taught by Rav Shlomo Wolbe — transcribed by Pinchas Vilman — translated by Larry Bach
We aspire to wholeness, a lofty goal indeed. How much time does it take to reach that state of wholeness? Who knows? Perhaps after forty years of practice, perhaps after fifty or sixty? A well-known saying of Rabbi Israel Salanter: “It is worth it to study Mussar one’s whole life if it helps one to refrain from lashon hara (lit., “evil tongue,” meaning “inappropriate speech”) even once.” If this is the measure of the thing, we can understand the importance of being patient with ourselves when our aim is to attain a state of wholeness!
For this reason, our steps toward wholeness must be rather small. The words of the Chovot Halevavot (Gate 8, Chapter 5) come to mind:
Do not belittle anything you do for His sake — even a small matter of a word or a glance. For what seems miniscule in your sight is enormous in His. The sun draws a pattern on the ground, and for that pattern to move a cubit, the sun must move miles in the heavens.
The little things — the kind word spoken, the friendly smile — are considered hugely important from the aspect of the Holy One! And what a wondrous example is given, regarding the sun: the movement of a shadow by a centimeter represents movement in the skies of many, many kilometers! The lesson: a small change in external behavior represents the result of great shifts in the heart.
Sometimes a person takes the measure of his progress and determines that the path to wholeness is still long. This leads to sadness, or even despair. “I’m still not great!?” This person needs to delve a bit deeper. Why is he sad? Is he really broken-hearted over the fact that wholeness is elusive? Or, could it be that he is prideful, and that his sadness is really a result of his inability to show off how great he has become? And if it be the latter, perhaps his motivation is not so pure? On the contrary, patience with oneself is evidence of pure motives.
When a person hears sublime teachings about the various levels of practice, it is nearly impossible to overcome the urge to “leap to the heavens.” How important it is to resist the urge and to remain rooted, with two feet planted firmly on the ground. One must not skip ahead to forms of practice which are not suitable to one’s situation. Thus did the Sages (BT Sukkah 49b) teach: “Can anyone who wishes, simply leap (to the heavens)? No, for the verse teaches, ‘How precious (i.e., “dear,” “rare,” “hard to attain”) is your hesed, O God.’”
Maimonides wrote (Guide of the Perplexed, I:34) about the disparity in number between the people who want to attain wisdom and truly wise people. Why aren’t there more wise people, given the desirability of the goal? Because wisdom can only flourish where the ground has been prepared by more elementary studies. Without mastering the basics, one cannot attain wisdom itself. Most people want to jump straight to wisdom without bothering to study the preparatory curriculum, but this is impossible. It is the same with wholeness. If you don’t start at the beginning and progress, step by step, you’ll never arrive!
We must know this too: self-improvement is hard work. The nature of the body and the soul make them difficult to work on. Rabbenu Yonah (Gates of Repentance II:26) wrote:
“When I am for myself, what am I.” Even when I dedicate myself to self-improvement and work at it with all of my strength, meditating on wisdom around the clock, “what I am I?” A person’s capacity is small and weak to begin with, so even one who works hard can only expect modest gains over time… The Rabbis teach (Avot deRabi Natan) the parable of the unforgiving field, where even hard work and good seed will only yield a bit of produce. Now, without the hard work and good seed, the same land would yield nothing but thorns and thistles. But, “God knows the nature of our field.” It may be compared to a king who assigns a field to some subjects and tells them to till and tend it, and to bring him a certain amount of tonnage per acre of produce. They do their best, working it well, but only produce one sixth of what’s been asked of them. The king says, “what is this?” They respond, “Our lord, you gave us an unforgiving field. We worked it well, with all our strength, and this is what it produced.
Anyone who thinks that a little bit of practice will lead to great progress simply does not understand human nature. There is no “short course” to self-improvement!
Consider the great ones who went before us. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Vitebsk, who was a student of the Ba’al Shem Tov said: “When I was young, I had as a goal to pray the entire service with perfect kavvanah, even one time. Now that I am old, I have a more modest goal. I would like, just once in my life, to offer a single blessing with perfect kavvanah.” That is the mark of a great man! Know this: It is no trifling thing to accomplish even something seemingly small. When it comes to spirituality, “the field You have given us is unforgiving….”
Of course, these words refer to one who works at his practice. One who does nothing has obviously not fulfilled his obligation. But one who does work on the little things yet finds that he is not succeeding to any great degree must be patient with himself and not fall into depression. He must know himself and his inclination, and not deny the forces at work within him. He must work on himself to the extent that he is able, without despair or depression, while not expecting more of himself than is possible, giving his very best effort. It’s a fine line, the blade of a knife…but the Holy One does not seek out the worst in His creatures!
The study of Mussar opens our eyes to small defects of character and small transgressions, which would pass notice without that study. The practice of Mussar which comes in the wake of the study is concerned with the repair of these defects. But there are other defects, not so small and hidden: some people struggle with controlling their anger, or with addiction, or with the lust for power or fame. These defects are not the proper subject of Mussar practice; they require great patience and great hopefulness. Indeed, these larger struggles do not enter into our Mussar practice at all. They must be overcome in other ways, because they diminish our very humanity, and one must first be a human before one can study and practice Mussar.
Our teacher was known to ask those yeshivah students who had served in the Polish army, “What was the training regimen like?” One student returned to the yeshivah after service in the calvary and told of an exercise in which the soldiers were made to cross a deep, wide canal with their horses. The commanders told them, “You have two choices: cross, or die.” From this our teacher learned a spiritual lesson. In the spiritual life, too, there are times for extraordinary courage, outside the bounds of our usual Mussar practice, focused as it is on smaller matters. These moments are tests, and for these moments there is no advice. Muster your strength, and pass the test; there is no other choice. When it comes to the big deficits in our character or behavior, there is no time for Mussar study or practice. We cannot spend long periods of time working at, but must pull ourselves together and conquer it, come what may! When it comes to the big things, we don’t have the time to give ourselves time!
All of this has been in reference to practice. But the study of Mussar can be helpful in every instance. With regard to the larger deficits, Mussar study strengthens us to deal with them, and with the small details it offers us common-sense advice on how to behave. In Kelm they said, “Der seykhel iz a shneydmesser oyf midos.” Sekhel (sense/wisdom) is the blade that slices midot (character traits). As the path of sekhel becomes clearer, the walk becomes more practiced and familiar.