The passing last week of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt"l, represents the end of era. At the time of his petira, Rabbi Wolbe, known simply as the Mashgiach, was the last active exemplar of the mussar of pre-War Europe. The larger question raised by his passing is whether it also marks the end of the Mussar movement founded by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter.
The question arises not because there will never again be someone exactly like Rabbi Wolbe. That is true of every person of stature. Each of Reb Yisroel's leading disciples – the Alter of Kelm, Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam, and Rabbi Yitzchok Blazer – differed from their master and from one another. Each of them fashioned an approach to mussar suited to them. And so on, with the great figures of the next generation – the Alter of Slabodka and the Alter of Novordhok – down to Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the great Mirrer Mashgiach, who won over a young bochur from Germany to the cause of mussar.
No, the question arises because mussar in whatever form requires people of depth, and we live in a superficial generation. Reading today about the men of the Bais HaTalmud of Kelm, we can hardly believe that within the last hundred years there existed groups of talmidim of such remarkable self-control – men for whom it was as difficult to take a word from their mouths as a coin from their pockets, men for whom the natural instinct to turn towards any sudden noise or movement was completely suppressed.
In part, our superficiality is a function of the very success and rapid growth of the chareidi community. That community, particularly in Eretz Yisrael, has grown so large that many members spend their lives entirely within its confines. As a consequence, one can lose awareness of the necessity to make choices in life, choices which require one to think deeply about one's own unique makeup and mission in life.
Rabbi Wolbe frequently decried the tendency to view ourselves as members of a herd, and to behave like sheep constantly looking over our shoulders to make sure that we are doing exactly what the sheep next to them is doing.
As long as Rabbi Wolbe was alive, his close talmidim – those who had participated in his small mussar vaadim in Yeshivat Be'er Yaakov for years – had no trouble believing that each Jew is a complete world of incomparable depth, worthy of a lifetime of self-scrutiny and study. For they had a concrete example constantly before them: the Mashgiach himself. They joined with him in the painstaking and lifelong process of acquiring self-knowledge. They watched the way he relentlessly searched out the truth about himself and the world. The question for them and all of us is: Where shall we find another such example?
WHETHER OR NOT RABBI WOLBE represents the end of classical mussar as conceived by Reb Yisroel Salanter, his influence through his writing and through his talmidim will continue to be felt for generations. (He would likely have denied that ideas can have any impact absent the discipline of mussar, which is designed to internalize those ideas.)