Among the numerous stories associated with Yisrael Salanter is one that took place as he was lying on his deathbed in the year 1883. His last days were spent in the town of Konigsberg, Germany. Unlike other famous rabbis, he was not doling out blessings and wisdom to his family and his disciples surrounding his bedside. Rav Yisrael died almost alone, with only a community appointed caretaker to attend him. This caretaker was not a learned man and likely had little knowledge or interest in the great man he was attending. Rav Yisrael, sensing the caretaker’s discomfort at the prospect of being left alone with a corpse, spent his final moments engaged in comforting the man and assuring him that there was nothing to fear from the dead.
He could have (and many might say should have) spent those final moments reviewing his life, confessing his sins, repenting, reflecting on the oneness of God, or any other classic Jewish moment-of-death themes. It would indeed have been a fitting end to the life of a great Torah scholar and rabbinic leader. But it would not have been a fitting ending for the life of Rav Yisrael Salanter. His life was devoted to battling the yetzer hara. This battle did not end even as he lay dying.
He was born in 1810, possibly in the town of Zagare, Lithuania, but he received his formative education in the town of Salant. It was not uncommon for Jews to take on last names based on the place they lived, hence the name Salanter. It was in Salant that he gained familiarity and mastery of the Talmud, an achievement that greatly aided him in his life’s work. In addition to studying Talmud in Salant, he encountered an obscure scholar named Rav Zundel who exerted a tremendous life-changing influence on the young Yisrael. In what might have been a single meeting, but more likely was an extended relationship, Rav Zundel encouraged Yisrael to study Mussar in order to achieve an even greater feat than mastery of the Talmud.
What could possibly be more difficult than mastering the Talmud? The answer, Yisrael understood, was mastery of the personality. Up to that time, with rare exception, Jews saw the emotional condition of the mind as a black box in which things entered and things came out in an almost uncontrollable and incomprehensible process. Yisrael wanted to bring some method to the madness. He wanted to be able to control his own mind and have some say as far in the nature of his own personality. The tool that he chose to use, as per the advice of Rav Zundel, was the study of Mussar.
His writings consist mostly of correspondence to his disciples and articles to a Mussar journal. His letters are complex, written in difficult Hebrew that could only be deciphered by scholars familiar with the terms and the methodology. Perhaps it was because of this complexity that the movement never became popular among the masses like Hasidut. There was no easy road to changing the personality. Mussar study and application was always difficult intellectually and even more so spiritually. The letters emphasize the challenges to be expected and the high stakes in the battle, but also provide great encouragement for those who take up the challenge.
These letters were later collected in a small book called Or Yisrael (Light of Israel) which is still studied in Mussar circles. In one of the earlier letters (#5) written after he moved from the Torah center of Vilna to the smaller town of Kovno in 1848, he stressed just how high the stakes in this game really were. ‘There is one cure for the evil ills that afflict the body and the soul…without the study of Mussar we are extremely distant from the desired goal. The traits of the personality suffer from ruin. The battle with the yetzer (hara), which is the reason we have come into the world, where will it be found?’
That final statement sums up the primary aim of Rav Yisrael’s entire Mussar program – the reason we have come into the world, the purpose of life, is to battle the yetzer hara. Yetzer is generally translated as ‘inclination’, meaning a leaning in the direction of evil (for the yetzer hara) or good (for the yetzer hatov). A more accurate translation may be ‘formation’. These are formations - structures that are embedded in the mind that are a fundamental part of the human personality. They are not who we are per se, but they are no less a part of us than the memory or the emotions. Throughout the rabbinic and medieval periods, Jewish scholars by and large saw these twin faculties as spiritual forces that came from ‘outside’, like personal angels that aided or challenged us in our moral and emotional struggles. It was only with the advent of the modern period that Rav Yisrael and others were able to remove them from the world of angels and locate them in the internal workings of the mind.
Exactly what they are is anybody’s guess. Contemporary science, of course, denies their existence altogether, attributing whatever it is they are supposed to do to the influence of genes or neurotransmitters. The yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov are really the last vestiges of the spirit world. In times past this world was everywhere and all-powerful, but it is now looked at as nothing more than superstition. This is really the old God debate replayed in the workings of the mind. Are we spirits or are we biological machines? Judaism, at least its religious component, still sides with spirits.
Rav Yisrael recognized the virtually unlimited scope of the yetzer hara and how it affects almost all aspects of life and never really subsides, it is the arena where the true battle of the human being lies. We may fool ourselves into thinking that our challenges in life lie in the realm of survival, making money, gaining social influence or wielding power, finding love or happiness, attaining knowledge, or any of a thousand other worthy concerns. Rav Yisrael claimed that important as these things may be, they are really either a smokescreen or a disguise for the real challenge. It is only in overcoming the pull of the yetzer hara that a human being can be said to have achieved his or her purpose in coming into this world.
This does not mean that a person needn’t be concerned with survival or happiness or knowledge. Those are all essential components of life and without them life would either be impossible, uninteresting, or undesirable. He was only zeroing in on where the real war is waged. It all boils down to battling the yetzer hara. Take survival for instance. Survival is a true battle that must be waged throughout life. Health has to be monitored, money has to be made, and a certain level of comfort must be maintained. What Rav Yisrael was stressing was that all these vital concerns are really just one more arena in which to overcome the yetzer hara. They are there to present another angle to fight the good fight.
Happiness is a perfect example of this. Who doesn’t consider happiness to be among the most basic and essential of human needs? But what is its ultimate purpose? Is it an end in and of itself? Most people would say yes. Rav Yisrael would say no. To him it was one more of the many human aims that presented a stage for this most apocalyptic of confrontations. This is where the true colors of a human being shines forth, or fade into a murky background of hedonism and selfishness. Is he or she going to fall prey to the pulls of jealousy or envy, to the bottomless pit of the ego or the ruthlessness of anger? Will they be able to avoid the pitfalls of lust as they pursue the lofty goal of finding love? Do they possess the strength to not fall sway to frustration and depression, to apathy and cynicism, as they walk unguided through the uncharted paths of life’s ups and downs?
The bottom line is that the personality must be shaped and molded by a lifetime’s worth of shaping and molding. This is really what Mussar is all about. It consists of discovering techniques to perfect the personality traits, to bring the negative traits under constant control, and to develop and augment the positive traits. Without Mussar, Rav Yisrael asked, how could that battle be fought? It was only through a lifetime of the internalization of Mussar that Rav Yisrael, as he lay dying, was able to put aside his personal needs and concentrate on the superstitious fears of a community attendant who would rather be anywhere else but watching an old man die. It is only through the application of some sort of Mussar program that any one of us can hope to grow internally once we stop growing externally. Mussar enables a person to live a life of purpose, and to live on after death as an example of what such a life means.
You are probably a bit skeptical about all of this. This is all very well and good on a theoretical level, but everyone knows that it is impossible to do. How is one supposed to go about internalizing Mussar and making it part of one’s nature. How many people have actually succeeding in changing anything in their personality, let alone a remake of the whole thing? Truth be told, it’s not a walk in the park, and the success rate is pretty low. Mussar works tend to be a little dry and pedantic. It’s more than a little difficult to get something really practical out of them. Mesilat Yesharim, the Mussar work that was the subject of the previous essay, is probably the most popular, but it requires great dedication and perseverance. It is deep and far-reaching, but it cannot be read in between web searches or while relaxing in a Jacuzzi. Is there a short cut?
It turns out that there is, but it’s not a pill to swallow or a formula to recite. It’s a technique that Rav Yisrael himself developed early on in his Mussar explorations. He constantly stressed it was essential for getting anywhere. He called it by the confusing term Mussar b’hispa’alus – roughly translated as internal growth through self activation.
It sounds pretty confusing. It really boils down to the intense repetition of a particularly moving statement that zeroes right in on the area in which you want to grow internally. It might be in controlling anger or frustration, overcoming jealousy or lust, deflating an overinflated ego or inflating a lousy self image. Just find the right words in whatever language you want, from whatever source you want, even make them up yourself – and repeat them as a mantra meditation. It can be done anywhere, but it requires complete concentration. It is really a form of self-hypnosis, similar to what might be used to kick smoking or control overeating. It can be chanted out loud to a tune, or just thought silently in the mind, or even made into a group recital. Believe it or not, it actually works. This is probably the best way to do Mussar. If done on a daily basis it can accomplish what can be described as nothing less than a miracle.
Food for Thought
Anybody who has ever tried Mussar knows how tough it is to change a single aspect of the personality. Most people give up without ever giving it a fair shake. How does one find the wherewithal to stick with it?
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