The 25th of Teves is the yahrtzeit of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt’l, one of the most influential post World War II baalei mussar.
I’d like to re-examine one of my favorite about him, originally posted here.
When Rav Dessler came to America in 1948, he met up with his son, Nachum Velvel in New York. Rav Dessler asked his son who had help him during his years alone in America? His son mentioned several people in New York along with Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of Agudah Israel and the rav of Cincinnati. Rav Dessler said, “We must thank him.”
His son offered to place a telephone call to Rabbi Silver, but Rav Dessler wanted to show personal hakaros hatov to Rabbi Silver. Nachum Velvel and his father then took a nine hour train ride to Ohio, arriving at 5:00 am in Cincinnati. Then went to Rabbi Silver’s home and waited on the porch to meet Rabbi Silver as he left his house for davening.
Rabbi Silver met his two guests when he woke up and they all went to shul and then back to the Silver’s for breakfast. After a bite to eat, Rabbi Silver said, “So, Rav Dessler, what brings you to Cincinnati?” Rav Dessler said that he had only come to show appreciation to Rabbi Silver for all he had done for his son.
Rabbi Silver thought about this and again asked, “So, Rav Dessler, what really brings you to Cincinnati?”
Rav Dessler said that he had no other purpose that to show hakaros hatov. Rabbi Silver asked, “Rav Dessler, what can I do for you?”
Rav Dessler, for a third time, repeated that he only wished to show gratitude to Rabbi Silver in person.
Rabbi Silver finally gave up and muttered, “This must be mussar.”
(Paraphrased from the Artscroll biography of Rav Dessler, by Yonoson Rosenbloom)
For other postings about Rav Dessler please click here.
So, tonight marks the second yahrtzeit of my father Al Harris a”h, Avraham ben Zorach. While the picture on the the right might not be the clearest, it was taken on his last visit with us in Chicago, in July of 2009, only three and a half months before he was niftar.
It’s funny how the mind works. A few months ago when R.E.M. broke up I had a flashback to my sophomore year in high school. It was a Thursday night in the fall of 1985 and my father was driving me from Wichita, KS to Kansas City- a three our drive. It must had been fairly late at night, because we were listening to Larry King’s talk show and he had Michael Stipe (lead singer from R.E.M) on as a guest and there were tons of calls to him about the state of college music. My dad thought it was cool that “my music” was being talked about on the radio. That wasn’t the cool part. The really cool part was that my dad was driving me all the way to Kansas City, so that I could catch an Amtrack train to St. Louis to attend an NCSY shabbaton (youth group retreat weekend). He drove me and then drove straight back home.
So, tonight marks the second yahrtzeit of my father Al Harris, Avraham ben Zorach. While the picture on the the right might not be the clearest, it was taken on his last visit with us in Chicago, in July of 2009, only three and a half months before he was niftar.
Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l taught the world that it is giving that leads to love, not love that leads to giving. Meaning, that the love we have for another is a natural outcome of our giving to another, of the deeds we perform. Deeds that come from giving, like driving me three hours away to catch a train.
- Tracking- With Weight Watchers, all food/beverages have point values (now it’s called Point Plus). Having a written or digital record or what you eat helps you see your habits offers accountability. As a person who as practiced the technique of Cheshbon HaNefesh (making an accounting of your soul and daily activities, struggles, and successes) on and off for almost 20 years this isn’t new to me, which is why I don’t mind “tracking” (many in Weight Watchers can’t stand tracking). Seeing where you spend your points, what difficulties you have during the day, or even what food victories you’ve had helps give you a feeling of accomplishment. Being able to go back and look at what was difficult in previous weeks helps you learn and focus on future goals.
- Everything counts- Foods and beverages have values (as mentioned above). Water is zero points, so are pears, apples, cauliflower, carrots, etc. I am allocated a specific number of points per day. How I choose to gain those points, is my choice. This has allowed me to understand that there are trade-offs. For example, if I want to use four points, do I get more energy and nutrition from a 4 point shot of bourbon or a four point granola bar? I haven’t given up a l’chaim after kiddush on Shabbos morning, but I understand it’s spending points and there is a trade off. This got me thinking about mitzvos. We are taught not to ascribe a value/reward for a mitzvah against another mitzvah, because we don’t know its value. Conversely, when it comes to those actions that move us away from Kedusha (holiness) and our Creator we don’t know what the negative value is. Things are not always what they seem. A small piece of candy might have four points, while a large apples is still zero points. The apple is, by far, a healthier choice and give one more energy. A seemingly trivial mitzvah in our eyes might have a huge value to our creator, even it the “point value” is zero.
- Ratzon- I have found that being more watchful of what I eat and drink has helped me focus on what I want vs. what I need. Just this past Monday I was in a grocery store and went through a moral battle regarding if I really wanted a piece of fried chicken. I had already cheshboned the point value and I knew, based on what I was planning to eat for dinner, that I had the extra points available to “spend” on that perfectly crispy fried little chicken leg. I bought it. It sat in my car for the ride home and it’s currently in the fridge. I didn’t need it. I wanted it, but didn’t need it. Had I been the better man, I wouldn’t have spent the $1.29 for it. However, I’m realizing that it’s a choice. This is real free will. Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt’l has a whole teaching about something called the “bechira-point”, which explains that there are specific challenges that allow us to truly exercise the God-given gift of free will. His example is in regard to observing Shabbos. If you have been keeping the laws of Shabbos for a number of years (or your whole life) then you really have no urge to flick on a light if it’s dark in a room. Your soul understands that this isn’t what Hashem wants you to do, so there’s really no showing of free will with this. You might have had to struggle with this in the past, but as time moved on your bechira (free will) moved from being a choice, to being a habit. As such, your bechira-point has moved. I knew that my habits were changing two weeks ago, when I opted to buy an apple for a snack instead of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup (my all time favorite candy) because the candy was 6 points and I accepted that at the time I didn’t need it. In the sefer Da Es Nafshecha, Rabbi Itmar Shwartz has a whole chapter on ratzon and actually give the example of the desire to eat come chicken. As it turns out, I didn’t read this until two days my incident with the fried chicken.
- Getting on the scale- Every week, as part of Weight Watchers, you weigh in. This is your official weight for the week. Now I’ve observed that people weigh in differently. Some take off their shoes, empty their pockets, take off eye glasses, etc. I get it, they want to be the lightest they can be, because the scale doesn’t lie, it’s fairly final for that week. Rabbi Akiva Tatz mentions in LIVING INSPIRED the idea (based on teaching of Rav Dessler zt’l) when you start Shabbos Kodesh and also when you are niftar (pass away) that whatever madrega (level) you are in terms of holiness and perfections is frozen during that time period. If you are on level 6 (based on a scale of 1-10) when Shabbos starts or when you go to the next word, then that’s your level for that period. You can’t change it. Sort of like the weight that’s reported on the scale. This is why it’s suggested to weigh around the same time each week. Your weekly weight is the point of reference for either gaining or losing for the next week.
- Influencing others- I find it fascinating that slowly, thanks to my wife, our family is adapting to my new eating habits. There are basically two ways to be mash’piah (influence) others, actively or passively. It’s recommended that I eat five servings of fruit day. Four weeks ago I started with one (going from one serving a week, on a good week) and I’m currently up to three servings. By the time I come home from work (or a Weight Watchers meeting) my kids are home from camp they are starving. Immediately after joining Weight Watchers I attempted to actively influence them by suggesting that if they are hungry they should have some fruit or drink a glass of water (or Crystal Light). Their basic response was, “You packed us an apple for our lunch already. We want a real snack.” I decided then and there not to suggest fruit and use the passive approach. Instead, when I felt hungry, I would mention it and then proceed to grab some fruit to snack on and make sure my kids saw me do it. After doing this for exactly a week, I noticed that my son also started “snacking” on an apple at home when he was hungry. Children are much more observant than we give them credit for. They notice everything and sometimes just being a good example can influence them.
- You can’t do it alone- OK, some people probably can, but getting reinforcement from discussions with leaders and peers can’t hurt. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter knew this over 150 years ago. He and his students (and their students) innovated such revolutionary ideas like a Beis HaMussar (a small dwelling or room where one can practice mussar techniques and discuss ideas in privacy) and mussar vaadim (a group or chabura that would get together on a regular basis to work on a specific character trait or mussar teaching). They would chant, discuss text regarding the subject of the day and share their feelings and report on their success and challenges during the previous week. This is pretty much what happens at a Weight Watchers meeting (and any “fill in the blank” Anonymous meeting).
Sunday night my wife and I attended a beautiful chassunah in Minneapolis. The chosson was a close family and childhood friend from my hometown of Wichita, KS. The kallah resides in NJ (where they are now living). Aside from meeting a group of the kallah’s friends from NJ, the chosson had family and friends come in from across the county (and E”Y). The mesader kidushin came in from E”Y and is a grandson of Reb Yaakov zt”l (and also a former teacher of mine). Some of his friends were from his summer camp days, others from college, and some were people who he had grown close with on his journey to observant Judaism. In addition to that, my brother was also there. Also I met up with a very old friend who is now very involved in a very important aspect of outreach.
For me, there were a couple of things that stood out from the whole event.
I was asked to be an “aid” (witness) under the chupah, which was humbling, I also ended up meeting a gentleman who is a Rav and originally grew up in London. I asked him (based on the fact that he looked old enough to have grandchildren) if he had ever had any contact with either Rav Dessler zt’l or Rav Lopian zt”l. He told me that as a young boy he met both of these lighthouses of Mussar. He also commented that his his “day” being a “Rav” or Rosh Yeshiva was an earned title of kavod. Unlike today, he told me, when everyone gets called “Rosh Yeshiva” and if you write a sefer or speak somewhere, then you are considered “popular”. He also mentioned that the emphasis on chiztonius is much greater today than when he was growing up.
Dancing was insane. It was the first chassuna I had attended since getting up from aveilus. The fact that it was for a family friend made it even more emotion for me. To dance with the chosson and his family was amazing! Especially since they were not at my own wedding.
For me, there was also an element of introspection (possibly brought on by a few l’chaims, I admit). By default, until recently, I was pretty much the only one from my “generation” and peer group from Wichita that became observant. While I gravitated towards NCSY, the chosson joined Young Judea and was involved with their camps and post-high school programs. While his observance might be viewed as “recent”, it was obvious that there was visible hashgacha pratis involved in every step of his journey. It’s refreshing to see that and usually it’s easier to view Hashem’s involvement with others, than to see Hashem’s hand in our own lives. As I watched him interact with Rabbis he is close with, friends from his past, present, and future I felt a sense of comfort, I guess, in knowing that another Yid has found his place.
In a brief conversation with the old friend who is involved in kiruv, he confirmed something that my wife and I had known for a long time, that my current profession isn’t really where I should be putting my energy into. I’ve know this for a long time, and while I am very thankful that Hashem has given me an opportunity to receive a parnassah, that feeling of fulfillment isn’t really there. You know, I look in the mirror everyday and I see that I don’t have much hair left. It doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that this is just how it is. I will lose more hair and my yarmulka will just get bigger. I deal with it. But when you have someone else point out that you don’t have as much hair as did years ago, then it sort of gets to you. Not in a bad way, but there’s that outside confirmation of what you’ve known for a long time.
To give me even more food for thought, when we boarded the plane (towards the end of our Hebrew anniversary) we found out that we were the only two passengers. Once I got over the feeling of being a rock star, I sat back and thought about the fact that ultimately in my own marriage it’s really just my wife and I alone in the plane that Hashem is piloting. I also thought about something said over in the name of the Alter of Novaradok.
The Alter said that someone not familiar with a Torah lifestyle might look up at a plane flying in the sky and see how small it is. He might even not believe that there could be people living aboard a plane because, to him, it just looks so small. However, once someone has begun to learn Torah and keep mitzvos, he realizes that you can be above the ground and life. You realize that what seemed so small is really quite big and can travel great distances very quickly. I think this applies to myself, as well as the chosson.
|Photo from here|
It’s that focus that enabled Rav Dessler to teach in London, head the first kollel in the Western hemisphere, and go on to become the mashgiach of Ponevezh . His focus was on how the individual can m’Kadesh Hashem through relationship. No matter if it was a rebbe-talmud relationship, a parent-teacher relationship, or a husband-wife relationship. Looking through Michtav M’Eliyahu or any of the volumes of Strive for Truth it is clear that Rav Dessler is speaking to the Jew of Today. We all struggle with our Yetzer Hora, we all want to look at our actions as choices not habits, and we want to emulate Hashem. Constant examination of how we can improve our mitzvos bein adam l’Makom and bein adam l’Chavero is part and parcel of being a Torah observant Jew.
I can think and dream about a vibrant resurgence of a Mussar movement for this generation. I can sit and email like-mind people about the importance of self-growth and the foundations of Mussar that, like a cassette tape, seem almost obsolete to the average twenty-something. I can and I do. However, I can also look at Rav Dessler’s life and see that had he confinded is ideas to the written word or interacted with a limited number of people, his impact might have been much more localized. He made the best of every enviorment he found himself in and constantly tried to reach is potential. For him Yiddishkeit and growth were inseparable and not a spectator sport.
I titled this post “the living yerusha” because no matter if you are learning full-time or working you are in contact with people. It’s those relationships that constantly require examination. How do we interact with others? Are we giving or taking from someone? What example are we setting for our children? Do we give enough? These questions are important, because within them lies the potential to make ourselves like Hashem. We can become a Giver and bring a level of kedusha to something as simple as offering directions to someone who is lost, complimenting a co-worker, or setting the table for dinner. That’s Rav Dessler’s living yerusha.
For previous posts regarding Rav Dessler click here.
Note: A few of the thoughts and ideas that make up this post have been sitting in my Blogger Dashboard since 08/09/06, after I sent an email to someone regarding banned seforim and authors.
Even though I attended what was know as a “top” public school in Kansas, this book was never required reading. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 22 (summer of 1992) that I first read it. Holden Caulfield, the main character, was a mouthy teen who had been expelled from four schools and was rather discontent with society, adults, and especially people who were “phony”. Holden saw the hypocrisy within his society and in many of the people he encountered. In many ways, not so different from some individuals that would be labeled as “at-risk” or “in-risk”.
One of my favorite quotes (of all time) can be found in chapter two. Holden says, “People never notice anything”. I have always thought this to mean that Holden felt that people didn’t understand him and that they were not even willing to attempt to understand him. It is that lack of observance (not the Torah u’Mitzvos kind), that feeling that we are not important and what we say doesn’t matter that can often lead to a lack of observance (yes, the Torah u’Mitzvos kind). Most people want to be recognized and valued. When parents, teachers, family members or the community give the impression that someone isn’t important or “worth the time” it can have a devastating effect on a person. Of course, when a teen or adult gets to the point that they even contemplate the idea that Hashem forgets about them, then we get into a situation that might bring about that lack of observance.
“People never notice anything,” is a mindset that seems to go against many Jewish values. Part of the reason I like the quote is because I see how it resonates with many people. That’s I attempt to notice things. I try the be first to wish others a “Good Shabbos Kodesh” or give a “Yashar Koach”. I attempt to take an interest in what is going on in my life of those around me. Lately I have become keenly aware of when people have a birthday coming up (mostly thanks to Facebook). To simply ask someone how they are doing, but not push beyond the answer they give is really going only half the distance.
I know this personally, because friends will ask me how I’m doing, and my first reaction is to say, “everything is fine”. Mostly I do this because R Yisrael Lipkin (Salanter) held that “one’s face is a Reshus HaRabim”, a public area (I believe the story goes that he saw someone looking obviously very serious during Elul and commented to this person, that showing distress might bring others down, as well). I’m slowly realizing that if a good friend asks how I’m doing, the they do deserve a better answer than, “fine”. This is sort of like R Dessler’s idea that even though we want to be givers and not takers, sometimes you can be a taker, like when someone really wants to give you a gift, and by taking you are giving to that over person.
“People never notice anything,” just isn’t true. It’s easy to think that, in the big picture, our actions don’t really make a difference. I fall into this mentality quite often as of late. Usually, it’s really before I’m about to do something nice for someone or prior to actually making a difference. If a novel, movie, song, or other aspect of what’s called “pop culture” speaks to our youth, I think, for myself, that it is important to find out why. If you meet a teenager and they are into an author or a musical artist then there’s something (even if it’s completely off base) that “speaks” to that person. This isn’t meant as an academic critique of Mr. Salinger’s book, but I’ve often wondered to myself, “What if Holden had felt that an adult understood him?” Had that been the case, we would have had a very different story.
“Life is very dear to those who discover its value, and very cheap to those who squander it.”- from the sefer GESHER HACHAIM (The Bridge of Life)
I posted this quote about three weeks ago on Facebook. The sefer Gersher HaChaim, by Rav Yechiel Michel Tucazinsky, was suggested to me by Micha Berger as a good thing to learn when dealing with the death of a loved one. Micha was kind enough to comment on Facebook, “I’m happy to see it is speaking to you. BTW, contrast that quote to the various perceptions of the size of the yeitzer hara on the day it will be slaughtered.”
The gemara that R Berger was referring to is in Sukka 52a:
“Rabbi Yehuda lectured: In the future, Hashem will take the yetzer and slaughter him in the presence of both the tzaddikim and the reshaim. To the tzaddikim he will appear like a high mountain and to thereshaim he will appear like a thin hair. Both, however, will cry. The tzaddikim will cry “How could we have overpowered such a high mountain?” and the reshaim will cry: “How could we not have subdued such a thin hair?”
Rav Dessler discusses this gemara in Michtav M’Eliyahu. He explains thats that a tzaddikim will view all of their challenges, urges, difficulties in life as a tall mountain. The rashaim will see “that one act of the will which could have taken him to the top in one bound” as that thin little hair. (See Strive for Truth Vol 1 pg 105)
The goals and aspirations of a tzaddik in this world are to get close to Hashem. For the rasha, his only interest is to distance himself from the Creator. I think this is what Micha was alluding to.
The things we have a ratzon, a desire, for will fight for. We’ll climb, to use the gemara’s imagery, the mountain if we have to. We will use all of our energy and might. The tzaddik will fight his yeter hara until the end to get closer to Hashem. Don’t be fooled. The rasha will fight also for what he desires. With just as much strength as the tzaddik. What the Gesher HaChaim is telling us is that those things that the tzaddik values are looked upon as almost worthless to the rasha.
That is why both the tzaddik and the rasha will cry, in the end. Out of joy and awe will the tzaddikim cry when they see the high mountain that was their yetzer hara. All most too difficult to conquer, yet they did conquer it. The tzaddikim will cry tears of joy. The rashaim, on the on other hand, will see their yetzer hara, that they gave into time and time again, as nothing more than a hair. Nothing more than a little thing they could have blown or brushed aside. That is why they will cry tears of regret.
In the sefer Da Et Atzmecha (Getting to Know Yourself) the author describes something amazing, the movement of the soul:
In physical movement, we are familiar with six directions: the four sides, and up and down. Our teachers have taught that the soul moves in only two directions: expansion and contraction. Every movement must either be a contraction or an expansion.
When a person analyzes himself, he must categorize all movements as either expansion or contraction. Certainly, the degree of expansion and contraction will not be identical in every situation. For example, when a person runs, he may run quickly or slowly. So, too, there are more extreme movements and more measured movements.
In general, the soul moves either to expand or to contract. In the language of Chazal, expansion is referred to as the aspect of chessed, and contraction is referred to as the aspect of din. There are no other kinds of movement.
When a person understands that all his movements are either contraction or expansion, he can begin to understand himself. On a simple level, a person seems happy, and feels that this is an inherent quality in the soul, or he may be sad, and feel that this is the soul’s quality. Or he may feel generous, and believe that such is his soul’s quality. But the truth is that happiness comes from expansion; sadness, from contraction; giving, from expansion; and taking, from contraction. (Section two, chapter two)
An Adam Gadol is given this title because he is great. Great in Torah, great in Middos, great in making everything he or she does into Avodas Hashem. I recently read the following at chabad.org regarding the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s style of writing:
It is clear from the Rebbe’s editing patterns that talking and writing positively are always an imperative. Apparently because positive writing has a beneficial influence on the reader’s thought process.
This particular response – actually an edit – that I unearthed was penned by the Rebbe on the margins of a letter drafted by one of the Rebbe’s secretaries (based on the Rebbe’s dictation) for a dinner that was to take place on the day after Passover. The Rebbe writes on the draft: “!!!סגנון דהיפך הטוב הוא” “the wording is the opposite of good!!!”*
Here is the text the Rebbe was referring to:
Had the Jewish children in Egypt not received a Jewish education … there would be no one to liberate…
The Rebbe wrote in Hebrew how the text should be corrected—and this is the way it was translated and appeared in the final version:
…it is only because the Jewish children in Egypt received the proper Jewish education… our whole Jewish people… was liberated from Egyptian slavery…
*Note that the Rebbe wrote “the opposite of good”—another hallmark of the Rebbe’s, never to say or write the word commonly used to connote “the opposite of good.”
I found this very interesting, because the importance of how we speak is also illustrated in the following excerpt from the biography of Rav Dessler:
Rabbi Nachum Vevel [Rav Dessler’s son] Dessler’s childhood memories of this maternal grandmother Rebbetzin Peshe Ziv [the Alter of Kelm’s daughter-in-law] provide some glimpse of the rareifed atmosphere in which his mother was raised. He once refused to eat the food his grandmother offered him, complaining that the plate was shmutzik (dirty). His grandmother told him that she would be happy to offer him another plate, but that he must not talk like that. “We do not say the plate is dirty,” she said. “We say that the plate is not clean.”
The young boy could barely comprehend what his grandmother was talking about, and replied, “But everyone speaks like that.” His grandmother was unfazed. “That may be,” she said, “but you come from a long line of people who do not talk like that.”
Negativity breeds negativity. Saying something in a positive way probably requires thought, at times. It’s easier to say that “the soup went bad” than to say “the soup isn’t good”. A refined way of phrasing something can make all the difference.