Category Archives: Baalei Mussar

Rav Wolbe zt’l on the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim

Found on Flickr

Found on Flickr after a lot of searching


In Z’ria U’Binyan B’Chinnuch, Planting and Building, by Rav Shlomo Wolbe z’tl (English translation by Rabbi Leib Keleman) the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim is quoted, which states (pages14-15):

“The foundation of Chassidus (piety) and the root of perfect service of Hashem is understanding and appreciating one’s obligation in one’s personal world.” It is tempting to gloss over the apparently repetitive phraseology, “The foundation of Chassidus” and “the root of perfect service of Hashem,”…in this short phrase, Ramchal teaches us that there are two, parallel processes in serving Hahsem.

The first one, Chassidus, demands a foundation. Chassidus constitutes the top floor in the construction of a human being and construction always requires a foundation. The taller and loftier the building we wish to construct, the deeper the foundation we must dig. To reach the heights of Chassidus, we must first lay a strong foundation and then build on it.

The second one, Divine service, evolves organically from within, and such growth requires a root, Ramchal hints. Where there is no root, there can be no growth. In one terse sentence, Ramchal informs us that we must be involved in both construction (building ourselves through the acquisition of ma’alos– good qualities) and growth (sowing internal seed that will sprout during our lifetime). And with this understanding we should learn the remainder of the introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim

This is exactly why our there needs to be both building and construction in raising a child and in building ourselves. A sprinkle of piety here and a pinch of servicing Hashem there helps make things taste better. Of course, I’m referring to the ta’am (taste) of a mitzvah. Hey, I’ll admit that that as a man I can only do one thing at a time. If I’m being asked to work on constructing a edifice with a strong foundation, then how work on nourishing my ever growing roots?

My own interpretation of this is that since roots are under the surface, working on growth is something we keep to ourselves, like a smokeless fire (see this post). What our families, friends, and people we bump into will see is how those roots essentially help with the construct of the “building” in the form of those mitzvos that we perform out in the open, such as davening, learning, or a chessed.

Speaking of Mesillas Yesharim, A Simple Jew was kind enough to tell me about a new edition of Mesillas Yesharim coming out July 31, 2013 from Artscroll. with seriously useful commentary.

Manifesto for a culture of growth

We have problems and finally the editorial board at The Klal Perspectives is letting us see the insights of many well know leaders and trailblazers within the frum community. The problem is that many (myself included) are not always inspired to grow in our Avodah.  I offered a solution a few years ago that worked for me here, but there’s not just a “one size fits all” cure (well, there might be, but you’ll have to read all of this post).

I’ve been privileged to communicate with both the editor of Klal Perspectives and two of those that answered the questions posed for this issue.  A commonly recommended suggestion in four of the articles is the establishment of learning groups (some call them vaadim or chaburos) geared towards growth-oriented learning.  This is, in fact, something that the AishDas Society has been doing successful for a number of years.  For me, the vaad/chabura model works, in edition to the Bilvavi seforim. I know of classes based on this model in several shuls and it seems to work for some.  It’s not a THE solution, but it’s a viable option and an established one.  Giving people an option to grow can open up multiple doors in a shul.

Getting people to learn seforim that are growth-oriented is a major challenge.  It’s sort of like exercise. People wo do it regularly love it (so I’ve heard).  I know that I don’t exercise enough, but when I do I feel better.  The “Zumba” craze has become very popular with women who want to exercise because it’s fun (this is based on speaking with people who do Zumba and also based on a very improptu Facebook survey I took).  Zumba’s motto is, “Ditch the workout; Join the party!”

They know that exercise is hard work and often difficult. By putting music and dance moves together they have made it fun. I think growth oriented Judaism needs a similar motto. Maybe it should be, “From pause to Go with the turn of a page” or “If you’re not growing, your not living“.
There are mornings when it’s a struggle for me to get out of bed and daven with a minyan. There are plenty of times I say Shema and don’t feel that I’m fully accepting Hashem as King. There are times that I will choose not to go learn in the evenings so that I can go to sleep or just veg out. I admit it only because I know that I’m not alone. This is just something that people don’t talk about with their friends.  Those that do know me, know that being inspired is something I attempt to work on.  There are days when I successed and days when I can’t wait to try again.

I did write that there might a “one size fits all” cure and I think it’s finding a community (ie- shul, beis medrash, kollel, Rav) that is focused on Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim, which are the foundations of our world. These three items are also the driving force behind Cong. Ahavas Yisrael and often mentioned in the writings and comments of Mark Frankel from BeyondBT.  Each of us can connect and grow by our invovlment in one of these three. We can learn, commit to meaningful davening, or involve ourselves and families in chessed. The main point, as Micha Berger mentioned to me in an email, is that our Torah life has to be a growth process.

I think back to the lyrics of the old TV show “Diff’rent Strokes” as proof for this:
Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
what might be right for may not be right for some.
There’s also a great discussion going on at BeyondBT regarding the current issue of Klal Perspectives, here.

Two realities

In an emailed newsletter from Beis Hamussar that I received today was the following:

If we were asked to encapsulate all of Rav Wolbe’s teachings in one sentence, the task would seem impossible. He wrote numerous seforim and gave thousands of discourses over the course of his life. How could one possibly summarize so much in one single sentence? However, Rav Wolbe himself did just that when he sat with a group of former talmidim.He asked them to relay what they understood to be the focal point of all the discourses that they had heard during the years they had studied in his Yeshiva. Each student offered an opinion, but Rav Wolbe was not satisfied. “The message I was trying to convey in all my discourses” he said, “is that we should realize that ruchnius (spirituality) is no less a reality than gashmius (physicality).”

For example, we must believe that just as eating something dangerous is detrimental to one’s body, transgressing a commandment is at least as detrimental to one’s soul. Conversely, performing a mitzvah does more for us (and the world around us) than the food we eat.

This yesod of acknowledging the reality of ruchnius might have been the basis for this idea found in the introduction to Da Es Atzmecha by Rav Itamar Shwartz (the mechaber of the Bilvavi seforim):

I have come to write this sefer  because of an inner mission – an awareness of a particular world that exists, which in reality, is more real than the world we sense, but is very hidden from people. The inner world is enchanting, it is a world of pleasure and connection, but it is not a world of delusions.  It is a world more real than the table.  It is clearer than the familiar world of the table, the chair, and the  lamp.  Sometimes, when we try to enter the inner world, there is a feeling that since it is unfamiliar, maybe it is just our imagination, maybe it is just delusions of people who want to experience all kinds of things, and so they create a whole structure out of all their fantasies.  But you must know that the inner world is more realistic than the world we live in.  However, just as a blind person doesn’t see what’s in front of him, and he might ask, “Are you certain this exists?” 

Both Rav Wolbe zt’l and R Shwartz are teaching us that there are two realities. Most of us want to see the results, peiros (fruits), or the carrot at the end of the stick (even if the carrot is imaginary) in our spiritual efforts. It doesn’t work like that. This idea, the reality that is referenced above, is something that isn’t on my mind enough. Try as I might to be passionate about living a life of Simchas HaChaim, I find it easy to be focused on the reality that is only preceived by my five senses.

I have no idea if the spiritual reality is something that my kids have been taught about.  I know that they understand that each mitzvah we perform perfectly creates a malach that is our advocate in Shamayim.   It seems to me that our acknowledgment of the reality of ruchnius has to be as strong as our acknowledgement of the neshama.  We have a body and a soul, both are real.  This sort of gives a new spin to the phrase, “Keeping it real”.

Elul: Over-thinking vs. simplifying things

Found here

There are those posts that are fun to write and flow out of my mind to my keyboard like cold grape flavored Crystal Light going down my throat on a hot summer day.  There are also those posts that seem like the four teaspoons of cough medicine that tastes awful, but you know that you really have to just take it so that you’ll feel better.  This is one of those.

I recently spent a number of days with my family on a mini-vacation (nothing too exotic, since we only drove three hours from Chicago) and my wife pointed out that I tend to complicate decisions by over-thinking things, instead of striving to make things simple.  As usual, she’s right.  Instead of deciding what to have for lunch, for example, I found myself chesboning what I would be eating later, what snacks I might want, etc. based on if my lunch was to be fleishig, milchig, or parve.

It’s sort of the trap that Rav Moshe Weinberger often refers to as “eating from the eitz ha’daas tov v’ra” (I most recently heard this referenced on his Bilvavi I, shiur #9 mp3, but he has also mentioned it in his Oros HaTeshuva shiurim, as well as on Shavuos night a number of years ago).  The idea behind this is phrase is that we often over-intellectualize issues, actions, and decisions.  For example, let’s say that you see a friend and what to say, “Hi.  How’s it going?”  If you start hemming about if you really should say “Hi” to your friend, what if he’s in a bad mood, or  if you really even care how he’s doing, then you are eating from the eitz ha’daas tov v’ra.  You are making a simple thing way to complicated.

As I think about a writing project I took upon myself a number of months ago, I see that I haven’t gotten as far as I wanted, because I was very concerned about “crafting” my writing style to the point that it has prevented me from the real act of working on the body of the project.  I’m not saying that it’s not important to contemplate things and think out things, but I am beginning to see that at times my own over-thinking gets in the way of both progression and potenial.

So here I am, hoping not to really give this topic too much thought and, simply (pun intended), change my ways.  Since it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, I’m figure that I’ve got this month to try to catch myself over-thinking and tell myself, “Stop and get simple”.  I guess this is easier written than done.  However, Elul itself, is full of simplicity.  We have guidelines on how to do teshuva, we listen every morning to the simple sound of the shofar, and with school starting for my kids, I’m reminded that a new year and a fresh start are upon me.

As an aside, I found a great shiur from Rav Tzvi Aryeh Rosenfeld zt’l, a pioneer in Breslov chassidus in America and E”Y (and also a talmid of  Rav Avraham Yaffen, the son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok and Rosh Yeshiva Beis Yosef Yeshivah in Brooklyn) online about Simplicity that I have found quite helpful.

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.

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.

Sunday’s Salanter Selection

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter said:

Patience: Calmly confront whatever circumstance presents itself; absorb each blow that life brings

Full post is here.

Keeping this in mind, a teaching from Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l seems appropriate.  R Shlomo Wolbe teaches (Alei Shor vol 2) that the root of the Hebrew word for patience, savlanus, is based on the root word sevel, which means to carry, load, or burden.  Patience doesn’t mean waiting, it means being able to absorb and carry a particular load, despite the inconvenience.

Upon the first yartzeit of my dad a"h

Sunday, the 16th of Cheshvon, is the first yartzeit for my father a”h, Avraham ben Zorach, Albert Lyon Harris.  A few weeks ago my family and I were in Wichita, Kansas for the weekend to join my brother, mother, step-mother, aunts and uncles for the “unveiling” of the matzeiva (grave marker) for my father a”h.  It was bittersweet (much like my father’s favorite type of chocolate).  The comfort and feeling of togetherness was accompanied our collective memory of the last time we were all “together”.

A close family friend who brought in briskets, deli, and breads from Kansas City and thanks to fairly well stocked local grocery store, my wife came up with an awesome menu and fed the entire family (and a few friends) for both Shabbos dinner and lunch.  Even my father, who spent decades in the food industry as a restaurateur, would have been beyond impressed with the amount of food my wife made in such a short amount of time and with very limited cookware.

That Sunday, we gathered together at the Hebrew Cemetary, were my father and others had always made sure was in tip-top shape.  I found myself wearing the same suit and the same shoes that I had worn 11 and a half months and surrounded by many of the same people, as well.  My remarkes said over at the cemetary are below:

There really is no good way to start speaking for a lifecycle event like this.  All I can really think about is that the yartzeit, anniversary of the death of my father, a”h is taking place in exactly two weeks and again here we are again, here I am again, seeing so many people that really cared so much about him.

Marking a grave is a very old Jewish tradition, starting with after Rachel died,  when “Jacob erected a monument on Rachel’s grave” (Genesis 35:20).
In fact the word for stone, ev’en, is a contraction of two Hebrew words, Av, meaning father, and Ben, meaning son.  A gravestone serves as a connection between generations, between parents and children.   It is a physical reminder of a life lived, of the love shared, and the memories made.  As a whole, the eleven months and two weeks have gone by quickly, as individual days, each day without my father has been very long for all of us.  At this time I would like to thanks all of you who have been there this past year for my mother and Dixie.

It was once observed (by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a dean of yeshiva students in Jerusalem) that a train and a plane can both reach their destinations.  Difference is that train stays on the ground as it proceedes, and a plane not only proceeds in the right direction, but ascends in the air at an optimum altitude and then reaches its destination sooner.  In life, as well, there are two means of advancement.  The first is progressing–but progressing only along the ground, which many people attempt to do at one point or another in their lives.  The second kind of advancement involves lifting oneself up and above this earth- giving one the opportunity to travel faster and reach our destination quicker, but also to soar above the impediments of even mountain-sized obstacles.
My father’s life was very much like that of a plane.  He traveled though his life and let no obstacles get in his way.  He lived a life that made him happy and did many of the things that he dreamt of doing.  He also reached is own final destination, although, much quicker than any of us wanted him to.
We all have good days and bad days, when we are faced with challenages and struggles.  Personally, in the past 11 months, there have been many times when getting though the day hasn’t been easy, but it’s important for us all to follow the path that my father took and continue on the journey and soar above everything that stands in our way.
Additional posts about my father a”h can be read here.

I ask that you please wanted to take a minute and in this coming
 week you attempt to do one extra chessed, act of kindness, for someone.
 The effect can last a lifetime.