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29 Adar 5766 - March 29, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
New Chapters from the Life and Teachings of R' Yisroel Salanter zy'a

Excerpts from the memorial book, Kedosh Yisroel published about two years ago — yahrtzeit: 5 Shvat, 5643

Intellectual Ploys for Self Improvement

R' Naftoli Amsterdam said: This is what Morenu was in the habit of saying: In order to improve and mend one's negative characteristics, it is imperative to study Mussar, but in addition, a person must employ wiles and subterfuges to circumvent his own nature.

This can be understood by corollary: I once asked him for a remedy to overcome anger and quick irritation. He replied that a person must make a constant conscious effort to be a good person and to be benevolent towards others, for the trait of benevolence is of supreme importance; it is the underpinning of every road to goodness, to chassidus.

We find this mentioned in Mesillas Yeshorim: The word `chassidus' [in its original context] is derived from the root chessed, lovingkindness. If a person arouses in himself the love for benevolence, for doing good to others, and strives for the reputation of being a good person, he will have already taken the proper measure to arrest his inclination to anger quickly.

I also asked him for a nostrum to cure the bad trait of kapdonus, a petty stringency towards others or resentment and anger if they have done something wrong. He replied that a person should contemplate the way merchants and businessmen relate to their problems. A wealthy man always makes sure to dress impeccably, but if he is suddenly faced with a major financial problem — a large payment he must make or a large debt which he cannot cover — he will not look in the mirror before he leaves the house to make sure that his collar is lying straight. He will be distraught and despondent.

We must take a lesson from such a situation; a person must contemplate his tremendous debt to his Creator and to His creations, his fellow men. He must toil to improve himself, to improve the world, for this is his purpose here on earth. This ponderous mission and responsibility should lay heavy upon his shoulders and cause him to regard less weighty things in their proper perspective and not to take people to task for insignificant infractions against him. (Ohr Hamussar)

Ploys to Remove Kapdonus

He also told us once of a clever way to overcome kapdonus, petty strictness, which he himself had used in his youth. It is that a person bear in mind three assumptions which are connected to halochoh. The first is to keep in mind the prohibition of not stealing. This does not only refer to outright stealing but also to the figurative, but just as real, ways of stealing from another, which are mentioned in the Shulchan Oruch [sleep, time, privacy etc.].

The second rule is that according to Choshen Mishpat which states that even if one gave his neighbor an item of clothing as a gift and then snatches it away, it is the very same as if he stole a garment that belonged to the other person in the first place.

The third guideline states that bearing a grudge against a friend, is also something that may be done only according to the Shulchan Oruch Choshen Mishpat. One who bears a grudge in his heart or takes undue offense at his fellow where he is prohibited from doing so according to the gemora and Choshen Mishpat, is also transgressing the prohibition of theft. This is substantiated in several places in the gemora where it asks, "Why does he have a grudge (tar'omess)?" (Ohr Hamussar)

The Study of Mussar

The approach to studying Mussar, as I heard it from Morenu, is for a person to divide it into two parts: for example — if he intends to devote an hour to the study of Mussar, he should divide this in half. The first half should include the study of a work of Mussar, such as Mesillas Yeshorim or Chovos Halevovos, just as one studies any subject in Torah, through careful inspection of the ideas put forth. The second half should be study through inspiration and self-arousal, by learning one thought and reviewing it through different aspects. This thought can be a paragraph in Chovos Halevovos or in Reishis Chochmoh or even in Pirkei Ovos.

"And You Will Not Need to Study Sifrei Yereim"

Bolster yourself, my friend, and repeat to yourself the teachings in the work Maalos HaTorah frequently. Contemplate on the author who produced it, as if you were seeking knowledge from a living person face-to-face. Review Mesillas Yeshorim and Ovos deR' Nosson. If you study these and review them in depth, you will not need other works on Mussar at all, in my opinion. Fortunate will you be in doing so. (R' Naftoli of Amsterdam)

The Fear of the Baal HaLeshem

HaRav Shlomo Eliashiv, author of Leshem, said: "In spite of my great desire to get to know this exalted person [R' Yisroel Salanter] from up close, I am wary of doing so, for he might prevent me from delving in the study of truth, that is, Kabboloh, which was then a very uncommon pursuit, especially in Zamut. Nevertheless, I had the privilege of getting to know him through someone particularly close to him, HaGaon R' Nochum, known as the Iluy from Dokshitz. He transmitted to me every syllable he heard from his master and reported what his very eyes beheld.

When, at some later time, R' Nochum aired my reservations before R' Yisroel, the latter replied, "On the contrary, it never occurred to me to divert anyone from his particular inclination in serving Hashem, in the way he has chosen for himself." However even then [after I had heard that], it did not work out for me to meet with him, for Maran R' Yisroel traveled abroad shortly thereafter.

Maran R' Yisroel did not have one particular approach in avodas Hashem that he felt that this was the exclusive way. Due to his great sensitivity and his extreme yiras Hashem and his reverence, he was in a constant state of open wonder which bubbled forth from him.

The very proof of this is that his closest adherents did not all follow one single path, for all the paths of Hashem are straightforward and good. Rather, it was as the Midrash states regarding Avrohom Ovinu, "A precious gem was suspended from his throat and whoever gazed upon it was healed." Those giants of spirit, wise of heart, who sought the word of Hashem, would find fulfillment and satisfaction through R' Yisroel's noble, exalted spirit, each one according to his personal inclination and chosen way in life. He was able to inspire each one to pursue his individual particular way. (R' Arye Levine)

A Thief on Yom Kippur

R' A. Shulevitz related that he once prayed together with Maran on Yom Kippur when he was living in Memel. The synagogue had two entrances, one of them serving as the general entrance/exit to the street, and another which led to a garden and was left open to provide fresh air in the beis medrash.

R' Yisroel instructed the gabboim not to wait for him if he prayed at length or if he came late. It happened once that they began Musaf before R' Yisroel had returned. R' Shulevitz was not feeling well and decided to pray near the doorway that led to the garden for the fresh air. In the midst of the prayers, he heard a voice whispering in his ear, "How can one be a thief on Yom Kippur itself! This doorway was especially made to provide fresh air for all the worshippers and you are stealing their air!" R' Shulevitz recognized R' Yisroel's voice without turning around and understood that if Maran had spoken to him in his ear in the middle of his davening, it meant that he should move away, even in the middle of his own prayers. (From the notes of HaRav Gedalya Eiseman)

A Mitzvoh Cannot Result in an Aveiroh

"I once heard HaRav Itzele Blazer ztvk'l raise a question regarding the commandment of rising before the elderly and showing due respect to the aged. Might it not be possible that showing great respect towards an elderly person, like standing before him, could lead him to become proud? Thus, one would be transgressing the prohibition of putting a stumbling block before the [figurative] blind.

"Maran replied to this question by noting the rule stating that a mitzvah cannot lead to a sin. If the one who performs the mitzvah has pure, honest intentions of honoring the elderly, as the Torah enjoins, the mitzvah itself will ensure that no error or sin result therefrom." (Har Hamor, Nisson 5743)

How Can a Person Die Amidst Laughter?

Chazal said in Kesuvos 103 that if a person dies amidst amusement, it is a good sign. R' Yisroel Salanter asked if it was actually possible for a person to die while laughing.

Seven things, say Chazal, are hidden from a person, and one of them is the extent and severity of one's judgment (Pesochim 54). A person is obligated to keep all of the mitzvos. Each commandment has roots and branches, so to speak, that is, extensions and ramifications. He will be judged for having kept them in speech, deed and thought. In addition, each commandment must be fulfilled with joy and in good spirits.

Can a person boast that he observed all of the 613 commandments properly and was not found lacking in any one of them? Furthermore, Chazal said in Shabbos 54 that whoever was able to protest against a wrongdoing etc. [and perhaps prevent it] and did not do so, will eventually come to stumble in that very thing.

How then, wondered R' Yisroel, is it at all possible for a person to die in the midst of uplifted, convivial spirits?

(Chessed le'Avrohom, by R' Aharon Kohen, son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim)

The Chutzpadik Maggid

In his early days, Rabbenu settled in Kovno and was accepted there as the official town maggid, its preacher. The townspeople, including the influential people, were impressed by his brilliance and very firm hand, and reverently accepted everything he said. By virtue of his authority, Rabbenu issued an order that any itinerant preacher who wished to address the townspeople, as was a very common practice, must first present himself before R' Yisroel for approval. R' Yisroel would hear a preview of what he wished to say and would give his sanction — or withhold permission — for him to speak publicly.

It was R' Yisroel's goal to inculcate Mussar among the townspeople; this was his message week in and week out when he preached on Shabbos, which he did at length, and his words had a great impact on the people. He was afraid that someone might come along and preach against this pivotal message.

One day, a traveling maggid arrived in Kovno and duly presented himself before R' Yisroel, as required. But he was a smug, very arrogant person, not afraid of anyone. He began arguing vehemently with Rabbenu to the point that he was very disrespectful.

Amazingly enough, at this very point, R' Yisroel turned to those close to him who were present, and told them to go and post notices calling the townspeople to come and hear the visitor speak, as was the custom, after he gave his approval.

They were stunned, but they understood that he did this to fulfill a commandment in the Torah to be benevolent towards one who has wronged or insulted you. But this was very characteristic of Rabbenu and of his extreme humility. He felt that an act like this, of going against his nature, would be very effective in uprooting the trait of kapdonus, that is, resentment and exhibiting personal rancor against someone who has offended you. (Ohr Hamussar)

Discovering One's Own Self

R' Yisroel's discovery [of understanding the psychological makeup of a person] amazed everyone to a great degree. Previously, people were strangers to their own selves, their own natures, and their lives were a deep unsolvable enigma to them without the special approach, the unique Mussar approach, to understanding the words of Chazal.

After R' Yisroel came along with his school of thought, people began taking note of the significance of each moment, the implications of every step. They delved into the meaning of things, striving to understand what had appeared to them before as totally insignificant. People began to take themselves to task, to make a personal reckoning of every hour, and every minute of the day.

The world was then filled with thinking people, and thinking people were filled with concern about the world, their world. People began understanding one another and their motivations. Once they understood themselves, they were able better to understand their fellow man. (From notes — R' Dovid Zaritzky)


I heard from the tzaddik, R' Shlomo Zalman Bloch zt'l, who heard the following from his holy master, the Chofetz Chaim ztvk'l. He told how HaGaon Hakodosh R' Yisroel from Salant visited a critically ill person one motzei Shabbos. He began speaking to him enthusiastically about emunah in the words of our Sages. He said that we are obligated to believe that everything they said can, and should, be taken literally, with no exceptions. He spoke on this theme for an hour and a half.

In conclusion, he said that since Chazal said in Shabbos 119b that hot food/drink on motzei Shabbos is healing, it is meant to be taken literally — one should partake of a hot dish for the melave malkah meal for the sake of one's health. R' Yisroel then ordered that a hot drink be prepared for the sick person. He drank it, and lo — he was cured right away! (Sefer Hatzaddik R' Shlomo)

The Debate and the `Mofes' Wonder on the Subject of Bitochon and Luxuries

We ask: "May Your kindness, Hashem, be reflected upon us as we have trusted in You." According to the very measure of trust which we put in You, Hashem, in like measure, may You demonstrate Your kindness towards us.

I heard a true story concerning a debate which R' Yisroel had with R' Shmuel Strashun ztvk'l one time they studied together in the beis medrash of the Gra on the subject of bitochon. HaRav Shmuel said that a person should not rely on Heavenly Providence for anything beyond the very basic necessities without which he cannot live, and he should not pray and trust that he be provided with luxuries.

HaRav Yisroel maintained that a person may also trust that Hashem endow him with amenities that go beyond his needs. Upon the spot, R' Yisroel declared: "See, I don't even have a wristwatch and there are additional things which I need but certainly can live without. If I were to ask and pray for them and to place infinite trust in Hashem, He would surely provide me with a watch and more."

The words were barely out of his mouth, when the door of the beis medrash opened and in strode an army officer. He walked directly up to R' Shmuel, saying, "Greetings. In my division, a man just passed away. His last request before he died was that someone deliver his watch to this very beis medrash and give it over to R' Shmuel Strashun. He asked that the watch be given to one of the scholars who is in need of one."

To be sure, R' Shmuel handed the watch over to R' Yisroel, conceding the debate. "I see that you are right and that one can rely on Hashem even for comforts; if he truly believes, Hashem will provide these for him as well." (Ateres Tzvi — R' Menachem Taksin of Kamenitz, author of Orach Yeshorim)

The only purpose in his trip to France was in order to fulfill the dictum of exiling oneself from one's homeland, as was the practice of the Gra and of R' Chaim.

A Letter from the Alter of Kelm

My beloved son,

The Admor, R' Yisroel shlita, is now in Paris. My dear brother, R' M. Avrohom Yosef, is also there now for business reasons and he wrote to me that he met with him several times and also took walks with him.

I wish to convey the words that my brother wrote about the Admor, which surprised and astonished me. We have much to learn from them.

"Truly, his exalted path in holiness is beyond my comprehension. There are things which my puny mind cannot grasp. He is a tzaddik in all of his wonderful, hidden ways. He is a mighty figure.

"In short, I would like to tell you what I found and saw, according to my limited observation and understanding. The purpose of his trip was to go into exile, away from his familiar surroundings, as did the Vilna Gaon zt'l and R' Chaim zt'l. But it is his holy practice to do everything with utter simplicity to conceal his true objective in holiness. He is living in Paris, which is one of the most sumptuous, flamboyant cities in the world, a city steeped in self indulgence and extravagance — in dire poverty, in a noisome, putrid rented room. He dresses like the lowest pauper in a Russian village and tells people that he wants to spend as little as possible for living expenses.

"In his Torah study, he practices the same simplicity to hide his true greatness, while everything he utters has deep spiritual significance, but he hardly expresses himself and his voice is barely heard . . . "

From your father S.Z. (From a manuscript)

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