Shabbat Parashat Bo| 5768
The Approaches of Chasidut, Hitnagdut, and the Mussar Movement – part VI
(from Perakim B’Machshevet Yisrael, pp. 515-531)
Mussar – part I
The negation by the Hitnagdut of the Chasidic approach does stress arguably dry conformity to detail of external actions and certainly stresses Torah learning. This was the characteristic approach of the Volozhiner Yeshiva and its satellites. This dragged along a limiting of the contemplation on the philosophical elements of the Torah, which sometimes brought on “small thinking” and terribly dry actions. Not always did Torah study serve as a guard against poor personal attributes, and it was at times studied as “a crown with which to make oneself great.” The part of the mind that was left unused was sometimes filled with foreign ideas of enlightenment, which started to affect the Lithuanian landscape. Chasidut’s complaints started to be heard among those who saw Torah study as the panacea. Rav Yisrael Salanter described deterioration from the time that Torah and fear dwelled together to the time of their severing. He felt a need to fill the void in the field of Jewish thought. While upholding the foundations found in Nefesh Hachayim, he strove to preserve the “moisture” of contemplation to prevent Torah and mitzvot from becoming external matters that do not affect a person. This is the background of the formation of the Mussar Movement.
Although the Mussar Movement, as such, was started by Rav Yisrael Salanter, it is based on ideas that existed well before among those who were not involved in Chasidut, in a non-centralized manner. The mussar or morality approach is based, to a great extent, on the classic mussar work, Mesilat Yesharim by Rav Moshe Chayim Luzzato.
The ideology of mussar sees each person’s purpose as perfecting himself and improving his well-being. The Torah learned with a stress on the fear of Hashem that can be acquired from it is a means toward that goal. Mesilat Yesharim starts with the question: “What is a person’s obligation in his world?” The world in question is his personal world, not his counterpart’s. What does one do so that things will be good for him? This approach does not come to undermine a person’s tendency to worry about his personal welfare, which in fact is to move him to act. Rather it shows the person that he has a warped perception of his welfare. One should strive for true enjoyment; it is inconceivable that the highpoint of that which the Creator prepared for us is physical enjoyment during one’s fleeting life. Therefore, a person’s obligation is to funnel his natural desire for enjoyment to a path that leads to “true pleasure and the greatest indulgence that can be found – to take pleasure from Hashem and enjoy the aura of His Presence.”
The following is the response to the unwise people who want to make life easier and figure that it does not pay to toil since, as long as one is not wicked, he will have a place in the world-to-come and does not need a prime portion. One must realize that this is the false enticement of the evil inclination, as we see that in matters of worldly pursuits, people toil and push themselves to be among the most successful. Why, therefore, should one agree to be among the lowly in regard to the eternal, precious, true place, the world-to-come? In these matters one should not fight the tendency toward jealousy but should funnel the desire to be the best to serve as an impetus for self-improvement.
The purpose of the Torah is to teach a person how to enjoy, and the study of mussar comes to decipher the Torah and mitzvot. By putting the purpose of the creation and service of Hashem in this light, we see that the service Hashem demands of us is not a demand of an all-powerful ruler who can act as he desires. Rather, it is the leadership of a loving father who puts his hand on his son’s shoulder and teaches him how to act.
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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.
May their memory be a blessing.