The Power of Teshuvah – Day 28
Strategy 6: Study Mussar, Spiritual Ethics
“I know I should exercise, but I simply don’t have time,” the patient told his doctor.
“Your blood pressure is creeping up to a dangerous level. If you don’t begin exercising, you’re risking a heart attack or stroke,” the doctor explained.
The next day, the man found a gym near his office and began to spend his lunch-hour exercising. He had suddenly found the time.
Like the patient, most of us have a vague idea of what we must do to promote spiritual health. We know we could do better — learn more Torah, pray with more concentration, give more charity, and so forth — but we don’t see real improvement as absolutely necessary.
Mussar enables us to identify which part of our spiritual anatomy is weak, how to repair the damage, and the consequences of failing to respond. Once we comprehend the stark necessity of teshuvah, we can find the few extra minutes to say a blessing correctly or to pray with deep concentration, or add extra learning to our schedule.
In the allegory above, the doctor issues his warning once and the patient institutes a change. Most likely, however, his determination will fade and he will revert to his old habits. But what if he had to visit his doctor every day and report on his progress? No doubt, he would adhere to his program with far more seriousness. Mussar is analogous to this daily visit. It not only awakens a person to the need for teshuvah, but reinvigorates his commitment each day it is studied.
It would seem that even without opening a mussar sefer, a person could sense that things are not quite right with his life. Nevertheless, there is a wide gap between that feeling and deep-seated motivation to change.
Mussar is the most reliable means for one to overcome the obstacles, diversions, and delusions. That is why Rav Yisroel Salanter writes that teshuvah is not possible without studying mussar. Mussar is far more than a mere accessory to Torah learning. It is an absolute essential: “Hold fast to moral instruction, do not let her go; preserve her, for she is your life.”
First, one must learn the mitzvos and their halachos, so that he understands what God requires of him. When a person understands the destruction that he causes even with small, private wrongdoings, he builds a firm commitment to follow the right path. Halachah teaches us what to do. Mussar inspires us to implement the mitzvos.
Mussar protects against sin in yet another way: by nurturing positive character traits. The main point of studying mussar is to avoid duplicity and guile.
No one is beyond the reach of mussar. Indeed, renowned Torah leaders count mussar as an indispensable part of their learning and life. As one commented, “Believe me! On a day when I do not study mussar, I feel that my fear of God is weakened noticeably.” In fact, the Chofetz Chaim related that the rabbanim who initially opposed the early mussar movement [late-19th century] eventually came to the realization that without it, “we have no assurance that our Torah knowledge or our fear of God will be sustained.”
Points to Ponder:
- Studying mussar inspires a person to do teshuvah.
- Without mussar, one would not know what needs correcting, nor understand the necessity of correcting it.