Wednesday, February 29, 2012

This article was originally published with minor changes in the Yeshiva University Kol HaMevaser (3:1). Comments and critiques are appreciated. I am grateful for Shaul Seidler-Feller's help editing this article.

Note - When posting this article on this blog, some formatting issues arose which I have been unable to solve. For example, the links to the footnotes do not work and one must scroll to the bottom to read the footnotes.

Musar, Religious Growth, and Teshuvah

BY: Mordechai Shichtman

Teshuvah – A Long Process; Musar[i] – A Long-Term Investment

“Do not say that teshuvah only applies to sins which consist of an action such as licentiousness, theft, or robbery. Just as one must repent from these, so, too, he must search out faulty character traits[ii] in his possession and repent from them, from anger, hatred, jealously, mockery, pursuit of money and honor and pursuit of food, and the like – from all of these one must return in repentance.”[iii]

One of the central themes within R. Shelomoh Wolbe’s writings is that planting values is a fundamental educational process.[iv] Just as a farmer plants seeds in the ground and, after the passage of time, the seeds sprout and plants develop, so does an educator plant seeds of proper character traits or love of Hashem in his or her students, which, over time, may sprout, leaving the student transformed. (This is true whether one is affecting another student or one is teaching oneself.) It follows that religious growth and development of proper character traits often do not occur instantaneously but rather through a lengthy but deliberate process.

Numerous proofs for the idea that authentic religious growth often requires time can be cited from Hazal and the Rishonim. The most explicit sources are charts of religious development, such as those of Avot 6:2 and R. Pinhas ben Yair in Avodah Zarah 20b; the progression within R. Bahya ibn Pekudah’s Hovot ha-Levavot;[v] or R. Avraham ben ha-Rambam’s steps in Ha-Maspik le-Ovdei Hashem.[vi] R. Wolbe brings a particularly interesting proof from the comment of Ramban to Deuteronomy 6:13:[vii]

“…At all times, you should be like an owned servant, who constantly serves his master, making his master’s work primary and his personal needs secondary, until from this you come to that which [our Sages] said, “All your deeds should be for Heaven’s sake” (Avot 2:12) – that even your bodily needs are for the sake of God’s service: eating, sleeping, and performing bodily needs in order to sustain the body to serve God.”

In other words, from a prolonged attempt to make God’s commandments the dominating feature in one’s life, one should come to some level of performing all actions only for Heaven’s sake. R. Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar Movement, elaborates on the effects that seeds planted by learning Musar[viii] can have on an individual:

“Let a person’s heart not despair if he studies Mussar and is not awakened or if he feels no impression on his soul motivating him to change his path. It is known with certainty that even if the physical eye does not perceive the impression, the eyes of the intellect nevertheless, perceive it. Through an abundance of Mussar study over an extended period of time, the hidden impressions will accumulate, and he will be transformed into a different person. Experience testifies even through a cursory observation, that Mussar study – whether a lot or a little – elevates a person above his peers, both in thought and conduct.

Our Sages allude to this concept in Avos D’Rebbi Nosson, where we read (chapter six):

“What was the beginning of Rebbi Akiva? It is told that at the age of forty, he had learned no Torah whatsoever. Once, while standing next to a well, he queried, ‘Who chiseled this stone?’ They responded to him, ‘The water that continuously falls on it every day.’

Immediately, Rebbi Akiva reasoned: ‘If that which is soft carves into that which is hard, then all the more so, the words of Torah, which are as hard as iron, will penetrate into my heart, which is flesh and blood!’ Immediately, he returned to study Torah…’”

Let a person pour abundant water upon his soul by engaging in Mussar study.[ix] Slowly and imperceptibly, impressions will be generated within his heart that will guide him to the path of life…”[x]

In Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:3, Rambam demands a great deal from us when he says we must perfect our character. How exactly do we go about developing proper character traits? If we study Musar properly, R. Salanter assures us that, over time, it will transform us and effect repentance and proper religious growth.

Awe of Hashem is Wisdom and Wisdom Requires Analysis

“And you should know today and emplace it in your heart…” (Deuteronomy 4:39)

As illustrated by Deuteronomy 4:39, where we see that one must first “know” and then have it “emplace[d] on the heart,” there are two stages in learning Musar: intellectual analysis and internalization.[xi] Just as it is necessary to learn Gemara be-iyyun, one must learn Musar be-iyyun. But why is this so – why is it not sufficient to simply read Musar works or Aggadeta passages? I believe there are four reasons for why we must learn Musar in-depth: If one does not learn be-iyyun, the statements themselves will often not make sense; one will not know the underlying principles and thus will be unable to apply Musar concepts in new circumstances; one will find the study bland and tasteless and eventually will discard it; and, perhaps most important of all, without learning be-iyyun, Musar may not help us.

Just as when one learns a page of Gemara quickly one is left with many scattered points which simply do not make sense (and if the daf does make sense after a quick reading, it may be because one did not think about what the Gemara was saying when he was actually learning it), Musar and Aggadeta often mean little when read superficially. And just as in learning Gemara, arriving at the peshat in a sugya may require discerning between and formulating very precise logical distinctions, the same is true of Musar.[xii] Ramhal writes:

“And behold, the verse says: ‘Behold [hen], awe of Hashem is wisdom’ (Job 28:28) and our Rabbis of blessed memory said: ‘Hen [in this verse] means “one” since hen in Greek means “one”’ (Shabbat 31b). Behold, awe is wisdom and it alone is wisdom, and certainly a subject lacking the need for analysis would not be referred to as wisdom. Rather, the truth is that incredible analysis is required on all these matters to understand them in truth, and not from the perspective of one’s imagination or false reasoning. [And] all the more so [analysis is needed] to acquire and achieve them.”[xiii]

It follows that just as one must toil and review to deeply understand a sugya in Gemara, so must one do so when studying Musar.[xiv]

Legal reasoning, sevara, is an integral part of Halakhah, for without sevara, one would be unable to address halakhic questions which are not explicitly discussed. This is true in the area of Musar and Hilkhot De’ot as well. Since it is impossible to find a work which will discuss all the possible situations which may occur in life, especially in these areas of hovot ha-levavot, we must all be our own posekim – we need to learn Musar be-iyyun to be able to apply the Torah’s values to our unique personalities and life circumstances.[xv]

Each day we request from Hashem that Torah be sweet in our mouths.[xvi] Although we do not learn Torah because of ephemeral feelings such as love or pleasure but rather because we are obligated to learn, feeling the arevut ha-Torah (sweetness of Torah) is still very significant and many of us achieve this in our amelut (toil) while learning be-iyyun. Feeling arevut in Musar is important, too, and perhaps the reason why many who have tried, failed to get into learning Musar is that they never learned it be-iyyun and thus found Musar study to be a bland and tasteless endeavor.[xvii]

Finally, understanding Musar and Aggadeta deeply is not only a means to achieve “Ve-yada’ta ha-yom,” to “know,” but it is also essential in “ve-hashevota el-levavekha,” in internalizing the Torah’s values. This internalization is primarily accomplished through hitbonnenut, contemplation. R. Wolbe elucidates hitbonnenut as follows:

“‘Contemplation’ is one of the great secrets of the Torah. This is how it was explicated by Ramhal (R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) in his work, ‘Derekh Ets Hayyim:’

“See now that both of them – the human mind, and the Torah which enlightens it – are of the same character. ‘Torah is light’ (Proverbs 6:22) – actual light, not mere wisdom. The Torah is also compared to fire, for all its words and letters are like coals, in that when left alone they may appear to be only somewhat dim coals, but when one begins to engage them they ignite. This is what characterizes the human mind as well, for its power of great understanding causes it to glow with the force of contemplation. Therefore it is an obligation incumbent upon the individual, to make himself into a contemplative individual.”

Why was the intellect only created in potential [and does not begin with its true strength]?

“And if knowledge was vast and on humans’ hearts, they would never sin; indeed, the evil inclination would not even be close to them or rule over them. But because God wished that a human have an evil inclination… therefore, humans contain the knowledge [required to defeat the evil inclination] but it [the knowledge] is closed like coals, although it can spread like a flame [through contemplation], and the choice is within Man’s hands.”

Behold, the necessity of hitbonnenut is one of the foundations of Creation because this is the means to actualize our intellect, and the more a human’s intellect is strengthened and spreads out, the more it negates the evil inclination. The Torah shares the characteristics of our mind, and contemplating [Torah] reveals actual light. The difference between ‘light’ and ‘wisdom’ is that ‘light’ is a [level of] knowledge that negates the evil inclination, and ‘wisdom’ is a [level of] knowledge which is incapable of negating the evil inclination…

This explains what is found in the introduction to Mesillat Yesharim, that “the better-known these things are and the more the truths [of Musar] are obvious to all, so do we find them being ignored and forgotten.” The reason for this is: since these facts are so widely known, contemplation regarding them is lacking, and therefore they lack the character of “light,” and are only “wisdom,” which means that their influence is hardly felt, and they are largely forgotten!

…This, then, is the work of Musar, to renew contemplation and through it, transform knowledge into light. We may know about Providence, but this knowledge has no light. We may know what our duty is in this world, but this knowledge has no light. Contemplation turns knowledge into light...”[xviii]

When our knowledge of Torah and Musar is only “wisdom,” we have not yet internalized it and, as such, that knowledge does not help us combat our evil inclination, just as dim coals do not really provide light or warmth. Through contemplation, a form of analysis, we are able to internalize the Torah we already know intellectually, transforming it into “light” and thus bringing us closer to the ideals and values espoused by our Torah, to the level where Torah is firmly planted in our hearts.

Living Musar

“R. Yishmael son of R. Yosei said: “One who learns Torah in order to teach will be provided with the ability to learn and teach, while one who learns in order to practice will be provided with the ability to learn, teach, safeguard, and practice” (Avot 4:5).

We saw that when our Torah knowledge reaches the form of “light,” it aids us in combating our evil inclination. But what exactly is the difference between Torah in the form of “light” and Torah in the form of mere “wisdom?” One significant difference is an awareness of specific details. While lomdus often concerns itself almost exclusively with the kelalim, the fundamental underlying principles, Musar requires one to both formulate the underlying principles and to see the myriad applications and ramifications of the principles in one’s life. While lomdus involves looking at many peratim and formulating a kelal, Musar often requires us to look at a seemingly simple statement (for example, “titnaheg tamid le-dabber kol devarekha be-nahat le-kol adam”) and to discern the peratim, the statement’s applications in one’s life.[xix] This form of learning, where one is always looking for the practical applications of general principles in different situations, may be an understanding of what Hazal mean when they say that one should learn in order to perform.[xx]

From this perspective – that learning Musar involves taking general rules and working out their various applications – one can certainly argue that the study of Musar is not defined by studying classic Musar texts such as Mesillat Yesharim or Hovot ha-Levavot, but rather by a certain mode of study, one which seeks to have us internalize and apply Torah in our lives.[xxi] Thus, any authentic source of Torah values, from Ramban’s commentary on the Torah to R. Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith, can be a Musar text if we approach it in this manner and strive to live by and apply its teachings in our lives. We should view the teachings of authentic sources of Musar and Hilkhot De’ot as halakhah le-ma’aseh and do our best to embody their lessons in all that we do.[xxii]


This article discusses the slow nature of religious growth and how Musar facilitates it and claims that Musar must be studied be-iyyun and with an eye to practical application in order to be properly appreciated. The piece was not intended to serve as an introduction to Musar nor to argue that it should be learned by everyone but was rather meant to help individuals who wish to learn Musar get started. Because this is not an introduction, I omitted discussions of important concepts such as self-knowledge and hitpa’alut.[xxiii] I hope that the reader will find this article a valuable resource which will give rise to a deeper understanding of avodat Hashem. May we all merit a sweet new year.

[i] Throughout the article I have used the terms Musar, hovot ha-levavot, and Hilkhot De’ot interchangeably.

[ii] See R. Shelomoh Wolbe, Alei Shur (Jerusalem: Hotsa’at Beit ha-Musar al shem R. H. M. Lehman, 1985/6), vol. 1, pp. 144-145, as to why Rambam refers to middot as de’ot.

[iii] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:3 (translation my own).

[iv] Ibid., p. 263; ibid., vol. 2 (printed by the same publishers in 1998/9), pp. 338-341; and R. Shelomoh Wolbe’s book, Binyan u-Zeri’ah be-Hinnukh, (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1995), pp. 9-20. See also R. Lawrence Kelemen, To Kindle a Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers (Southfield, MI: Targum/Leviathan, 2001), pp. 27-36.

[v] In R. Bahya’s introduction to Hovot ha-Levavot, he says that the Gates to each trait are arranged in a specific order, and at the beginning of each Gate, he discusses how that trait is the logical outgrowth of the previous one.

[vi] See R. Avraham ben ha-Rambam’s first note at the end of his sefer, Ha-Maspik le-Ovdei Hashem (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2008), p. 532.

[vii] Translation my own; emphasis R. Wolbe’s.

[viii] It is important to note that one need not study classic Musar texts to take ethical instruction and to have it leave its impressions. For example, R. Meir Berlin, in the introduction to Meromei Sadeh, records that his father, R. Naftali Tsevi Yehudah Berlin (the Netsiv), found R. Akiva Eiger’s writings to be a tremendous source of Musar, each word filled with humility and dedication to Torah. Similarly, “R. Yohanan said: Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned modesty from the cat, [the prohibition of] theft from the ant, [the prohibition of] forbidden relationships from the dove, and the proper method of conjugal relations from fowl” (Eruvin 100b). For a discussion of deriving Musar from different sources, see Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 137-139; vol. 2, pp. 192-194, 272-273.

[ix] While the relationship between Musar and other areas of Torah is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to reference two sources which are frequently overlooked:

Shabbat 31b says: “R. Shimon and R. Elazar were sitting while R. Yaakov bar Aha passed by. One said to his comrade, ‘Let us rise for him since he fears sin.’ The other said, ‘Let us rise as he is a Torah scholar.’ He responded, ‘I said to you he fears sin and you told me he is a Torah scholar?!’” Rashi (s.v. “amina lakh”) comments: “This means to say: you are reducing his praise.” In other words, at least one Amora felt that fear of sin was a greater praise than being a Torah scholar. (See also Avot 2:4 which says that Torah knowledge is a prerequisite for fear of sin.)

In addition, in Nefesh ha-Hayyim, Gate 4, ch. 6-7 and 9, R. Hayyim of Volozhin, while stressing that yir’ah’s purpose is to preserve Torah, formulates the following three points:

1. Torah study is not purely an intellectual endeavor and both yir’ah and tefillah are required when thus engaged. [See also R. Itamar Schwartz, Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh, vol. 3 (Jerusalem, 2003), pp. 100-102, who says that one reason learning Gemara is meant to be so difficult is to encourage prayer. Ideally, this means one should cry to God to help one understand the Gemara.]

2. It is fitting for one to precede one’s learning with a brief contemplation about yir’ah.

3. Sometimes, it may also be appropriate to interrupt one’s learning to contemplate yir’ah. How does one know when it is appropriate or not? Personally, I feel that in so far as it is clear from the Nefesh ha-Hayyim that we are learning purely to understand the truth of Torah, if in the back of my mind I am looking to ask a “gevaldik kashya” or to come up with original ideas (as opposed to simply seeking the truth), then I feel it is appropriate for me to interrupt my learning for a brief while to reinforce in myself why exactly we study Torah.

[x] R. Yisrael Salanter, Ohr Yisrael: The Classic Writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter and his Disciple Rav Yitzchak Blazer, trans. by R. Zvi Miller (Southfield, MI: Targum, 2004), letter 10. Translation from a personal communication.

[xi] R. Eliyahu Dessler, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (Jerusalem, 1963), vol. 1, pp. 218-222; Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 88-91; ibid., vol. 2, pp. 163-168; Bi-Levavi Mishkan Evneh, vol. 3, pp. 101-103.

[xiii] Introduction to Mesillat Yesharim. See also Proverbs 2:4-5: “If you seek it like silver and search for it like hidden treasure, then you will understand awe of Hashem.” This certainly implies that understanding awe of Hashem requires hard work.

[xiv] Just as it is often not advisable to learn a sugya in depth for only fifteen minutes, the same may be true for Musar and a longer stretch of time may be needed to study Musar in-depth. One who cannot spare this time every day may want to instead try setting aside once a week (perhaps on Shabbat) an hour to learn Musar be-iyyun.

[xv] Above, n. 12.

[xvi] “Blessing over the Torah.”

[xviii] Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 89-90. Translation partially based on that of R. Elyakim Krumbein, available at: See also Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, op. cit., pp. 220-221, where R. Dessler quotes from Rabbeinu Yonah’s Sha’arei Teshuvah 2:25. Additionally, see Alei Shur, vol. 1, pp. 144-145. R. Wolbe’s comments there are very crucial for understanding exactly how we repair negative character traits and are strikingly similar to cognitive therapy. Since our actions are founded on our intellectual view of the world – for example, an angry person may believe that anger is an effective means of persuasion – to whatever extent we do not understand the values espoused by Musar works, those values cannot form a basis for our approach to life, and we will, consequently, not adhere to them.

[xix] R. Avi Fertig, Bridging the Gap: Clarifying the Eternal Foundations of Mussar and Emunah for Today (Jerusalem; Nanuet, N.Y.: Feldheim, 2007), pp. 45-47. See Bi-Levavi, vol. 3, pp. 100-102. In Alei Shur, vol. 2, R. Wolbe divides the stages into “Sekhel,” “Regesh,” and “Hitpa’alut.” See also Mesillat Yesharim, ch. 3, regarding the steps involved in self-accounting.

[xx] Avot 4:5, 6:6. See the comments by the Derishah, cited by the Shakh in Yoreh De’ah 256:5. This comment by the Shakh is also quoted in R. Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen Kagan’s introduction to Mishnah Berurah.

[xxi] R. Micha Berger’s comment, available at:

[xxii] Regarding authority of sources and different shitot in Musar, see R. Wolbe’s Iggerot u-Ketavim (Jerusalem: Hotsa’at “Hazon,” 2005), vol. 1, pp. 67-68 (translation my own; emphases R. Wolbe’s):

“But even now I am unable to directly answer his question [regarding] the differences between different opinions [shitot] and paths of service, because my teachers, whose souls are in Eden, educated me not to search for the differences between the different opinions. This opinion [of my teachers] is life itself and who is capable of entering into the secret of life to explain it on paper? Each individual should walk in the heels of his parents and teachers and serve [ve-ya’avod] God with simplicity, provided that he is a student who served [his teachers] sufficiently, that whatever path he [the student] received, he adheres to it with understanding and completeness. And from his own service, he will see what are the differences between him and those serving on other paths, and will also see that true servants are extremely close to each other in spirit.”

In Alei Shur, vol. 2, pp. 141-144, R. Wolbe explains that a path to serve God, formulated and exemplified by a true Torah scholar, cannot be judged from the outside. Rather, only by first receiving guidance from a teacher and following in that path can one judge the path’s effectiveness. Additionally, different circumstances require different approaches. [See also Alei Shur, vol. 1, p. 170 and R. Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg, Patterns in Rashi (Southfield, MI: Targum, 2003), pp. 137-138, where R. Herczeg proposes, based on Rashi to Ketubbot 57a, that “These and those are the words of the Living God” may mean that each opinion is completely correct in a different situation.]

In a similar vein, R. Wolbe says that we cannot learn authentic Torah sources as abstract “Jewish thought.” Instead, while we must study in-depth and with intellectual analysis, we must do so with the goal of walking in the footsteps of these teachings. On this point, see R. Avraham Yitshak ha-Kohen Kook, Ein Ayah (Jerusalem: Hotsa’at Makhon al shem ha-Rav Tsevi Yehudah Kook, 1995/6), vol. 1, p. 24.

[xxiii] One seeking such an introduction should ideally find a rebbe for guidance in avodat Hashem, or, failing that, should study volume one of R. Shelomoh Wolbe’s Alei Shur or R. Avi Fertig’s Bridging the Gap, op. cit.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Parshas Va'Eschanan

This is in the merit of my grandmother Esther bat Mazal. May she have
a speedy and complete recovery.

A note: Comments within double brackets, [[abc]], are notes I write
for myself so that when I look back later on the topics I discussed, I
see all the sources I looked at and how I understood them. Readers are
encouraged to skip them.

If readers have any comments, especially critical ones, they would be
most appreciated.


Throughout the parshah, it says many times that if we keep the Torah,
it (whatever "it" exactly means) will be good for us in the land of
Israel. Why does the Torah need to tell us this so many times,
especially in the same parshah?

Internalizing and Changing

In last week's devar Torah about organization (available at, we learned that with the incident of
the spies, the Jewish people's lack of organization caused them to
overlook the fact that G-d would fight for the Jewish people and
enable them to conquer the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 1:30),
resulting in a mass panic and rebellion. Ultimately however, they
issue was that they forgot the simple fact that G-d was running the

What caused them to forget and what are the proper steps to resist

I believe the second question is addressed in this week's Parshah:

"Listen, Israel, Hashem is our Lord, Hashem is One and Only. Love
Hashem your Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all
your might. These words which I am commanding you today must remain on
your heart. Teach them to your children and speak of them when you are
at home, when traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you
get up. Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, and let them be an
emblem in the center of your head. [Also] write them on [parchments
affixed to] the doorposts of your houses and gates" (Deuteronomy

Rashi cites our Sages who tell us that a way to come to love Hashem is
to have the Torah on hearts. And I believe the next verse, "teach
(literally sharpen) them to your children" teaches us how to always
have Torah on our hearts.

Our Sages comment "'and you should sharpen them' that the words of
Torah should be sharp in your mouth that if a person asks you
something, you not stutter and reply but rather answer immediately…"
(Kiddushin 30a).

Rashi there comments:

They should be sharp in your mouth: Review them and examine their
depths, that if a person asks you, you will not need to stutter but
rather you will be able to immediately answer.

I believe Rashi is explaining that our Sages are telling us, the way
to have Torah on our hearts, to internalize it, is to know it well.
Knowing it well means having reviewed the material frequently and to
understanding it on a deep level. But why is this the way to
internalize Torah?

As an introduction, we should understand that evil is essentially
falsehood. On a practical level, giving in to anger, physical urges
and infatuations almost never leads to tangible benefits. On a deeper
level, all that exists, exists because G-d wills it to exist. Since
G-d does not want sin, when one sins, on a certain level, one is
ceasing to exist.

Rav Wolbe (Alei Shor, 89) cites the Ramchal who says that G-d created
us with an evil inclination. Additionally, He also gave us an
intellect, which, if fully utilized, has the power to utterly
annihilate our evil inclination. Our intellect allows us to discern
truth, allowing us to distance ourselves from evil – falsehood. Given
our intellects' tremendous power, in order for us to have free will,
G-d made it that our intellects begin in 'potential.' This means that
naturally, our intellects do not function even close to their full
strength, leaving room for the evil inclination to have power.

One may know something intellectually but not have internalized it.
For example, we know that speaking ill of others is evil. However,
this knowledge unfortunately does not restrain us from spreading
slander. Learning but not internalizing knowledge results from the
intellect operating only in its natural level. However, through
contemplation, one strengthens the intellect and develops it to its
full potential. When the intellect is functioning at such higher
levels, it means that one has internalized a certain piece of

The Ramchal illustrates this with a comparison. Frequently, the Torah
is compared to fire and light. The Ramchal says that when a person
first learns a piece of Torah, it is like a coal. When one
contemplates this piece of knowledge, he so to speak, fans the coal
and builds it up into a fire which provides warmth and light and
nullifies our evil inclination. If one neglects one's Torah knowledge,
meaning one does not contemplate it, the goal, will further dim.

Thus, getting back to the Rashi, by reviewing material and
understanding it at deep levels, one strengthens the intellect,
internalizes the Torah, and negates the evil inclination.

Food for further thought and discussion:

1. Compare Rashi on the Chumash to the Rashi on the Gemara

Gemara: Our Sages comment "'and you should sharpen them' that the
words of Torah should be sharp in your mouth that if a person asks you
something, you not stutter and reply but rather answer immediately…"
(Kiddushin 30a).

They should be sharp in your mouth: Review them and examine their
depths, that if a person asks you, you will not need to stutter but
rather you will be able to immediately answer.

Rashi on Chumash:
And you should sharpen them:
It is the language of sharpening, that they should be sharp in your
mouth, that if a person asks you something, there will be no need to
stutter but rather say (reply) immediately.

2. What steps can be taken to make oneself a more contemplative person?

Have a good Shabbas,

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Parshas Devarim

This is in the merit of my grandmother Esther bat Mazal. May she have
a speedy and complete recovery.

A note: Comments within double brackets, [[abc]], are notes I write
for myself so that when I look back later on the topics I discussed, I
see all the sources I looked at and how I understood them. Readers are
encouraged to skip them.

If readers have any comments, especially critical ones, they would be
most appreciated.

Order in Thinking

In our Parshah, Moses reviews a tragic point in Jewish history, the
spies who convinced the Jewish people not to want to enter the Land of
Israel. But what went wrong? According to the Netziv, in the following
verses, Moses is pin-pointing the problem:

"I said to you, 'You have come to the Amorite highlands, which God our
Lord is giving us. See! God has placed the land before you. Head
north and occupy it, as God, Lord of your fathers, has told you. Do
not be afraid and do not be concerned.' All of you then approached me
and said, 'Send men ahead of us to explore the land. Let them bring
back a report about the way ahead of us and the cities that we shall
encounter'" (Deuteronomy 1:20-22).

Rashi comments:
All of you then approached me: in a state of disorder. But further on
(Deut. 5:20-21) it says, "You approached me, all the heads of your
tribes and your elders, and you said, Behold [the Lord, our God] has
shown us [His glory and His greatness]." That approach to me was
proper-young people respecting their elders, sending these before
them. Here, however, you approached me all of you, in a state of
disorder, the young pushing aside their elders, the elders pushing
aside their heads.

The Netziv says that Moses is telling us that not only was the spies'
report problematic, the very fact that they were sent was problematic
and reflected a lack of trust in G-d. (This is consistent with Rashi's
approach but the Ramban disagrees.) This insight of the Netziv may
even be supported by the fact that just prior to the disorganized
request for the sending of the spies, Moses told the people "Do not be
afraid and do not be concerned." Still, how does a lack of orderliness
reflect in a lack of trust in G-d?

I believe the answer lies with the fact that, as Rav Wolbe (Alei Shor
2, 319) mentions, orderliness displays a strong will. An orderly
person clearly wants to accomplish something; he has defined and
prioritized his goals and developed a plan on how to achieve them.
Lack of order usually means one has not really thought things through
very well but is rather acting on a spur of the moment.

(Regarding orderliness and one's will, Walter Pauk, in How to Study in
College, page 31, writes "A thoughtfully constructed time schedule can
increase your sense of control in four ways. First, because your
schedule is written down, your plans seem more manageable. You can
start working without delay. Second, you know you'll study all your
subjects - even those you dislike – because you've allotted time for
them in your schedule. There's less of a temptation to skip disliked
subjects when study time has already been allotted for them in your
schedule. Third, a schedule discourages you from being lazy. You've
got a plan right in front of you, and that plan says, 'Let's get down
to business!' Fourth, you can schedule review sessions right from the
start and avoid last-minute cramming for tests." That order stems from
a strong will is also demonstrated in another way. Rav Wolbe (Alei
Shor, 68) says that, perhaps oddly enough, an orderly person is also a
flexible person. I believe that this is because order and flexibility
both stem from an understanding of priorities. The orderly person does
not break with schedule because he knows that whatever he had planned
to do is more important than whatever else he could be doing. The same
person however will quickly break their schedule when something more
important comes up.)

The Jewish people had clearly not thought through all the implications
of " God your Lord is going before you. He will fight for you, just as
you watched Him do in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 1:30). Had the Jewish people
thought through things a bit more, they would have realized that G-d
was totally in control of the situation and they had nothing to fear.
Thus we see that orderliness is an essential component of trusting in

[[Emes L'Yaakov says something like this. When it arrives, look it up]]

Biography of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda, the Netziv:

Food for further thought and discussion:

Can one be too orderly?
Is there a relationship or trend between orderliness and creativity?

Have a good Shabbas,

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Parshas Mishpatim

This in the merit that my grandmother, Esther bat Mazal, will have a speedy and complete recovery.

I want to apologize that this devar Torah is not as complete as it normally would be, my parents will be in Israel.

Judaism, Animals, and People

This is not intended to be a thorough survey of how Judaism views animals and people; such a discussion is completely beyond my ability. However, I just want to give a few notes about the subject.

In this week's parshah, it says:

"If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its load, you might want to refrain from helping him, but [instead] you must make every effort to help him [unload it]" (Exodus 23:5).

On this, the Orchos Tzaddikim (Gate of Cruelty), cites our Sages (Bava Metzia 32b) who say that causing pain to animals is a violation of a Biblical prohibition. We must be kind even to animals.

However, this kindness only goes so far. The Torah says:

"If a man performs a sexual act with an animal, he must be put to death, and the animal shall also be killed. If a woman presents herself to an animal and allows it to mate with her, you shall kill both the woman and the animal. They shall be put to death by stoning" (Leviticus 20:15-16).

Our Sages (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:4) ask why is the animal killed and one of their answers is "so the animal should not pass in the market place and [people] will say 'This is the [animal] that So-and-so was stoned because [he had relations with] her'" and the Gemara interprets this to refer to G-d not wanting to disgrace the dead. In other words, we kill an animal in order that a dead sinner not be embarrassed!

Thus, we must be kind to animals but an animal's importance cannot even come close to being compared to that of a human.

Have a good Shabbas,
Parshas Beshalach

This is in the merit of my grandmother Esther bat Mazal. May she have a speedy and complete recovery.

A note: Comments within double brackets, [[abc]], are notes I write for myself so that when I look back later on the topics I discussed, I see all the sources I looked at and how I understood them. Readers are encouraged to skip them.

In last week's devar Torah about addiction, I was not referring to medical addictions such as alcoholism or smoking; such people can never return to any middle and must always stay away from their addiction. Rather, I was referring to unbalanced character traits such as being too generous or too stingy.


"The Israelites saw the great power that God had unleashed against Egypt, and the people were in awe of God. They trusted in God and in his servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31).

Why does awe precede trust?

Serving Faithfully

"They moved on from Elim, and the entire community of Israel came to the Sin Desert, between Elim and Sinai. It was the 15th of the second month after they had left Egypt.

There in the desert, the entire Israelite community began to complain against Moses and Aaron.

The Israelites said to them, 'If only we had died by God's hand in Egypt! There at least we could sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread! But you had to bring us out to this desert, to kill the entire community by starvation!'

God said to Moses, 'I will make bread rain down to you from the sky. The people will go out and gather enough for each day. I will test them to see whether or not they will keep My Torah" (Exodus 16:1-4).

In the middle of the desert, the Jews ran out of food and complained. It may seem hard to imagine how people who had witnessed such miracles could complain in such a manner but let us not forget that the adults were also concerned about their children's survival. This idea I heard from Emes L'Yaakov.

Regardless, I have two questions:

1. Had the Jews not complained, what would have happened? There seems to be no indication that had they kept silent, they would have been provided for.
2. In verse 4, what exact was the test?

It seems to me that G-d did not want the Jews to simply stay silent despite the fact they had no food. Rather, G-d expected them to pray. Unlike in Egypt, where despite their oppression, all physical needs were taken care of ("There at least we could sit by pots of meat and eat our fill of bread"), G-d expects us to work. The Jews were right to react to their lack of food but they should have reacted radically differently. Perhaps something like 'G-d, we trust you, please give us food' rather than "If only we had died by God's hand in Egypt!" Even if the Jews had received prophecy that G-d would be starving them to death, the Jews should have responded with teshuva (because decrees can always be changed) while accepting the fact that G-d is just.

Once the Jews need to work for themselves, they now need to learn not to trust in their own labors and efforts. Rashi says one component of the test was that each day, the Jews gather only what they needed for that day and no more. They needed to trust that if G-d deems it proper, there will be more food for them the next day, and the day after that, and so on. In effect, G-d was saying that the Jews should work but ultimately realize that sustenance comes from G-d, if He wants the Jews to be fed, they will be fed and if He doesn't, they won't be fed. It is not up to us. [[See 16:28]]

Finally, I think another component of the test was to 'gather only what they needed for one day and keep the Torah,' meaning that they would not even worry about the next day, they would not get stressed out, panic, and abandon spiritual pursuits. [[This might be what the Rashbam is saying. See also Rashi on 16:32]]

I think this idea is expressed in Psalm 78 where the Psalmist discusses G-d's miracles, especially those related to the Exodus from Egypt and in the desert:

"We shall not hide from their sons; to the last generation they will recite the praises of the Lord, and His might and His wonders, which He performed. And He established testimony in Jacob, and He set down a Torah in Israel, which He commanded our forefathers to make them known to their sons. In order that the last generation might know, sons who will be born should tell their sons. So they should put their unshakeable trust in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments. And they should not be as their forefathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, who did not prepare its heart and whose spirit was not faithful to God" (Psalm 78:4-8).

Food for thought and discussion:

We don't have prophecy these days. While we must always say that G-d will do what He knows is best, how much effort must we devote to tasks?

Have a good Shabbas,
Parshas Yisro

This is in the merit of my grandmother, Esther bat Mazal. May she have speedy and complete recovery.


According to the Rambam, the Ten Commandments (referred to by the Torah as the Ten Statements in Deuteronomy 4:13) actually contain 14 commandments. Why then call them ten?

A Servant of Others

"The next day, Moses sat to judge the people. They stood around Moses from morning to evening" (Exodus 18:13).

At this point in time, whenever anybody had a question, they went to Moses and he spent the entire day answering questions. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, thought this would wear Moses out so he advised Moses to set up a court system:

"'But you must [also] seek out from among all the people capable, God-fearing men - men of truth, who hate injustice. You must then appoint them over [the people] as leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. Let them administer justice for the people on a regular basis. Of course, they will have to bring every major case to you, but they can judge the minor cases by themselves. They will then share the burden, making things easier for you'" (Exodus 18:21-22).

Moses listened to Jethro's advise:

"He chose capable men from all Israel, and he appointed them as administrators over the people, leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, leaders of fifties, and leaders of tens. They administered justice on a regular basis, bringing the difficult cases to Moses, and judging the simple cases by themselves" (Exodus 18:25-26).

There is one difference I would like to point out:

Jethro's advice:

they will have to bring every major case to you, but they can judge the minor cases by themselves

Moses' fulfillment of the advice:

bringing the difficult cases to Moses, and judging the simple cases by themselves

What is the significance of this change?

I don't remember where I heard this but the answer is that a leader is a servant of the people, both the community and also every individual, and thus a leader wants to help his or her people. Thus, no question is too trivial.

Moses changed the system because he would wear out, not because he didn't want to serve the Jewish people.

In his later years, when one would ask Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky (who lived for 90 years), why he merited such a long life, he answered, "My feeling is that Hashem has granted me these extra years as a gift to use for others" (259). He never had a shammos, a secretary, of any kind deciding who would get to speak to him and who would not, either he or his wife would answer the phone (279). Additionally, he wouldn't let the phone be taken off the hook, not even during naps, out of fear that somebody needed to speak with him (259) and Reb Yaakov couldn't talk to a caller, he would still personally explain to the caller that he was involved in something else (251). Although eventually Reb Yaakov and his wife needed somebody to answer the phone for them, it was not to prevent people from speaking with them (279).

All citations are from the Artscroll biography of Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky.

Food for Further Thought and Discussion

How do we balance devoting ourselves to our families and to others? Obviously, we must help others and our family and friends must come first. But what is the balance?

Have a good Shabbas,
Parshas Bo

This is in the merit of my grandmother Esther bat Mazal. May she have a speedy and complete recovery.

A note: Comments within double brackets, [[abc]], are notes I write for myself so that when I look back later on the topics I discussed, I see all the sources I looked at and how I understood them. Readers are encouraged to skip them.


In Exodus 13:1-2, G-d gives a command to Moses. Compare the short command to what Moses does in 13:3-16. Why did Moses need to add so much?

Curing Pharaoh

I need to reexamine these ideas.

This idea is largely based on a devar Torah I heard at Yeshivas Medrish Shmuel last week.

One student there asked the question, whatever it means that G-d is hardening Pharaoh's heart, why could Pharaoh simply not remember that each time he agrees to free the Jews and changes his mind, more plagues come on Egypt? This student answered that it was as if Pharaoh had an addiction and people who are addicted can't break their addiction by simply saying 'next time I'll do better.' Such rationalizations deny the core problem and prevent a solution from being found.

How does one cure such a problem?

The Rambam establishes that we are to balance our character traits:

"The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes. Therefore, the first Sages commanded that one's temperaments should always be such, and that one should postulate on them and direct them along the middle way, in order that one will have a perfect body. How is this done ? One should not be of an angry disposition and be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle - one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry, so that one will not act similarly again. Likewise, one should not have lust except for those things which the body needs and without which cannot survive, as it is written, "The righteous eat to satisfy his soul". Similarly, one should not labor at one's business, but one should obtain what one needs on an hourly basis, as it is written, "A little that a righteous man has is better, et cetera". Nor should one be miserly or wasteful with one's money, but one should give charity according to what one can spare, and lend as fitting to whoever needs. One should not be [excessively] praised or merry, and nor should one be sorrowful or miserable, but one should be happy for all one's days in satisfaction and with a pleasant expression on one's face. One should apply a similar principle to the other temperaments - this is the way of the wise" (Laws of Character Temperaments 1:4)

However, regarding how to cure a character flaw, he writes:

"They tell someone who is of an angry disposition to establish himself, and that if he is hit or cursed he should not react, and he should follow this way until his angry disposition has left him. If he was haughty, he should subject himself to a lot of disgrace and sit low down, and should dress in torn rags which are a discredit to normal clothes, and do similar things until his haughtiness has left him and he returns to the middle way, which is the good way. Once he has returned to the middle way he should follow it for the rest of his life. Other temperaments should be treated in this manner - if one was far over to one extreme, one should move oneself to the other extreme and accustom oneself to it for a long time, until one has returned to the good way, which is the intermediate characteristic that each and every temperament has " (Ibid 2:2).

We move to the extreme to reach the middle.

Food for thought and discussion:

The Rambam (Ibid 1:7) says that regarding a trait that needs improvement but is not extreme, one can simply accustom oneself to acting properly and need not first move to the other extreme.

How do we draw the line between an extreme trait which requires extreme measures to fix and a problematic trait which requires less effort to fix?

Have a good Shabbas,

Friday, January 19, 2007

Parshas Vaera

This is in the merit of my grandmother Esther bat Mazal. May she have a speedy and complete recovery.

A note: Comments within double brackets, [[abc]], are notes I write for myself so that when I look back later on the topics I discussed, I see all the sources I looked at and how I understood them. Readers are encouraged to skip them.


"Pharaoh sent word and discovered that among the Israelites' livestock, not a single [animal] had died. But Pharaoh remained obstinate and would not let the people leave" (Exodus 9:7).

Why should Pharaoh care if the Jews' livestock were spared the plague?

Slavery and Freedom

"And Hashem spoke to Moses and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Children of Israel and Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to take out the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt" (Exodus 6:13).

This verse seems quite strange; what can it mean to command the Jews to free the Jews from Egypt?

Rav Baruch HaLevy Epstein in his Torah Temimah cites the Jerusalem Talmud:
"Rav Shmuel son of Rav Yitzchak said, 'On what were they commanded? On the section [of the Torah dealing with] releasing servants'" (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShana 3:5).

It is clear that Pharaoh is being commanded to free the slaves and our Sages understand that this same command was given to the Jews. If we say the Jews had slaves, one could say that it is not just to demand Pharaoh release his slaves while the Jews keep their own. And even if we say that no Jews had slaves, Pharaoh could not be ordered to free slaves who, once free, will acquire and oppress slaves.

On a deeper level, I think this Medrish also relates to the purpose of our slavery in Egypt. G-d commanded us:

"Do not hurt the feelings of a foreigner or oppress him, for you were foreigners in Egypt" (Exodus 22:20)

Nechama Leibowitz (Studies in Shemot, volume 1, p 5-8) cites many verses where we are told to remember our servitude in Egypt and not to oppress others and to go out of our way to help people. We must become models of freedom and kindness to the entire world.

Food for thought and discussion:
What can we do to apply these ideas every day on a personal level, not solely by attending rallies (which are very important), but also in our daily life?

Information about Rav Baruch HaLevy Epstein

Have a good Shabbas and Rosh Chodesh,
In this week's Parshah, Moses and Aaron requested permission from Pharaoh for the Jews to leave Egypt and serve G-d for three days but the King of Egypt denied their petition and proclaimed:

"…[the Jews] are lazy (נִרְפִּים)! Therefore they cry out, saying, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our G-d.' Let the labor fall heavy upon the men and let them work at it, and let them not talk about false matters" (Exodus 5:8-9).

In order to combat his slaves' laziness, Pharaoh increased their labor. However, the Tyrant's reasoning seems quite foolish and counterproductive; if the Jews are lazy and thus want a break, the harder they are pushed, the more they will want time off!

Rashi, translating נִרְפִּים as lax, solves our problem, and he explains that Pharaoh reasoned that since the Jews had free time, they could think of "idleness" and thus wanted to serve G-d. By driving the Jews harder than ever, Pharaoh hoped to deny the Jews the ability to contemplate anything other than their immediate task at hand. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh's tactic worked; in Exodus chapter six, G-d commanded Moses to relay words of comfort and inspiration to the exhausted Jews but they "did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor" (Exodus 6:9) which Rashi understands to mean that "they did not accept consolation."

Given that Children of Israel's broken state, why would G-d command Moses to comfort them if they were simply too worn out to listen? It must have been that, as difficult as it was, the Jews in fact had the ability to pay heed. In fact, the Seforno views the Jews' failure in accepting Moses' words as a lack of trust; had they trusted in G-d, they would have found the strength for listening.

How exactly did the Jews' inability to concentrate stem from a lack of trust? According to the Gur Aryeh's interpretation of Rashi, the Jews' shortness of breath, one of the factors preventing them from listening, resulted from stress. What exactly is stress? It is worrying about a situation beyond one's physical control. One who trusts in G-d will accept conditions beyond their physical control, regardless of its justice. Despite the cruelty inflicted on them, had the Jews fully trusted in G-d, instead of worrying, they would have accepted their current situation. By doing so, their thoughts would have remained free to contemplate spiritual matters and they would have accepted G-d's comfort.

"God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference."
Serenity Prayer