Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 7)

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul: Why I Delight in Mussar

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 7. To “The Wall” and Beyond

Earlier on I offered to address the wall one would have to get past to enjoy, even revel in Mussar. But there are actually two: the one encountered by observant Jews, who know about Mussar only too well, which they would have to pass over before coming to the next one; and the second wall, which everyone would have to get past if he or she is ever going to be a true student of Mussar.

As to the “frum” wall. There are often many legitimate reasons why yeshivah-trained Jews have trouble with Mussar. To a degree it’s simply because they were exposed to too frequent and wretched examples of it in yeshivah as a child. They internalized Mussar as a series of personal insults and derisions; of heartless, thoughtless sometimes duplicitous moralizing and criticizing; of moral one-upmanship; and worst of all, as a means of invalidating individuality, and squelching creativity.

We’re forced to say that that is the fault of those “giving” them Mussar [47]. They would often offer it preachingly, pedantically, even angrily, when the halacha is clear that unless one can offer advice and point out moral faults warmly, caringly and in a spirit of love and improvement, he should not [48]. As none other than that great modern exponent of Mussar, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt"l used to point out, unless one ruminates on and practices the tenets of Mussar himself (including offering constructive criticism) all the time, he’s merely carrying them out “by rote” [49], and means to impress people more than to draw anyone closer to G-d [50]!

Once those Jews would come to understand and accept that truth, though, they’d still have to pass over the second wall which is universal. For many Jews never exposed to Mussar as young people take to it rather warmly, see the sagacity in it, and read its texts as part of our national “Wisdom Literature”, as it’s referred to in other cultures. Nonetheless, they too tend to resist it, once it asks them to relinquish points of view or modes of behavior they’d rather not give up.

The barricade they’d have to get past, then, is higher. For it touches upon *something* of the core fear spoken of in my introduction. While it doesn’t speak to the nightmarish dread of meaninglessness, it does speak to the second greatest fear: which is that everything we hold dear and true is wrong, and that we’re essentially preposterous [51].

Because Mussar seems to indicate as much. Does it not grumble that we’re wrong here, wretched there, petty this place, audacious another, and so on? And do we not seem to be left with nothing, as a result?

So we assert, “If so much of what I say or believe is wrong, what do I have left? What am I without them anyway? Besides, that’s the way I am!”

I believe I know why many people vehemently oppose having their perceptions of truth critiqued. Apparently because they believe that those perceptions (and their personality quirks) are *them*. That those ideas and traits are all they have besides their bodies in this world. And that if you threaten to take them away by arguing against them, you threaten their very being.

The person of faith understands that his essential being is *his immortal soul*. That everything else accrued onto it is as malleable and repairable as his body, and as mortal. And that it's there only to help his soul in its life’s work.

What such a person of full faith would care about most is his soul’s standing. And he’d do whatever he could to adjust his perceptions, traits, etc. however much they’d have to be adjusted to best nourish that immortal soul. As such, he’d welcome any sage advice along those lines, which is essentially what Mussar and Torah is all about [52].

That’s to say, once you realize the full reality of your soul’s being, as well as the lustrous function it serves in your immortal destiny, you will take its needs most seriously.

And you’ll then arrive at the comforting and soul-stirring realization that -- utterly, utterly contrary to your nightmares as enunciated at the beginning of this essay -- your life *has* meaning! You *do matter*! And on the very deepest levels, at that!

Then you too will thus experience and be driven by the relentless yearning of the soul.


[47] That is a yeshivah term, meant to express the idea of “giving” them advice and offering them criticism, and the like. But it is more often akin to “giving them hell”.
[48] See Halichot Olam, 21:1-2 who cites Rambam’s Hilchot De’ot 6:6-7, and Reb Chaim Valozhiner who absolves the person who cannot offer criticism in such a loving manner from the imperative to, “Vigorously reproach your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:17). In fact, at one point in “The Duties of the Heart” Ibn Pakudah advises us to practise solitude for several reasons, not the least of which is because when you do, you avoid the obligation to reproach others, which is so difficult to do correctly! And despite Rebbe’s observation that, “As long as there is admonishment in the world, there is ease of mind in the world, good and blessing in the world, and evil departs from the world“ (Tamid 28A), note as well Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah’s remark, “I wonder if there Is anyone in this generation who even knows how to admonish!“ (Aruchin 16B) And see the Chason Ish’s directive (Yoreh Deah 2:16) to draw heretics and renegades closer to Torah and G-d through “bonds of love”, which would certainly go for other, lesser “rebels” like children and the rest of us.
[49] Based on the well-known Mussar charge that, “vatehi yiratam oti mitzvat anashim melumada”, i.e., Their fear of Me is a mitzvah done by rote (Isaiah 29:13).
[50] Ohr Yechezkel, Elul.
[51] Happy the blithe fool who knows that to be true, though! (Do I wax too Mussaric here? Sorry.)
[52] These last few paragraphs are taken from this author’s translation of and comments to “The Gates of Repentance” (2:13).

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

(Feel free to contact me at )

AT LONG LAST! Rabbi Feldman's translation of "The Gates of Repentance" has been reissued at *at a discount*! You can order it right now by logging onto (or by going to and searching for it). Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason Aronson Publishers). And his new work on Maimonides' "The Eight Chapters" will soon be available from Judaica Press.
His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.
Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes on entitled "Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal".