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…’”
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.
“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.
[xii] R. Itamar Schwartz’s shiur, available at: mms://go.shidur.net/bilvavi/דרשות/לימוד מוסר בעיון.mp3.
[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: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/mussar/11salant.doc. 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: http://www.aishdas.org/asp/2008/01/what-is-mussar.shtml.
[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]
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.