Day 6: Mussar+Halachah=A Powerful Antidote
Let's now turn towards the writings of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, whose wise counsel will map out a means for mastering our eyes. Rabbi Salanter was the founder of the Mussar Movement, which in many ways revolutionized modern Jewish thought. In the classic work, Ohr Yisrael (the writings of Rabbi Salanter and his disciple, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer), he wrote, "Without Mussar study, Avodat Hashem cannot be established" (Letter Three).
What does that mean? In a nutshell, Mussar is intended to achieve character refinement and illuminate one's personal spiritual growth. It is an exploration of our relationship with others, with our own self and with Hashem. With its sharp focus on elements of Torah that uplift and encourage, it has the strength to literally change your life. Avodat Hashem begins with a person who is inspired to improve himself and is aware of his potential to be closer to Hashem.
Rabbi Salanter speaks of the healing powers of Torah when you are facing a particular challenge. He assures you that not only can Torah reverse the negatives in your life; it can build an entirely new person. In Igeret HaMussar, he writes:
The way to utilize the healing powers of Torah is to continually study the laws relevant to the particular transgression...
We know that transformation of human nature is generated by Torah study and the repeated practice of a desired good conduct or character trait.
This method of study causes a strong alteration within one's soul. ...
One's character will gradually change so that the transgression is naturally distant from him.
How can studying Torah law help me control strong impulses?
Rabbi Salanter uses the analogy of a physical disease. A person needs to relate to a spiritual malady in the same way he deals with a physical illness. The strength and dosage of the remedy is proportionate to the severity of the illness. The development of Yirat Shamayim (an acute awareness of Hashem's presence) and the study of the relevant laws is a primary remedy. As long as the yetzer hara is activated , Yirat Shamayim and the study of the appropriate laws must be increased. If a person does not use this primary remedy, then the general study of Torah will not have much influence over his yetzer hara. (Ohr Yisrael, Igeret HaMussar)
You may not have been aware that there are specific laws of Shmirat Einayim. It pays to find out about them, study them, and work on Yirat Shamayim, as outlined by Rabbi Salanter. The combination of Mussar study with the study of halachah yields a powerful tool for combating our physical desires. Learning what is forbidden and what is permitted will effectively guard you from seeing improper sights. If you sincerely and carefully study these laws, you are well on your way to a character transformation.
Even though it can be hard in the beginning, don't give up! The mores of modern society make this a very difficult test. But the combination of learning Mussar and studying the halachot, is so powerful that you will soon develop new habits that will stay with you forever.
Today: Be encouraged by knowing that through Mussar and halachah study you have the means to control your eyes and change old habits.
I had to pay a shiva call today, and to tell you the truth, I really dreaded it. I knew that Joe had been particularly close to his father and that losing him would be a terrible blow. He has two brothers and a sister, too, and I expected the entire household to be inconsolable.
As I walked into the room, I was truly surprised. Joe's siblings, as I predicted, were having a tough time. But Joe, though obviously mournful, seemed calm and meditative. You could see that he had some kind of inner strength the others lacked. He noticed my reaction, and he turned to me, asking why I seemed puzzled. At the risk of being rude, I told him.
"Joe, I know how sad you must feel, yet you seem to be taking it in stride - to be honest, better than I expected you to." He smiled faintly. "What's the secret?" I blurted. He thought for a moment.
"Well, for the past ten years, Dad and I studied Mussar together. We had a regular chavrutah once a week. At first, it's imperceptible, but eventually Mussar changes your whole perspective. I feel that I'm in touch with a level of reality that's very comforting. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's very real to me."
"Mussar did that?"
"That and more. It's not only helping me through this experience, it has put me in touch with real joy, too. I can honestly say it's helped me deal with tough challenges as well."
"Your father was very wise to teach you all that."
"He saw it as preparing me for life. We learned halachah together too. He let me choose the topic, depending on what I needed to learn at the time."
What a legacy! As I left, I couldn't help thinking that Joe's father had given him a priceless gift.
These e-mails are excerpts taken from the book "Windows of the Soul" by Rabbi Zvi Miller of the Salant Foundation.