Kee Taytsay by David Hartley Mark

“When you go out to war against your enemies….”

—Deut. 21:10 (Opening words of this week’s Torah Portion)

You need to have great stubbornness in the service of Hashem. And know! A person has to pass a very, very narrow bridge; the main thing is to have no fear at all.

–Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (1772-1810)

Life is struggle, and people are, or ought to be, constantly involved in their own self-improvement. We are entering into one of the great, yearly periods of struggle—not against external elements, but our Selves. It is called the High Holy Days.

In preparation for that season, my post-service Shabbat morning Adult Discussion Group (12:30-1:30pm, approx.; all invited!) has begun studying Musar, which is usually translated as “morality,” but is actually an entire school of study and learning going back to the late 19th Century. Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) was one of its principal founders. He was concerned with the inroads Secularism, known as the Haskalah (“The Enlightenment”) was making among Lithuanian Jewry, along with unheard-of political movements such as Socialism and Communism, the latter of which eventually altered the workings of nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, and the majority of its Jews.

The Musar work I have been using is Strive for Truth! by the great Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1954), who was born in Lithuania, learned in the great yeshivote (rabbinical academies) there, and was fortunate to move to the United Kingdom, where he eventually moved heaven and earth to found both a yeshiva and a kollel (institute of higher Talmudic studies). During the Second World War, he was naturally worried and concerned over the fate of his Lithuanian relatives, but also continually asked himself the question, “To what end has God left us, the survivors, the saving remnant, alive? What is our purpose in this life? How can we best serve God?” (Dessler, 1976, p. 15).

Having begun our summer series by returning to Kabbalah and giving an overview of the Provence, France; Gerona, Spain; and Tsfat, Israel, schools of Kabbalah (to which I hope to return in the near future), turning to Musar is a highly different mental exercise. Kabbalah is nebulous, fleeting, cloudy; it is the music of Debussy, ethereal, unearthly, and hard to pin down. The Musarnik rabbis sought to break down the human personality, to divest it completely of ego

and egotism, to break it down almost to powder, and then, to rebuild it. I would compare them to the Bach Family’s works, mathematically trackable, logical, and pleasing to the ear, with no flights of fancy.

Here, for example, is a précis of Rav Dessler’s micro-masterpiece of an essay, “No Reward in This World [for Doing a Mitzvah].” He takes the abstruse rabbinical statement that we receive no reward for doing a mitzvah, a Torah commandment, a good deed, in this world, and sets it up against the rabbis’ reassurance that “One hour of satisfaction in Olam Ha-Ba (the world to come) is better than all the life of this world” (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:17). How can we possibly understand either of these statements?

How can we humans, with our limited mental abilities, possibly conceive of Olam Ha-Ba? Rav Dessler offers this ingenious explanation:

One has to imagine an enormous mountain of sand situated next to the sea. Every thousand years a great bird wings its way to the top of the mountain, takes one grain of sand in its beat and drops it into the sea. Another thousand years must go by until the next grain is removed. The exercise is to attempt to visualize, or experience in imagination, the lapse of a thousand years. The method is again to ‘break down’ the concept into its component parts. One begins by imagining the events of one day, then two days, a week, a month…. When one has ‘felt’ a year in this manner, one multiplies this progressively…until one arrives at a thousand years. Then—the bird comes and takes another grain from the mound. But the whole mound is still there! …[Eternity] has hardly begun.

For Rav Dessler, as it ought to be for us, the supreme reward of life ought to be, not the acquisition of “things,” not getting and spending, but the performance of mitzvote, with the ultimate purpose being Tikkun Olam, fixing the world. The payback for doing even a single mitzvah is infinite, as shown in the remarkable paragraph above. There can be no greater reward. And what better time to begin this Tikkun, this self-repair, than this holy month of Elul, prior to the High Holy Days?

Come join us at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach—for a prayer, a song, a lesson, a discussion, a piece of cake, a cup of fellowship, a place where both children and adults will learn. We are your full-service shul, and we are here to serve you, and one another. Come!

 

References

 

Dessler, E. E., & Carmell, A. (1978). Mikhtav me-Eliyahu: Strive for truth. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers.

Morinis, E. A. (2007). Everyday holiness: The Jewish spiritual path of Mussar. Boston: Trumpeter.

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