Yisrael Salanter – The Inner Battle ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 0

			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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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?’ ‎
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Analysis ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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Practical ‎
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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? ‎
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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. ‎
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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. ‎
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Food for Thought ‎
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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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