Monthly Archives: February 2011

Why does mussar have such bad street cred?

I don’t get.  I know, this isn’t the best way to start of a blog post, but really, I don’t get it.
I am not a rabbi, academic scholar, historian, or an author of a book on the Mussar movement.  I am simply just writing down how I see things.  Others, who are much more learned than I or more intellectual might have a totally different spin on this.

Over the years and even as recent as last week, I’ve shmoozed with people about learning mussar and why I feel it has “worked” for me.  Those who have had a yeshiva high school background tend to have a very negative view of mussar or, as someone recently told me, feel that it’s meant to be studied on an individual basis and not as part of a group.  When I then ask these people about their opinion of mussar, it’s almost exclusively regulated to them being made to feel guilty, not good enough, or like they are “nothing”.  When suggesting to start a mussar va’ad (group dedicated to working on middos on a regular basis), the interest is slim to none.

This is the part that I don’t get.  Let’s take a look at a very short list of talmidim of the Slobodka school of mussar (Yeshiva Knesses Yisrael) and the yeshivos in America they were associated with (in no particular order):

  • Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner- RY, Chaim Berlin
  • Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky- RY, Torah V’Daas
  • Rabbi Aharon Kotler- RY,Beth Medrash Govoha (Lakewood)
  • Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz- RY, Chofetz Chaim
  • Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman- RY, Ner Israel
  • Rabbi Nissan Yablonsky -RY, Hebrew Theological Seminary (Skokie)
  • Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Lessin- Mashgiach, REITS (Yeshiva University)

Of course there are plenty more, but these represent the roots of some of the more “major” yeshivos in America.  These Rabbis were all products of Slobodka, where the concept of Gadlus haAdam, the greatness of man, was the modus operandi of the yeshiva.  Yet, time after time, mussar gets a bad rap.  Tochacha (rebuke) is mussar, but Mussar is not just rebuke, sort of like a square is a rhombus, but a rhombus isn’t… a square.

It could be argued that for some reason in America the “Novardok” derech didn’t really translate over in the United States.  If the thrust of Slobodka was to build one up and show them their own inner greatness, then how did Mussar become so negative?  I really don’t know.  I have an idea, but it’s based on me being an outsider.  I was zoche to spend a number of years learning in a yeshiva environment, post-high school, but I didn’t “go through the system”.  Teenagers,  by nature, rebel against authority.  Even the frummest of the frum rebels in some way.  It might be by taking upon chumros or by speeding or extending a shemoneh esray, but there’s some type of rebellion against the status quo going on.

I think most adults who when through the “system” probably got their mussar exposure at the wrong time.  Had they been taught and exposed during elementary school to the concept that there’s a desire to grow towards greatness and perfecting middos, then the “average” adult might have a different view towards mussar (and if you you don’t read this blog regularly, by “mussar” I mean any learning that makes you a better Jew).

If I were to approach you after shul and say, “You need to improve A,B and C”, you’d probably walk away thinking, “Who is Neil Harris to tell me what I need to improve upon?”
However, if you were to see a flyer in you shul that stated, “How can you not afford to spend 15 minutes working on making yourself a better person?”, then you might give it a thought. 

It’s not just the approach, it’s the timing.  There’s no quick solution.  No magic pill that will give you and your children what’s termed “good middos”.  It’s simply a willingness to accept a shift in effort.  I could easily spend two hours “beating” the levels on Star Wars Lego for Wii, but to sit for two hours and work on patience takes, well patience.

Working on who we are just doesn’t seem like it’s on the radar for the general observant public these days.

Sarah’s Place in Cincinnati hosts retreat March 6-8

It seems they’ve done it again.  Sarah’s Place, affiliated with the Cincinnati Community Kollel is offering a great deal for the upcoming retreat, titled “”Climbing Higher”  – a unique retreat for women who have adopted Torah-living as adults.
If you register early you can pay only $39.00 and get catered meals and lodging.
From their webiste:

Designed specifically for the baalas teshuvah or giyores, this retreat features scholar-in-residence Aliza Bulow, popular speaker on a broad array of issues in Jewish thought, regular contributor to -and a proud giyores!
Skills-building and confidence-boosting classes – Increase your Jewish knowledge and enhance your Hebrew skills!
SPECIAL EXTRA! New lifestyle creating new dilemmas? Aliza Bulow will lend an ear, as well as advice gleaned from her own transformation and from years of coaching others as well.
Sunday, Mar 6, 1:30pm through Tuesday, Mar 8, 10:00am
Sarah’s Place – Amberley Village, Cincinnati, Ohio
Catered meals, comfortable lodging, and easy on your time and pocketbook.

To find out more info or register, just click here.

Excellent interview with R/Dr Twerski and an opportunity to see him in Chicagoland

R Micha Berger clued me in that last week Zev Brenner interviewed both R/Dr Abraham Twerksi and also his son Dr Benzion Twerksi.  The interview deals with a number of issues within the observant community and solutions.  It’s available to listen to or download here.
Also you can see Dr/R Abraham J. Twerksi live on March 2, 2011

An Evening with Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski
at Niles West High School Auditorium
5701 Oakton Street, Skokie
Tickets:Advance Online: $15 or at the Door: $20
Purchase tickets here

I first read LET US MAKE MAN back in 1990 and since then I’ve been hooked.  I’ve heard many mp3 of Dr/R Twerski, but have never seen him live. I must say, this is going to be quite a treat seeing him next week.

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
While living in Mamel, R’ Yisrael instituted the practice of lighting the ovens in the beis medresh very early in the morning, so that the wagoners who crossed the border at night would be able to come in and warm themselves.

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Food for thought

Rav Elya Lopian zt’l, a product of Kelm (as in the yeshiva founded by Rav Zimcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm- a direct talmid of R Yisrael Salanter), once commented that the true measurement of a person’s middos is how he or she treats those in their own home.  He observed that often people are much nicer to strangers than to loved one in their own family.  I, so relate, because I am generally viewed as a nice person to strangers.

The reason for this is because a casual interaction with someone in a store isn’t a big deal.  It’s a one or two time relationship.  It’s not directly ongoing, nor is there much to be gained from investing time or effort into the person at the cash register (although this doesn’t free on from the obligation to make a Kiddush Hashem).  With those in your family, it a constant relationship.  That’s why it’s more difficult to keep your cool, speak pleasantly, be appreciative, and display a level of kavod haAdam.

This is something, especially in dealing with my kids, that I am constantly working on.  It’s an avodah in the real sense, because effort is involved.  There are times that I win (well my Yetzer haTov wins) and there are time that I slip and lose it.  It’s less frequent than it was, say 4 years ago, but it happens.

Once in a while I experience something and it give me a different perspective.  Last night, I placed an order for some “take out” food.  I went, picked up my order, and then came home.  When I got home and started taking out the purchased items, I realized that I was missing something.  I quickly called the establishment and asked if the item I was “missing” was meant to be included with my order.  It was.  So I asked if I could come back and pick up the item.  Of course they said, “Yes.”

I showed up and gave my name and said I had come for the part of the order that didn’t make it home. They apologized profusely and told me how sorry I was.  I told them that it really wasn’t a big deal and that I was sure they were just busy when they put the order together.

As I drove home, I realized that it didn’t really make sense that I didn’t adapt this easy going attitude at home.  Here I was, telling them “no big deal”, when I had paid for an item and didn’t receive it.  Yet, I find myself frustrated and low on patience when I ask one of my kids to pick up their dirty clothes and they choose not to. It’s not like I paid them to actually clean up their clothes.  There was no implied exchange of currently for services rendered.  There is, however, a relationship built on trust, love, respect, and appreciation. That’s really the kicker.  When working with any “volunteers” it’s imperative to appreciate what they do.  I realized that my strategy of working on patience and keeping my cool only really affects how I preceive things, or the input, not the output.

So, when I came home, I went straight into my son’s room and told him that I really to appreciate all the effort he puts into studying, school work, and I understand that after a full day of school he is sometimes too tired to even care about the state of his room.  I also told him that if he wants help pick up close, I’d be happy to assist him.  If I can be nice and understanding to the person behind the counter, then even more so, to my own family.  At least, that’s the plan.

Please help me raise money for Chai Lifeline


Years ago, we purchased a car and got a “gift certificate” for a sporting goods store. I ended up buying a bike (and one for my wife). I have, thankfully, for the past three years to have participated in Chai Lifeline’s Bike the Drive program. To use my bike and get sponsors that can help Chai Lifeline is an amazing mitzvah opportunity.

Last year, with your help, I was able to raise an unprecedented amount of money for Chai Lifeline, an organization that helps terminally ill children and their parents. I biked a total of 45 miles on Lake Shore Drive in downtown Chicago within 4 hours, which was personal record for me. I dedicated my biking to my father, Al Harris, of blessed memory, who had past away that year of Leukemia. While it was great being able to celebrate with my wife, children, and by brother (who came to town to join us), the real victory was the people helped by Chai Lifeline by your donations, especially in honor of my father a”h. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me and my entire family from across the country.

This will be my fourth year Biking the Drive for Chai Lifeline. I am currently training (indoors), but soon I’ll be hitting the streets of Chicago and Skokie biking and getting ready for the big ride. I will admit, this year, I have another goal besides raising funds to help Chai Lifeline. This year I am hoping that my bike training will not only get me in ready for the ride, but will also help me get into better physical shape for life.

Chai, mean “life”, and I have seen that that the work, love, care, and support that Chai Lifeline gives is truly a lifeline for many people. They provide so much for so many people. And now, together, we can both help them. The word “mitzvah” is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to connect”. By sponsoring me for Bike the Drive, you are making an unbreakable connection by directly helping so many children and their families.

I have the best trainers in the world working with me…my wife and three kids. I know in the past I’ve had your support and I’m hoping you will sponsor me once again. So please look for more updates as I journey towards reaching my goal.

To view my YouTube training video, expertly filmed by my 8 yr old daughter, please check this link:

If you are intested in donating to sponsor me, please click here or free free to email me. Of course, it would be great if you’d like to forward this to your friends.

Thank you,

Reflections of a chassunah

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.