hislameid in his home. The man of the house, from the time he was a groom, was used to expect in his home certain things: his wife’s thoughts and actions in many things are incomprehensible to him, and he is already acclimated to act according to his feeling without trying to understand her. And who understands his children when they run wild, are stubborn, or quarrel? The father is busy and doesn’t have patience for their unruliness and is short with them in a moment according to his feelings; he yells, slaps, gets angry, without troubling himself to understand why they are behaving this way. A person gets used to living in his home over the course of years without a trial to understand what occurs in his immediate surroundings. The damage that grows from this is clear, and there is no need to elaborate in describing it. When we begin to hislameidfrom the people of our homes it is likely that there will be revealed before us literally a whole new world — a new era in the issues of peace at home and raising children. After all the rungs in the avodah of hislamdus that already passed there is great hope that we won’t limit the hislamdus to only three time, rather it will remain for all situations and times, in particular at home for this is the primary place for healing the lack of hislamdus.

It is impossible that the “mislameid of hislamdus” will not feel how this will broaden his inner world in the footsteps of these practices, and his life will literally become richer.


Eighth Va’ad:

We were busy with many new things with hislamdus. And there is good hope that with these many practices we succeeded to acquire this beautiful attribute in our souls. From now on we will be more able to approach our acts of mitzvos also from within hislamdus. And it would push away the rote and the habit that ruled us for the course of years. From now on we will hislameid to lay tefillin, to wear tzitzis, to give charity, to observe Shabbos. There is no limit to the details of this hislamdus, whether in mitzvos, whether the daily activities, whether in the schedule of rest and waking up and walking in the street. One striving to ascend, when he is traveling on the path of hislamdus, will constantly find new issues that he can hislameid in them. We will hislameid in thishislamdus in mitzvos in our way: we will try to hislameid in laying tefillin, and wearing tallis, in giving charity and in going to minchah prayers every day. Let us ask ourselves, how should I approach it?


At the conclusion of this avodah we must specify once again, that all success in the avodah of mussar depends on acquiring the trait of hislamdus in our souls. Without this there is a great threat that the work will turn destructive on us, and instead of true ascent we will add for ourselves in the coming chapters — egotism and self-glorification, to think “here I am, a ba’al mussar!” — and the outcome from all our avodah on hislamdus will turn into evil traits r”l. All is in the pettiness of “frumkeit” that grabs from every act that we do without true hislamdus. Therefore, one shouldn’t stray from the avodah of hislamdusuntil we acquire it in a strong acquisition. And whoever doesn’t succeed at it and isn’t destined to stand in it — should stop altogether from mussar avodah. And he can be a good Jew without it.