Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was a great thinker and visionary, whose proactive concern for the fate of the Jewish people amid the turbulence of war, emancipation, and revolutionary movements left an indelible mark on the Jewish world. This course surveys the development and impact of the Mussar Movement, which transformed much of Jewish life and Torah observance in the 20th century.
Two people can look at the same item and see different things. When a carpenter and an electrician enter a home, the carpenter will immediately notice the woodwork, while the electrician will focus on the electrical work. Rav Yisrael, with his fine vision, saw a need for the Mussar Movement. Even though many people of the time strictly observed the letter of the law, he noticed a disregard for the ethical part of Torah and a neglect of the spirit of the law.
Rav Yisrael advanced mussar as a solution to the extreme degradation and internal weaknesses of Jewish life in Russia. He taught that one should care about the other person’s material well being and worry about one’s own spiritual well being. He would say, “Your heart is a private domain but your face is public domain.” Indeed one of the prime principles of mussar was to always maintain a happy countenance.
While Rav Yisrael is widely known as the founder of the Mussar Movement he also deserves credit for being the father of the Teshuva Movement. He went to Germany where the Enlightenment had already done tremendous damage, to try to bring his brethren back. He arrived at the port of Memel, a town filled with Shabbat desecrators. Every Shabbat he would speak with the Jewish workers at the docks. His genuine love and affinity for them eventually won them over and the Jews of Memel began keeping Shabbat again.
Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski married the granddaughter of Rav Yisrael. Rav Chaim Ozer sent his wife’s grandfather a dvar Torah and Rav Yisrael wrote back, citing the verse “Et biti natati l’ish hazeh.” I know you can learn but are you also an ish, a mentch?
Rav Zundel Salanter was the Rebbe of Rav Yisrael. Although Rav Zundel tried to hide his righteousness under the guise of a simple wheat merchant, Rav Yisrael’s keen eye noticed his greatness. Rav Yisrael followed Rav Zundel to learn his ways. When Rav Zundel saw this, he ordered him to leave him alone and go study Mussar. Rav Yisrael did exactly that.
Rav Yisrael would say, “When faced with a difficult decision, ask yourself what you would decide to do if you were faced with this decision at the time of Neilah.” He would emphasize that everything a person does has consequences. If a Jew in Kovno speaks lashon hara in the Bet Midrash, a Jew in Paris will desecrate Shabbat.
He stressed the importance of studying Mussar. If one only has ten minutes to learn one should study Mussar as this will bring him to the realization that he has more than ten minutes to learn Torah. One doesn’t learn Mussar to be a tzaddik but to become a tzaddik. He said, “Before I started learning Torah, I thought the whole world was deficient except me. After I started learning, I saw that the whole world consisted of sinners including me. Now that I’ve learned some more, I realize I’m a sinner and I must judge the rest of the world favorably.”
Rav Yisrael’s teachings give us insight into the human psyche. He saying include: “A person can live with himself for seventy years and still not know himself.” “Man is a drop of intellect drowning in a sea of instincts.” “Man is equipped with far reaching vision, yet the smallest coin can obstruct his vision.””One who rushes headlong to perform a mitzva can destroy the whole world in his path.”
Rav Yisrael Salanter, with his pioneering vision, revolutionized Torah study and our mode of ethical conduct. His impact continues to live on in the hearts and minds of thinking Torah Jews around the world.