Shabbat Parashat Beshalach| 5768
The Approaches of Chasidut, Hitnagdut, and the Mussar Movement – part VII
(from Perakim B’Machshevet Yisrael, pp. 515-531)
Mussar – part II
[We saw last time that mussar’s approach is that one should act in a manner that brings him the most benefit. However, people should concentrate more on the significant spiritual benefit in the world to come than on their physical benefit in this world.]
Why does one tend to err and attribute such value to things that are really fleeting in this world? Couldn’t the Creator have given us the tendency to choose the good and be repulsed by the bad? Should we not use the tools and instincts that the Creator gave us?
The answer is that, to the contrary, the world was made this way specifically because it is only in this way that a person can reach the height of good and perfection. All matters of the world, whether good or bad, are just tests. Tranquility and happiness lack innate value; poverty and afflictions need not be depressing. They are only means, optical illusions if you will, that a person experiences so that he can overcome them and attain completeness.
“The inclination of a person is bad from his youth” (Bereishit 8:21). Such is nature. Covering it up or ignoring it would be self-deception which would lull one to sleep and keep him from reaching completeness. By necessity, our normal state includes a certain degree of spiritual sickness, so people should not view themselves and others as abnormal. One should not look at the Jewish people in a more positive light either. Inborn tendencies to act properly are not an advantage, for one’s task is to fight one’s negative inclinations and conquer them. Thus, good tendencies minimize the opportunity to progress. That is why the Rabbis say: “Whoever is greater than his friend has a bigger negative inclination.”
Recognition of our moral weakness should not cause despair or make us angry at ourselves because this is the way we were created. Our deficiencies are the key to potential growth and should energize us toward action. We must not be complacent with our present state but must and can overcome it and redirect our personalities. One should not say in this regard that that which Hashem has done cannot be undone. People’s tendencies can be conquered and changed. Even animals can be trained by humans. So too, a person can tame and improve himself (based on Ohr Yisrael- Rav Yisrael Salanter).
The point of the study of mussar is to expose the camouflaged inclinations that make up the “me” in a person and the tactics that they use to confuse and entice him. Mussar helps one reeducate himself in order to change these tendencies. How is this accomplished? Trying to take on such a daunting task by ourselves has little chance of success. The answer is what Chazal have taught us: “I have created an evil inclination; I have created the Torah as a remedy.” Until a person frees himself from the inclination’s dominion, even his intellect is “bribed to the point that it cannot see straight.” “The desire and inclination are burning and allow one to purify the sheretz (impure animal)”(Ohr Yisrael). Only the Torah can cure this. “Do not take your intellect even as a staff to lean on” (Gra).
The primary inner force one can use is fear, an attribute that the Mussar Movement openly sought to restore. Torah and mitzvot are intended to entrench fear within us (“so that you shall learn to fear”). As bad tendencies are connected to senses, intellect alone cannot curb them. Fear which is related to the senses can keep them in check and clarify the extent to which one’s actions are based on self-deception (Even Yisrael). Mitzvot are valuable primarily to the extent that they are done through contemplation, seriousness, and focus on their purpose, to heighten fear of Hashem. One cannot leave things to routine but should learn mussar every day to check that things are progressing according to the proper plan.
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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.