Friday, August 5, 2016

Thoughts at the Riverbank

  “While walking on the riverbank, you find an entire field of reeds and weeds, all standing straight next to each other. Not one of them have the power to move itself, even a hairsbreadth. However, within a short time, the slightest wind comes and the entirety of the field is shaking and thrust around like ocean waves.” The Cheshbon Hanefesh uses this as a mashal for understanding how we operate in our “spiritual” lives. Often, people act as if they are programmed, possessed by negative forces. The nefesh habahamis, that has no intellectual capacity, and no “will” of its own, gets “pushed around” by even small, inconsequential bodily desires or pain. Naturally, without the power (or awareness) to fight, it sways to the “guf’s every whim. This is the story of most people’s lives.
So far, we have explored the first element necessary to succeed in avodas hamussar. That being, what I refer to broadly, as mindfulness. This has been the subject of Post 2,3, and 4 . The second aspect is understanding the science or the mechanism behind that makes our diligence pay off. This is what is known as “reshimos mitztarfim”. Everyone knows, if you want to tone your body and “get ripped” you have to “work out”. What happens is that, every time you exercise a specific part of your body, the muscles get stronger and stronger until you perfect that area of the body. In the same way, when we “work out” on a midda, the constant buildup of strength in that area, causes one to excel in the chosen midda that he took on. This works through a concept called “hergel”.
    Typically, when we think of the way the term “hergel” is used, it brings to mind a negative attitude. The famous words quoted by the Mesilas Yesharim (actually a passuk…), “mitzvas anashim melumada” come to mind. “Hergel” means “habit”. When we do mitzvos out of habit, it is not a good thing. We don’t often hear of good habits, besides for those who are fans of Stephen Coveys’ “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. The truth is, there is a strong basis for this stereotype. Bad habits are indeed a great source of difficulty for one working on their middos, or for anyone for that matter. In order to work on ones’ patience, for example, one must be able to get past an innumerable amount of less- than- positive encounters when he acted impatiently. Years of anger and stress are piled against him. He is already in the habit of getting angry. It’s not merely a natural reaction anymore.   The cards are stacked against him… It’s not simple. What is ironic, is the way the Ba’aley Mussar suggest getting over this.  We will be’ezras Hashem discuss in the coming weeks, how we can seize the forces that currently dictate the course of our lives and use them to our advantage.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Parshas Pinchas and Menuchas Hanefesh / Shalom

     This weeks’ Parsha introduces us to the difficult topic of kana’usPinchas takes matters into his own hands and kills a bunch of sinners. For this, he is presented with an eternal gift of peace! Without the requisite understanding, this dispensation of law and order that is kana’us, can create total chaos. With the proper approach, it has the potential to save a nation.

What is the basis for the relinquishment of the normative justice system? What is the connection between the midda of kana’us and the midda of shalom? What is the midda k’neged midda?

     The root of the word shalom forms several meanings. Shalom, peace, as in shalom bayis, is one. Shaleym, whole or complete, as in mechila b’leyv shaleym, two. Tashlum, payment, as in the payment of a debt (tashlum chov), is a third. How are the meanings of these words interrelated?
To begin, we must first understand that shalom, peace, is a far loftier ideal than the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that every American ba’al ga’avah politician wants to present us with. At the very best, it would be a stalemate. “I don’t bother you, you don’t bother me, and everyone is happy”. This may be peace but it is not shalom. When thinking of the term shalom, we may envision a calm and tranquil Erev Shabbos. Cleanliness. Order. How is this relevant to shalom?

     Rav Dessler explains that, shalom is the “sh’leymus hadargos”. When all of ones’ middos are in sync with each other and they work in concert- that is shalom. It is what the Mesilas Yesharim refers to as sh’leymus ha’avoda. At a time when there is no battle within oneself- his entire being is singularly focused- there is shleymus and there is shalom. The Midrash relates that when the time came for Moshe Rabeynu to pass, his neshama pleaded with Hashem to allow it to remain in the guf. This is astounding! One would think that a neshama as holy as Moshe’s would want to be in Heaven, where total “ruchniyus” reigns. The Ba’aley Mussar explain, that at this point, there was no longer any fight between the neshama and the guf of Moshe Rabeynu. There was totalshalom between them. It’s true, in Heaven there would be no impediments to kedusha but there would also be no opportunity for shalom. Peace, certainly, but not shalom.

     In Menuchas Hanefesh / Mindfulness Part 2, we discussed the various duties of the different parts of a person. The mind has desires and lets them be known to the nervous system, which, in turn, sends the message to the myriad body parts that turn thoughts into reality. The terminology that the Cheshbon Hanefesh uses is of great importance in understanding the depth of the matter. The very first paragraph about menuchas hanefesh begins, “As long as a person’s mind is settled, his nefesh hamaskeles serves as a torch atop the edifice of the guf. The nefesh habahamis is sent to spread this light of knowledge…” The import of this is, the normal functioning of a person is what allows him to have menuchas hanefeshMenuchas hanefesh is to oneself what shalom is to others. The normal order of man's functioning is with the "seychel" leading. 

     Shalom is indeed order and cleanliness. Shalom is an organization running smoothly, each counterpart complimenting another. Shalom and sh’leymus. When there is sh’leymus there isshalom. The Rambam comments on the Mishnah, “The world remains in existence because of three things; dinemes, and shalom”; “when these three are established, the world will be b’sh’leymus”. When everything operates in its proper capacity, there is shalom. There is a time and place for din, for emes, and for shalom. Although they would seem to be at odds with each other, the reality is that they are all necessary. If any middah, even shalom, oversteps its boundaries, the world will be lacking in sh’leymus. Even shalom is not absolute. Like Chazal say,rachmanus on an achzar leads to cruelty on a rachman. When a middah is misplaced, a person is not b’shalom with himself and bad things happen… Similarly, the guf is necessary and l’chatchila, only, we must be good conductors. Although it often seems as though its’ greatest desire is to overthrow the seychel, the truth is, that the guf “wants” to be subjugated and supervised. The guf is like a rebellious child who, ultimately, wants to be guided by his parents.

     We return now to the third word, tashlum. When someone repays a debt, he is filling a void that was left with the loan that he took. Understood simply, now the lender has his money back; there is no void in his bank balance. On a much deeper level, he is making whole the void in the relationship created by the loan. Now, they are on the same level. No more is he in debt, no longer is the lender, a debtor. Before, the borrower was a giver, and the lender, a taker. It was a one way relationship. Peers in an unequal relationship cannot “fill” each other. They are supposed to be equal and they are not; they are not in sync. There is no dynamic between them. Now, they can both be givers.

     The Mishnah in Avos states that, kin’ah removes a person from this world. I think the simple understanding is, that that which he is mekaneh becomes a focus in his life to the degree that it is not worth living without it. Consequently, the inevitable happens. However, one whose life depends on k’vod shamayim, has the right (and the duty) to pursue that which is conflicting with k’vod shamayim.

   Rashi comments on the passuk, “B’kan’o es kin’asi”, “B’nakmo es nikmasi”; Pinchas “took revenge” for Hashem. Why, is that a good thing? Generally, nekama is deemed a negative trait. Similarly, when David Hamelech was on his deathbed, he instructed his son, Shlomo, to take nekama on Shim’i ben Geyra for being “moreyd b’malchus”. Was that really his last will, to take revenge on another person? Rav Chayim Shmuelevitz resolves this by defining nekama properly. When in the right context, nekama is an exalted middahNekama, he explains, serves as an equalizer in the balance of good and evil. Relegating evil to its’ proper place restores the “tzura” of the way the world is supposed to be. It fills the “challal”, the void that is “chillul hashem”. It exposes k’vod shamayimNekama for Hashem is a high madreyga. Someone whose life depends on k’vod shamayim has the license to execute justice.

     The award of shalom that Pinchas received for kana’us is truly fitting. When he took nikmas hashem into his own hands and risked his life for it, he filled the spiritual deficiency in Klal Yisrael. He paved the way for shalom between us and Avinu she’ba’shamayim.

     Still, I’d like to offer yet a deeper understanding of Pinchas’ act of kana’us. A careful examination of the passuk reveals another dimension to his zealous undertakingThe Torah states “Pinchas… heyshiv es chamasi meyal b’ney yisrael, b’kan’o es kin’asi. La’cheyn emor, hinini noseyn lo es b’risi shalom”. He did not merely intend to “appease” Hashem; there was a dual purpose in his kana’us. He did it for Hashem and for Klal Yisrael! The kaparah for Klal Yisrael didn’t come about on its’ own, a byproduct of his actions; that was his intention! His act of achzariyus was nothing less than rachamanus.  He was seeking shalom by means of kana’us. Pinchas didn’t engage in kana’us alone; he was consumed by ahavas yisrael.

Friday, July 15, 2016


     Last week, we concluded that mindfulness is not a contradiction to happiness or contentment. A mindful person who becomes aware of his faults can remain calm and at ease through developing menuchas hanefesh. That is, menuchas hanefesh is not only relevant in mili d'alma (worldly matters); it is equally applicable in mili d'shmaya (spiritual matters). I'd like to illustrate this with an example that the Cheshbon Hanefesh uses when discussing menuchas hanefesh. Among other irritating situations which can be dispelled with menuchas hanefesh, he mentions one who's furniture was moved from its proper place. What is ironic about this example is that Chapter 3 of the book is dedicated to the topic of seder, orderliness. Its' summary sentence is, "All your actions and possessions should be orderly- each and every one in a set place and a set time..." Even when ones' work on middos, a spiritual matter, in this case seder, is disturbed, he should retain his menuchas hanefesh.

     There is another step to this. I mentioned in an earlier post that menuchas hanefesh is not merely a safety mechanism; it is a state of being. One maintains a constant state of calm. However, it can be difficult to be at peace, because one is always consumed with trying to fix his faults, albeit calmly. This is the basis of this weeks' post; savlanus. Normally, when people encounter this middah, it is in terms of others. Savlanus means patience, and we ought to train ourselves to be more forgiving of others' shortcomings. Now, while this is certainly a noble endeavor to undertake, there is, I believe, an even more important aspect of this middah to emphasize and put great effort into. That is, patience for oneself. We have to be more tolerant of our failings and inadequacies. This, of course, is not to be taken flippantly. Allow me to explain. How often do we kick ourselves for not being great ? Great listeners, great learners, great daveners, great parents, great children. Why must we be so hard on ourselves ? Why is it, that, for total strangers we'll have so much patience and empathy, but for our own selves, so little ? Surely, there is an imbalance here. Can't we cut ourselves some slack, too ?
     The Cheshbon Hanefesh writes in Chapter 2, " When something bad happens to you, that wasn't in your hands to avoid, do not aggravate the situation through wasted grief ". An example that he gives is, someone who regrets entering a business, saying, " Had I only not entered that business, this would not have occurred ". This is wasted grief because there is nothing positive that can result from it. In addition, he wasn't careless; he made a mistake! It is absurd to harp on one's every infraction. As a matter of fact, it stems from false anavah and tremendous ga'avah. Why would a sensible person think that he is supposed to be amazing in so many areas, often with very limited effort ? This is true even in seemingly easy and basic things. We must realize that avodah is much harder than what meets the eye. If one finds it difficult to wake up for davening, he shouldn't berate himself for not keeping with such a fundamental part of Judaism. Rather, he should understand that there is a war between his nefesh hamaskeles and nefesh habahamis. It's a lot deeper than just being tired or not interested.  Of course you don't win every battle. He beats himself up, thinking, "Why can't I just be a normal human being that does what he is supposed to ?" This is a very difficult area for him. G-d understands this much better than we do. We spend too much time being judgmental instead of being forgiving. Without this, it won't work.   Certainly, there is a time for regret, that is, constructive regret. Take teshuvah, say. That is constructive regret. Such regret enables. Remorse that paralyzes a person is destructive. It disables. There is never place for such incapacitating remorse. It is just a  guilty conscience. It's simply a waste of energy. There is nothing real there.

     Hashem didn't create us to be angels. We aren't perfect, nor are we meant to be. We just have to do our best. This is not a "cheesy" concept; it is based solely on pure, rational thinking. We can not do better than our talents and characters allow. Thoughts of incompetence and spiritual ineptness are debilitating. We are capable of so much; let's not get bogged down by the small defeats. Instead, concentrate on the small triumphs. And, perhaps, when we become more patient with ourselves, we will be more patient with others.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Menuchas Hanefesh / Mindfulness Part 2

     We have thus far learned about menuchas hanefesh and mindfulness. I will attempt to relate them more clearly to each other. There is a potential problem, that when one achieves mindfulness, it can feel very disconcerting. Mindfulness is after all self-awareness, and sometimes we don't like what we become aware of. We find a degree of self-centeredness that we thought was reserved for only the most selfish people. Laziness is almost a constant problem. Patience. We get frazzled and excited over trivialities. It doesn't make one feel good when they realize that they are in fact not what they imagined themselves to be. How do we at once keep mindful and keep our chin up ? Here is where menuchas hanefesh comes in.

     Menuchas hanefesh is commonly understood to mean emotional calm or equanimity . However, at its' core, it implies clarity of mind. When ones' mind is clear and focused, he is calm.The Cheshbon Hanefesh explains that there are three parts to a person; nefesh hamaskelesnefesh habahamis, and ayvarim. The nefesh hamaskeles refers to the mind, the nefesh habahamis alludes to the nervous system, and the ayvarim are the body. The nervous system, he explains, is the conduit between the mind and the body. The mind has thoughts and desires and sends the nefesh habahamis on a mission to the body, to get the job done. When the mind is clear and unfettered, everything else runs smoothly. If the mind is messy and undisciplined, our systems become chaotic.

      The mind is the control center for all our thoughts and actions. The way we are meant to function is with our minds leading. That is why the head is on the top of the body. Menuchas hanefesh requires that ones' mind be in charge of himself.  There is no truly good reason to lose our calm. We must accustom ourselves to controlling our minds, and everything else will follow. We won't be bothered by our failures; we'll simply figure out the appropriate way of dealing with them. Our personal inconsistencies should not be cause for panic. On the contrary, when we are mindful and gain clarity as to the disparity between where we are and where we want to be, we will be in the position to deal with this disparity. We should become mind people. This is not to say that the mind is inherently more important than our emotions; rather, this is the natural way we are supposed to function. Our emotions function better when they are controlled by the mind. When we function naturally, we can feel happy and at home with ourselves.  

     Menuchas hanefesh allows a person to be calm when he meets his failures. Not just in business or in other matters. It affords one the ability to be objective, and see himself truly as he is, without whitewashing. Menuchas hanefesh is the safety net that keeps us safe when we fall. Life is like a really long job training experience. Nobody has any expectations that the trainees will not need to be trained; that's why they are there.

Friday, July 1, 2016


     We have begun exploring the topic of avodas hamiddos. This week, we will discuss an essential and fundamental idea, pertaining to all avoda; mindfulness. It may be little known, but avoda requires a great deal of "mind" work, besides for all the emotional exertion necessary. While the concept of mindfulness is the basis for various forms of therapy and meditation, we'll use the term in its' broadest sense. Simply put, instead of going through our routine mindlessly, we should be in a constant state of awareness of our thoughts and actions. This is possibly the most basic element necessary to advance in our avoda.
      There are people who are "in touch" with themselves, and there are people who "know" themselves. There is a vast semantical difference between the two. Being "in touch" is the equivalent of a casual friendship. You maintain contact, but it's cursory. People who "know" themselves are deeply interested in learning every facet about themselves, even the minor details.  
      People who are "in touch" with themselves track their actions. People who "know" themselves track their thoughts. Thoughts come in two forms; conscious and subconscious. Rav Issac Sher writes in his introduction to the Cheshbon Hanefesh, that conscious thoughts are the result of subconscious thoughts. We have a constant "thought flow" in our minds that we may not even be cognizant of. These "thoughts" are the direct result of "middos". Middos, he explains, are "inner feelings of the soul", and they are expressed in subconscious thoughts. These thoughts are the primary influence on conscious thought. Conscious thought may be intellectual, but subconscious thought, by definition is not. When we find ourselves having thoughts and we don't know where they come from, they're rooted in middos. Therefore, we must pay attention, not only to our actions but to our thoughts as well.          
      Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka told a story which illustrates this idea. A rumor reached the authorities, that the administration of the Beys Hatalmud in Kelm was inciteful against the government. When the  police converged on the Yeshiva to arrest the Alter of Kelm, R' Nosson Zvi announced that he was the rosh yeshiva, to spare his rebbe.  Later, when he related the incident, he added, that perhaps, in addition to his desire to save his rebbe, he also wanted to brag to the officials that he was in fact the head of the yeshiva.
     Similarly, someone deliberating about whether to begin a new gemach must ask himself why. He may think it's because he wants to "be mezake the rabbim" or some other selfless reason. However, if he would dig deeper, he may find that he has ulterior motives, like enjoying people's dependence on him or being called a big ba'al chesed. He should think back to his very first subconscious thought which will determine what his true motives are. The first thoughts are the middos speaking; the real him. After that, they're all fake; they may be good "cheshbonos", but they aren't "his" cheshbonos.
     Actions are merely external. Sometimes, we do things without reason. We react. We don't think through the results of our actions, and certainly not our motives. Middos are the cause of our subconscious thoughts. If we pay attention to our subconscious, we will succeed in finding the real "I" within ourselves.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Menuchas Hanefesh

     I am currently working on the midda of menuchas hanefesh, based on the early 19th century sefer, Cheshbon Ha'Nefesh. Many mussar works emphasize attaining high spiritual levels, while he stresses attaining high levels in universal values. This approach may be called "shleymus ha'adam", while the former would be termed "gadlus ha'adam". This midda is the first of the thirteen middos that he assumes people generally need to work on. 
     What is the importance of menuchas hanefesh ? Furthermore, is there any significance to this midda being first on the list ?
      The Ba'aley Mussar say that "atzlus", laziness, is the worst of all the bad middos, because a lazy person will always be too lazy to work on his middos. In other words, while there are other bad middos, and although they are often connected, laziness is the one midda that affects every single other midda; a lazy person will never get anywhere. I think that the strength of Menuchas Ha'Nefesh is directed against atzlus. In kochos hanefesh, laziness and menuchas hanefesh are opposites. The posture of a lazy person is, to paraphrase Stephen Covey,  one of reactions, while that of a  "calm person" is one of responses. A lazy person is reactive, a calm person, proactive. He has to take charge of himself to stay relaxed. A person with menuchas hanefesh sets the tone in any situation. The nature of a lazy person is that he doesn't do anything. He's stagnant. He always finds himself  a product of circumstances instead of creating the circumstances. 

     If this is the case, we understand why this midda is not just important, but is basic and essential in all areas of avodas hamiddos. The midda of Menuchas Hanefesh demands that we don't lose ourselves and get flustered. Basically, keep your cool. It  takes great strength to maintain one's composure. A person who succeeds in the midda of menuchas hasnefesh has the fundamental tools necessary to succeed in all areas of avodas hamiddos