by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 29, 2000
We are accustomed to dividing the commandments into those pertaining to relationships with our fellow men and those pertaining to our relationship with God. Success in one realm, it is commonly observed, is no guarantee of success in the other - perhaps not even a predictor of success.
One of the tasks of the 19th Century Mussar movement of ethical revival founded by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, however, was to break down that dichotomy. The great figures of the Mussar movement saw the two realms as intimately linked.
Thus every year in Elul, a yellow poster hung in the Talmud Torah of Kelm. On it was inscribed the main message that the Alter of Kelm, Reb Yisrael Salanter's premier disciple, wished to instill in his followers as Rosh Hashana approached: "All the Rosh Hashana prayers are designed to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven, and we, for our part, are called upon to crown the Lord as King of Kings. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable acts, as Moshe said in his parting blessing: 'There will be a King in Yeshurun when the leaders of the people gather together, with the tribes of Israel as one.' "
In other words, only if we are united and act out of a sense of unity and brotherly love will we be worthy of crowning the King . Harmony between Jews, the Alter taught, is a precondition for true love of God. And its absence reveals that the acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven has not really taken place. If the servants of the King fully dedicate themselves to His service and His purposes, there would be no room for conflict among them.
The devotees of the Mussar approach located the link between the two types of mitzvos - those between man and man and those between man and God - at the level of character. (In the rigorous self-scrutiny of motivations to which they subjected their every action, Rabbi Salanter and his followers anticipated much of modern psychology.)
Typical of the Mussar approach is Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler's treatment of a comment by Rabbi Eliyahu Devidash, author of the Kabbalistic work Reishis Chochmah. We will be asked two questions, writes Rabbi Devidash, on the Day of Judgment: "Did you make your Creator king over you every morning and evening? Did you make your neighbor king over you with mildness of spirit?"
The questions are not independent, writes Rabbi Dessler, a product of the Kelm Talmud Torah and one of the most profound Jewish thinkers of our century. The same character trait - self-centeredness - constitutes the greatest barrier to both accepting God's sovereignty and to peaceful relations with one's fellow man. A self-centered person views everything in the world as his by right, and his life centers around grasping as much as possible for himself. His self-love expresses itself in different ways - at the base physical level in the pursuit of material pleasures and at the spiritual level in the pursuit of honor.
The selfish, grasping person inevitably comes to view his fellow men as competitors over a finite pie of material goods and pleasures. In thrall to his own desires, he loses touch with the image of the Divine within himself - the image of the Creator, who brought the world into existence only to give - and therefore cannot recognize it in others.
Because the taker views everything in the world as belonging to him by right, he is no more capable of gratitude to God than to his fellow man. As our Sages say: "Whoever is ungrateful for the good done to him by his fellow man, will eventually prove ungrateful for the good done to him by the Holy One, Blessed be He."
Uprooting self-love was the key to the Mussar discipline. At one level, that meant extirpating the outward manifestations: the pursuit of pleasure and honor. From the day that he detected in himself a great desire for a particular fruit compote, the Alter of Kelm never again ate that particular dish.
All titles and shows of honor were treated by the members of the Talmud Torah of Kelm like poison. At a deeper level, the Mussar greats combatted love of self by substituting love for one's fellow man. New students arriving in Kelm were inevitably met with such effusive warmth that they wondered whether the one greeting them was a long-lost friend whose name they had forgotten.
To encourage a sense of mutual responsibility and interdependence, there were no employees in the Talmud Torah. Every task was performed by the students themselves. The more menial the task, the more highly it was sought, with the
most menial going to the senior students.
The interdependence on the physical plane was replicated on the spiritual plane. The students were divided into smaller groups that met regularly to reinforce one another's spiritual progress. Members undertook a common spiritual regimen. Typical undertakings might include: "to set aside time everyday to think about the strengths of others from the point of view of one who rejoices in their virtues" or "not to go a single day without doing something for someone else, whether directly or by money or speech."
Learning to identify with others was a central part of the Mussar discipline. Having once seen a chain gang working on a road near Kelm, the Alter of Kelm was unable to continue walking casually on a road built at the cost of so much human suffering. His deathbed instruction to his family was to
remember to launder his clothes before distributing them to the poor.
A connection to others, particularly an organic community is, in Mussar thought, one of the great antidotes to the selfishness that lies at the root of every negative character trait. Thus, to the extent that a person begins to think in terms of "we" and not "I" he inevitably lifts his spiritual level.
For that reason, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter taught, one of the keys to a successful judgment on Rosh Hashana is a commitment to and identification with the community of Jews.
May we all merit this Rosh Hashana to overcome our selfishness to some extent, and thereby to become capable of deeper relationships with both God and our fellow men.
Related Topics: Jewish Holidays, Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur
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