Category Archives: Slabodka

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka

If it happened that an acquaintance fell sick, R’ Nosson Zvi knew no rest.  He prayed, he was upset, he sent people to care for the sick person and to stay by the bedside, he found out which doctors were experts in that disease and what medicines helped, and he did not take his mind off it.

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Switching Tracks

(Image from Flickr)
I was recently asked a very interesting question during an interview for a volunteer position.  The question was, “What is my style of parenting”?
I answered that I tend to be somewhat strick but within large parameters, so that there’s flexibility and a feeling of making a choice.  In truth, I’ve been working on being more laid back since the kids started up in school again.  Prior to being asked the question, I had been giving my parenting skills a lot of thought over the past two months.  My wife has pointed out that I’m, at times, somewhat demanding about little things, especially after my kids have spent almost eight hours in their day school.  As a product of the public school system, I really don’t know what it’s like to deal with both a duel-curriculum and a long day at such a young age.  My wife was right (as usual), I was putting emphasis on the wrong things and at the wrong time.
I had been wanting to write about this for quite some time, especially after reading something that R Nosson Kamenetsky wrote in Making of a Godol regarding Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka and his derech of Mussar within the Slabodka Yeshiva (Knesses Yisroel), the yeshiva he started.  The following is from page 57:

By 5664 (1904), with Russia’s humiliating defeat in its war with Japan, the winds of Socialist revolution blowing through the Russian cities and villages for decades increase in velocity.  By 5665 (1905) they had reached hurricane force and sucked in a sizable number of yeshiva students- including a son of R’ Noson-Zvi.  The anti-Musar forces merged with the revolutionary element to endanger the very existance of the yeshiva.  To the good for fortune of both yeshivoth [Knesses Beis Yitzchak and the Alter’s yeshiva], when the revolution was quashed, the goverment clampdown on all Socialist sympathizers cleared the yeshivoth of their troublesome elements.  R’ Frankel’s stance through the first years of the crisis was perceived by many as passive and weak, and evoked sharp criticism within his yeshiva.  But beneath this outwardly inert pose, cataclysmic changes were evolving.  The Alter was metamorphosing his educational technique, and ultimately, when he personally was struck with the tragedy of his son’s apostasy, a new approach to Musar crystallized inside him.  No longer did he dwell on the weakness of humanity.  He turned instead to reflect on man’s potential for greatness.  His shmuessen (“conversations”, musar talks) began concentrating on the sublimity of Adam before the Sin, on the superiority of the Patriarchs, on the grandeur of Biblical figures, on the loftiness of the Generation of Wisdom hearing the Word of G-d in the desert- and on how every individual can reach those dizzying heights.

So, it seems that even though the Alter started out with one particular derech, he realized that there was another route that would allow him to arrive at his destination.  I read this passage two months ago.  I’ve been reading it every day since then, prior to my hisbodedus.  While it is far easier for me to pick apart things that my children don’t do, it takes effort and strength to be able to help build them up.  To be hypercritical about clothes being thrown on the floor, is really not the most important thing in the world.  Letting your children know that you believe in them and their innate greatness is probably more important.

I think that’s what the Alter realized.  To change one’s battle plan midway though the war means that you have both humility and confidence in what you feel is right.  It takes much strength to accept what the real emes (truth) is.  I’m sure there were murmurs throughout Slabodka and Kovno (just across the river Vilna) when the Alter’s Mussar started focusing on Galdus HaAdam (the greatness of man).  While I could not find any biographical information about what ultimately happened to Rav Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s son, I do know that Slabodka and it’s talmidim became one of the most influential forces with the yeshiva world.  Probably because the Alter of Slabodka chose a track that builds, not one that breaks.

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka

Two talmidim came from Slobodka to visit him in a German spa.  They arrived on Friday tired from a long hard journey.  That night R’ Nosson Zvi kept the Shabbos meal short, did not permit the singing of zemiros, ate quickly, and then sent the talmidim off to sleep.

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Feeling Elul’s pull

(Picture found here)

Am I feeling it?  Sort of.


For those who attempt to grow closer to Hashem and work on their Avodah these weeks of Elul, before Rosh Hashana have a momentum of their own.

Part of me doesn’t want to accept the responsiblity that it’s actually Elul.  It’s time to come to terms with all that I haven’t done during the past year, the wasted potential.  Still, part of me loves this time of year.  I remember phone calls and conversations with my mother-in-law a”h during this time of year.  She would always quote the Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) and say, “The King is in the field”.

I often think of the words of the Alter of Slabodka:
We come now from the material vacation to the spiritual vacation: From the months of Tammuz and Av in the forests and the fields to the months of Elul and Tishrei in the house of the yeshiva. What distinguishes that vacation from this vacation? We know, of course, that just as that vacation is essential to fortify the body, so too this other one is necessary to heal the soul. Even more so, for all are sick vis a vis Elul…” as written in the diary of R Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan z”tl (available here).


It’s the realization that I must come to terms with many things and the excitement of rebirth.  While people are planning out their Yom Tov meals, others are already looking out for the simanim, and still others are quietly jotting down their own Chesbon HaNefesh.  I’m somewhere in between “going from day to day” and “getting ready to face the King”.


It’s that gravitational pull of Elul.  It is inescapable and it calls me.  And like Shabbos, which I can’t imaging how I survived prior to keep it, I can’t image what my year would be like now, without an Elul.

Sunday’s Slabodka Selection

“A small town has no change  for large bills.”
Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka


2 cents:  Yeah, there might be change for two cents in Slabodka.  I have always thought that this quote from the Alter meant that in relationships with others, or in a kehillah, “large bills”(an ego) really just gets in the way.  When we put ourselves first, that’s were problems arise.

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka


He use to say that a person should always suspect himself, for even his good deeds may stem from impure motives.  “Perhaps,” he said, “the reason I built my whole Mussar approach on the greatness of the first man stems from the fact that the first shmuse I heard from R’ Simcha Zissel Ziv was on that subject.”


From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka


Entering R’ Nosson Zvi’s house, a tamid removed his hat, and placed it, brim down, on the table.  R’ Nosson Zvi scolded him, saying, “The brim of the hat is wet from perspiration.  How can you soil the tablecloth with it?  This is considered doing damage.”


From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka

The first resolution that R’ Nosson Zvi wrote down in his diary was “to try to be extremely careful of my fellowman’s honor, with patience, with a soft answer, never once to get excited… not to embarrass anyone in public… to find ways daily, at the very least weekly, of benefiting my friends.”

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Never Lose Your Head

The following, found in the Artscroll Pirkei Avos:  Sfas Emes and other Chassidic Masters, has been on my mind recently:  


R’ Chanoch Henach of Alexander relates the following story…
A hoplessly diorganized fool determined to organize his life by recording the whereabouts of all his belongings.   Before going to sleep, he dutifully wrote:   “My clothing is hanging in the closet, my shoes are beside my bed and my head is in my bed (under the covers).”  Upon arising, he found his clothing and shoes exactly where he had specified but his head was nowhere to be found-not even in his bed!  The mussar haskil of the story:  It is not sufficient for peripheral matters to be in place, unless my head, the core of my all my thoughts and actions, is also in place (Maggidei HaEmes).


I know, for myself, that when I’m busy I tend to focus on the details of what I’m doing.  At times, those details tend to overshadow the real goals that I’m aiming for.  It’s the story above that I think about when I find myself spending more time than needed on any given task.  Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, taught that when getting ready to perform a mitzvah one needs to “take time, be exact, and unclutter the mind”.  In order to clear one’s head, you first need to know where your head is!