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Shabbat Parashat Yitro | 5768
The Approaches of Chasidut, Hitnagdut, and the Mussar Movement
Part VIII (end of series) – (from Perakim B’Machshevet Yisrael, pp. 515-531)
Mussar – part III
There are two approaches to learning mussar. One is to rile up the soul and purify one’s conception by impassioned speech or a sad tune that lowers his self-confidence. He can shake up his inner personality until the excitement in his heart makes his limbs carry out good actions whether of will or of self-coercion. A second approach is to devise techniques to lower the trials that arise before a person, by using natural characteristics to counteract problematic tendencies, and make it easier to contain one’s inclinations.
One technique is to repeat sharp mussar sayings that influence him. Repetition transfers influence from the upper levels of consciousness to the sub-conscious, so that one can do certain things automatically without deliberation. Since one’s inclinations work on the sub-conscious level, they should also be combated there.
Along with the idea of improving one’s conception of serving Hashem and seeing himself only as fulfilling the will of the Creator, mussar returns the simple palpable element of fear of punishment. Fear is not the goal itself, as it can depress a person or cause him to rebel. Rather it serves as a healing remedy. It is unpleasant to hear about punishment (although it is much less pleasant to receive it, Heaven forbid), but one should realize that it can help him tremendously.
Mussar can teach a person his weaknesses, his desires, and the forces that push him to act that are often hidden from him. It teaches him to search for the microscopic point from which great divergences start that could send him in the direction of sin rather than righteousness. It also shows one how to overcome weaknesses and proceed toward true completeness.
The sources of mussar teachings are from Tanach and Rabbinic writings. Tanach includes several positive role models, and Chazal say that one should ask himself when his actions will reach those of his fathers. There are also negative models whose actions we must avoid. Through Chazal’s eyes, we discern the nuances of the respective positive and negative lessons and their application.
Through mussar one learns to train his wills, to set for himself high standards, and to be vigilant to carry them out in a reliable manner. He learns to judge himself and others objectively, striving for the point of truth and not being intimidated by difficulties. The man of mussar, through his uninterrupted training, develops a skill to see things through to fruition, even when they seem impossible for such a person.
The teachings of mussar are teachings of the individual. They do not give any special standing to the community as a community, which it sees as a conglomeration of individuals. They do not discuss the concept that the whole of the nation is greater than the sum of its parts. On one hand, this is against its thesis, but on the other hand it indirectly causes the elevation of the communal worth. While mussar does not negate the importance of one striving for his own welfare, it does fight against the negative elements that may accompany one’s concern for himself. By developing an ethical frame of mind, mussar teaches its student that another’s welfare does not threaten him. To the contrary, the more he is concerned about his friend the greater his own benefit will be (R. Simcha Zisel of Kelm). It is specifically a person’s concern for his own welfare that gets him to seemingly sacrifice himself for the benefit of others around him. The community is also enhanced by the improvement of the individual since individuals make up the whole. This being said it is still the individual who is the focus of the building that mussar sets out to accomplish, according to the thesis that an individual has the value of a whole community.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is endowed by Les & Ethel Sutker of
Max and Mary Sutker
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.