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Blessed are the Bewildered


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ר׳ ישראל סלנט

In honor of R' Yisroel Salanter זצ״ל, on his 125th Yartzeit.

I had posted a hippo entry with the following excerpt from a Rav Frand Dvar Torah:

This Erev Shabbos, the 25th of Shevat [ed. today], is the 125th Yahrtzeit of Rav Yisrael Salanter. I happen to remember that on the 100th Yahrtzeit, Rav Ruderman, who was a student of the Alter of Slabodka, who in turn was a disciple of Rav Yisrael, came into the Beis Medrash and gave a special lecture on the personality of Rav Yisrael Salanter and the mussar movement in general. Rav Ruderman felt very close to the entire mussar movement and in fact named Ner Israel, the Yeshiva he founded, after the founder of the mussar movement -– Rav Yisrael (Lipkin) of Salant...

We have all, in one way or another, been affected by the mussar movement. On the occasion of this special Yahrtzeit, I therefore would like to relate the following story about Rav Yisrael. May it be a source of merit for him.

Rav Yisrael was once traveling by train from Salant to Vilna. In those days, it was not prohibited to smoke on the train. Rav Yisrael was smoking a cigar. (It may be hard for us to picture the founder of the mussar movement smoking a cigar, but in those days it was a sociologically different experience.) A much younger person came up to him and started yelling that the cigar smelled up the car. Although technically he was within his rights to keep on smoking, being who he was, Rav Yisrael extinguished the cigar. He felt so bad about it that he opened the window to air out the car. Then this same fellow started yelling at Rav Yisrael that the car was too cold because he opened the window. He humiliated Rav Yisrael with his tirades. Rav Yisrael closed the window.

When they arrived in Vilna, the young man noticed there were hundreds of people waiting to greet Rav Yisrael. He found out who Rav Yisrael was and started crying to the rabbi with profuse apologies. Rav Yisrael said he forgave the man.

The man then began pouring out his heart to him. He told Rav Yisrael that he came to Vilna because he needed a livelihood and had no job. He was a shochet but in order to receive a slaughterer's license he needed a "kesav kabalah" (written Rabbinic permission) from one of the Rabbis in Vilna who issued such licenses.

Rav Yisrael told him that he had a son-in-law who was a Rav in Vilna. He offered to write him a letter of recommendation and sent him to his son-in- law for a test for his Shechita license. Unfortunately, when he went to the son-in-law for the test he failed it miserably. He returned to Rav Yisrael and again cried to him with his tale of woe. Rav Yisrael found him tutors to learn with him and they prepared him for the test, which he was eventually able to pass. He finally received his "kesav kabalah" from Rav Yisrael's son-in-law.

When he was about to leave Vilna he came back to Rav Yisrael and said to him: "it was nice enough that you forgave me for my rudeness in the train, but the fact that you sent me to your son-in-law with a letter of recommendation and found tutors for me when I f ailed -- why were you so nice to me?"

Rav Yisrael responded, "Anyone can say the words 'I forgive you.' But the only way I felt it would be possible for me to really forgive you was to get to like you. The only way to get to like someone is to help him. The key to becoming someone's friend is not to take from him but to give to him. I wanted my forgiveness to you to be sincere and not merely lip service. In order to be able to forgive you with a full heart, I really had to be able to go out of my way a bit to help you. This was not YOUR golden opportunity. It was MY golden opportunity."

This is exactly why the Torah singles out the fact that the burdened donkey belongs to "your enemy". One might be thinking to himself "This could not have happened to a nicer guy." One's natural inclination is "v'chadalta me'azov lo" -– "I don't want to help this guy."

Therefore the Torah commands: "You shall surely help him". The only way to overcome this situation of en mity is by, in fact, helping him. There used to be a bumper sticker: "Love your enemies –- It will drive them crazy". This is not a mussar idea. The mussar idea is "Love your enemies, and they won't be your enemies anymore!"

That was what the mussar movement was all about –- to teach people how to overcome their natural inclinations and to live up to the standards of "man created in the Image of G-d".

I felt that this should really be a Beit Midrash post, but didn't want to publish a pure quote here. So, I found a few more links with stories about R' Yisroel.

I once posted this link, which used R' Yisrael as a model of Ehrlichkeit.
Perhaps the best way to obtain insight into what ehrlich behavior entails is by studying the actions of those who excelled in such behavior. With this in mind, we'll relate some stories from the life of Rav Yisroel Salanter, zt"l. They are taken from Volume I, part 2 of The Mussar Movement (a translation of Tanuas HaMussar) by Rabbi Dov Katz. The book was published by Orly Press in 1970.

Externalities Not Important

As the following story illustrates, Reb Yisroel was not concerned with mere externalities for externalities' sake, but rather with one's dealings with God and one's fellow man:
Another aspect of R. Israel's personality must be mentioned, even though this would appear as purely external. Yet it stemmed frm deep spiritual roots, and is characteristic of R. Israel's entire approach. R. Israel, as has been said, did not wear rabbinic clothes; he dressed like any ordinary person. He did not recoil at times from wearing clothes that were unconventional for those learned in Torah in a particular environment. He used to relate that he once delivered an inspiring address in a town, and his listeners were deeply affected. Suddenly, as he descended from the Bimah, he noticed the local elders moving back from him, upon noticing that he was wearing polished high-boots, which was not the norm in those circles. (Some add that he ascended the Bimah a second time and administered a lengthy reproof that so trifling a consideration vitiate the effect of his discourse.)

He had, however, always taken particular care to ensure to be neat and clean, and saw to it that his clothes were spotless. His clothes were always well-made and pressed, his hair neatly cut and combed and orderly. His posture and gait were in the best of taste. He stood erect and walked with measured step, and all his motions were flexible and courteous. His manners were modern, elegant and polite, conforming to the standards of cultured society. His entire carriage bespoke elegance and dignity. (Pages 200-201.)

Honesty and Praying for the Government

Reb Yisroel felt it was important to live according to the laws of the land and to be a loyal citizen of the country of one's residence. He abhorred dishonesty, doing his best to fulfill all of his civil obligations.

"He made no distinctions," wrote Rabbi Katz, between the laws of bein adam l'Makom and those of bein adom l'chaveiro, "and even gave priority to the latter over the former. He regarded honesty in business, and the preservation of the sanctity of someone else's property as occupying the highest level – and he found support for his evaluation in many rabbinic dicta."

Reb Yisroel was scrupulous in obeying the injunction to offer prayer for the welfare of the government. "Once," noted Rabbi Katz, "the cantor in the Kriniki synagogue omitted the standard prayer, 'May He who gives salvation unto kings...' when R. Israel was present. R. Israel turned his head to the wall and recited the prayer himself."

No Zemiros or Divrei Torah at Shabbos Table

Reb Yisroel's concern for his fellow man knew no bounds. He was always careful not to let his religious observance impact negatively on others, leading at times to what on the surface appeared to be "strange" behavior on his part:

One of his disciples had invited him for Friday night dinner. R. Israel had stipulated that he would not dine anywhere till he had satisfied himself that the kashrut was above reproach. The disciple informed R. Israel that inhis home all the Halachos were observed with utmost stringency. He bought his meat from a butcher known for his piety. It was truly "glatt" – free of any Halachic query or lung adhesion (sirchah). His cook was an honest woman, the widow of a Talmid Chacham, daughter of a good family, while his own wife would enter the kitchen periodically to supervise. His Friday night meal was conducted in the grand style. There would be Torah discussion after each course, so there was no possibility of their meal being "as if they had partaken of offerings to idols." They would study Shulchan Aruch regularly, sing Zemiros and remain seated at the table till well into the night.

Having listened to this elaborate account of the procedures, R. Israel consented to accept the invitation, but stipulated that the time of the meal be curtailed by two full hours. Having no alternative, the disciple agreed. At the meal, one course followed another without interruption. In less than an hour, the mayim acharonim had been passed around in preparation for the Grace after Meals.

Before proceeding with the Grace, the host turned to R. Israel and asked: "Teach me, rabbi. What defect did you notice in my table?"

R. Israel did not answer the question. Instead he asked that the widow responsible for the cooking come to the room. He said to her: "Please forgive me, for having inconvenienced you this evening. You were forced to serve one course after another – not as you are used to do."

"Bless you, rabbi," the woman answered. "Would that you would be a guest here every Friday evening. My master is used to sitting at the table till late at night. I am worn out from working all day. My legs can hardly hold me up, so tired do I become. Thanks to you, rabbi, they hurried this evening, and I am already free to go home and rest." R. Israel turned to his disciple. "The poor widow's remark is the answer to your question. Indeed your behavior is excellent, but only as long as it does not adversely affect others." (Pages 226-228.)

Forgoes Saying Kaddish on Father's Yahrzeit

The mitzvah of davening from the amud and saying Kaddish for a parent on his or her yahrzeit is a time-honored obligation. Conflicts can result when there is more than one yahrzeit on the same day. Here is how Reb Yisroel, due to his high standards of ehrlichkeit, handled such a situation:
On one of the anniversaries of his father's death, R. Israel was in Memel. He was informed that someone else in the synagogue wished to say Kaddish. Now R. Israel was very insistent that only one person at a time be allowed to recite the Kaddish at the services and apparently this congregation had complied with his ruling.

Reb Yitzchak Isaacson was observing the yahrzeit of a daughter who had died very young. Now the Halachah gives precedence to a son observing the yahrzeit of a parent on these occasions, and R. Israel was obviously entitled to the privilege. Sensing the grief he would cause the father by depriving him of the opportunity to say Kaddish for his daughter, R. Israel went up to him and said: "You, sir, will say Kaddish."

The worshippers expressed their surprise. Not only had R. Israel yielded his own right, but also overlooked the duty of honoring his father, since he was, by law, obliged to say Kaddish. He explained to them that the merit of extending kindness (gemilut chesed) to a fellow Jew possessed far greater value than the saying of Kaddish. (Pages 248-24.)

Overriding Concern for Others

Rav Salanter's concern for others obviously knew no bounds. The following story illustrates this:
He was amazed that people were oblivious of the weighty obligation devolving upon them to bring benefit to others and who treated their responsibilities so lightly. People go out of their way to confer the merit on others to perform some mitzvah, but never take the trouble to make others happy. "Many times," he would say, "I have seen a person pass by a synagogue, and those inside call out to him, 'Kedushah! Kedushah!' They invite him to participate in the performance of a mitzvah. Yet never in my life have I seen a person pass by a house where a meal is being eaten, and the family inside calling out, 'Dinner is served' and invite him to join them." (Page 244.)

One story that Rabbi Wein told us sticks out in my mind. R' Yisrael was a genius, and an expert in pilpul. When he was traveling from town to town trying to spread his ideas about mussar, he would sometimes be asked to give a drasha. It is customary for a Rabbi to post the maarei mekomos so that people have a chance to study the source material before a shiur. Once, the people in town who were opposed to his ideas decided to play a trick on him. They switched the page of maarei mekomos to a list of completely unrelated things. R' Yisroel saw what happened, took a few minutes, and then managed to weave together a brilliant shiur out of the disparate components, spellbounding his audience and winning over his detractors.

May these stories serve as an inspiration, and may his memory serve as a blessing.

Posted by joem on Feb 01, 2008 10:00 am

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