Bring Mussar Into Your Life
How can we protect ourselves in this era of pervasive heresy and promiscuity? It seems that no place is “safe” - except for one...
“Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.” (Breishit 49:2)
We Need Guidance
A man once came to the Chafetz Chaim, z”l, and asked him: Why do you encourage and educate your students to learn mussar every day? Instead, let the students dedicate more time to learning Gemara, and they will inevitably learn mussar from the legendary stories that come up from time to time in the Talmud!?
The Chafetz Chaim replied, “In Poland, the hotels and inns along the roadways are far apart. However, in Siberia, they build them much closer together. Why? What is the difference? The climate in Poland is mild and pleasant and the roads easier. A traveler can go a further distance without needing to rest and warm up. Siberia’s weather, on the other hand, is brutally freezing and the roads very difficult. Therefore, travelers need to stop more frequently simply to rest and warm up from the cold.”
“The same is true in regards to learning mussar, ” continued the Chafetz Chaim, “In the early generations, their hearts were filled with emunah, faith. They were able sustain that faith from the stories that they would learn from time to time through their daily Gemara studies. However, in our generation, when a freezing wind blows and chills the fire in our hearts, we simply cannot wait until we come across another story in the Gemara. We must establish for ourselves a set time to learn the great works of mussar every single day to warm the coldness in our hearts.”
If the Chafetz Chaim, z”l, said that about his generation, even more so in our generation. The Gemara at the end of Soteh describes the time period immediately before Mashiach comes as one when the streets are filled with heresy and promiscuity and a mighty and powerful wind blows. During these times, our times, the challenges seem insurmountable. There are forces in the world constantly trying to pull you away from Torah and Hashem. Your faith is constantly being tainted with doubts.
Nowadays, you simply cannot survive or remain steadfast in your faith without learning the great works of mussar, the scholarly and philosophical works that provide a pathway for you. These works provide guidance and provide a true direction for a pure and meaningful life.
What You Hear Matters
This obligation to learn mussar is an obligation placed on every single yid (Jew) every single day. However, there are demands in life. You need to go out into the world to earn a livelihood to provide for your family. At times, you will hear things you should not hear, such as inappropriate jokes and conversations. These words have an impact on you whether you realize it or not. They numb your spiritual senses and can fill your mind with impure thoughts that can, G–d forbid, lead to impure actions.
What can you do when you are “in the streets filled with heresy and promiscuity”, how can you protect yourself? You need to listen every day to a mussar class. The holy words of that class can purify your mind’s impurities. Hearing those words can counter the inappropriate words you may have heard.
The Chasam Sofer, z”l, had to speak to a particular person who had a distorted and impure view of the world. Later on, he told his son, the Kasav Sofer, z”l, that every time he had to have a conversation with this man, he would immediately learn a mussar book to cleanse himself from this man’s impure words.
The Words of Heretics Are Extremely Damaging
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni on Tehilim) describes that every mile on the roads in Israel were marked with road signs pointing the direction to the nearest City of Refuge.
The Chafetz Chaim explained, that someone who killed another human being, who committed such a grave sin even though it was by accident, their words carried a damaging impurity to anyone who would hear them. Therefore, they wanted to avoid this person stopping to ask directions to the City of Refuge! They did not want him having conversations with innocent bystanders. Therefore, every single mile had a sign pointing this person in the right direction so that they should not stop to ask for directions.
Where You Get the News
At the offset of World War II, the Imrei Emes of Gur oversaw the creation of an Orthodox-run newspaper called “Das Yiddish Tagblatt.” One of the Rebbes of the time was visiting with the Imrei Emes and asked him, “Why do we need our own Orthodox newspaper?” The Rebbe of Gur answered, “The yidden are curious about the news and what’s going on in the world. I was worried that they would read the impure words of a secular newspaper written by an impure individual.”
“In the case,” the Rebbe continued to ask, “let them simply ask someone what’s going on in the world and that person will tell them.”
The Imrei Emes answered: “Hearing the words from someone who reads a secular newspaper is also impure”.
The Rebbe of Gur was not simply worried about yidden reading newspapers. He was also worried about the spiritual impact even hearing the news from someone who read a secular newspaper would have on the listener.
Nowadays, the world is filled with impure thoughts, opinions, and actions. People have become numbed to the impact this is having on their yirat shemyaim (fear of heaven). They have become accustomed to seeing and hearing inappropriate and impure things unwillingly. To counter this, a yid needs to learn the holy words of the works of mussar and chassidut; to help strengthen the fundamentals of faith and Yiddishkeit in his life. The study of this words will not only purify the heart and mind, but also provide a meaningful pathway to spiritual survival.
Listen to Survive
This is what Yaakov is alluding to in our Parsha.
Yaakov knew that the end of his days was near. He wanted to gather all his children and offer them blessings and mussar; he wanted to provide them with spiritual guidance for their future. He knew that the yidden would need to survive in exile. They would need to work and provide for their families. Yaakov knew that they would have to interact with individuals who were heretics and had a distorted and impure view of the world.
The yidden are referred to as “The Children of Yaakov.” Yaakov was given his name because he was gripping on to the heel – the “Eikev” – of his brother Esav when they were born. Esav represents the impure forces in the world. The heel and the foot also refers to livelihood, as Chazal explain (Pesachim 119a) that the Pasuk (Devarim 11:6) “possessions at their feet” refers to earning a living which makes a man stand on his feet.
Yaakov knew that the yidden would have to interact with the “Esavs” of the world to earn a living and that that endeavor would inevitably expose the yidden to impure conversations and opinions.
The Torah tells us that, “Jacob called for his sons and said, “Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.” (Breishit 49:1).
Yaakov wanted to let his children knew that there was going to be a time in the long, dark galut (exile) when the environment would be saturated with impurities. A time when a simple conversation with a business associate could extremely damage a yid’s spiritual well-being.
Yaakov wanted to inoculate them, to prepare them for this moment. Therefore he said: “Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.” (Breishit 49:2). He called them as the “Children of Yaakov” alluding to the fact that they would have to be engaged in the world to earn a living. And, when they do, they needed to “gather and listen to Israel, your father.” They would need to gather to “listen” and learn the words of their fathers before them, to pick up and learn the works of mussar and chassidut , the ‘Mussar Avicha‘ (the mussar of your father), to fortify themselves and to cleanse their hearts and minds.
God willing, every yid will establish a set time every single day to focus on mussar and chassidut. May those holy words cleans your heart and mind; empower you to fortify yourself from the impurities that surround you, and only strengthen your emunah and motivate you to find a right and just path in avodat Hashem (service of Hashem). Amen.
The Kalever Rebbe is the seventh Rebbe of the Kaalov Chasidic dynasty, begun by his ancestor who was born to his previously childless parents after receiving a blessing from the Baal Shem Tov zy”a, and later learned under the Maggid of Mezeritch zt”l. The Rebbe has been involved in outreach for more than 30 years, and writes weekly emails on understanding current issues through the Torah. You can sign up at www.kaalov.org.