The Power of Teshuvah – Day 29

Day 29

Effective Mussar

“Take it, it’s good for you,” the mother said as she held a spoonful of unpleasant-smelling medication to her child’s lips.

He refused the remedy. The mother tried to pry his mouth open, but then she had a better idea. She mixed the medicine into a bowl of ice cream. The child gobbled down the treat.

For many people, the idea of learning mussar is like taking unpleasant medicine. They may even believe that the worse it tastes, the better it is for them. Yet, this perspective comes from a lack of understanding as to how to effectively study mussar.

Mussar is a form of study that must reach our hearts in order to have an impact. “The knowledge of the brain and the knowledge of the heart are like two different people: one knows what the other does not.”

To stir the heart, learning mussar with a melody is effective, since music is a language the heart readily understands. Many people have witnessed or experienced the power with which a melody touches one’s emotions.

Rav Elyah Lopian would learn mussar in a loud voice, using a tune that would capture the heart. Once he gave a mussar discourse in Beis Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. Afterward, several students asked him how to learn mussar. He responded, once again using a full, melodious voice to deliver the powerful emotional content of the words.

Like medicine, mussar is most effective when it is “taken” on a regular schedule. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky made a written commitment to “Study a mussar sefer every day.”

“One must set a time to learn mussar each and every day, be it a small or large amount of time,” says the Chofetz Chaim. The optimal way to ensure that the learning leads to action is to learn in a group setting.

Like Torah, mussar needs to be learned on a consistent basis. The greatest benefit from studying mussar comes from review and repetition, because that helps us to recall concepts we have already learned and have forgotten. As people often have stated after listening to a powerful speech, “It was nothing I haven’t heard before, but I needed to hear it again.”

Yet, there are many people to whom the word “mussar” has negative connotations of self-righteous haranguing or pie-in-the-sky idealism. The most effective mussar for this type of person is a vivid, realistic parable that breaks through the resistance and opens up the heart.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz once approached two study partners who asked, “If the study of mussar is so important, why do we study Gemara for hours a day, and mussar for only 20 minutes during the same day?” He responded, “The study of mussar may be likened to the Kodesh HaKodashim of the Holy Temple. The Kohen Gadol need only enter for a few moments for it to have a very lasting impact upon him.”

So, too, if we study Mesillas Yesharim, or Orchos Tzaddikim, or Shaarei Teshuvah, or similar classic works for only a few minutes a day, it will leave an indelible impact upon us, and lead us to new heights!

Mussar comes in many forms: speeches, articles, classic, and contemporary sefarim. Each suits a specific person. Two classic mussar sefarim are Shaarei Teshuvah — The Gates of Repentance and Mesillas Yesharim — The Path of the Just. Rav Chaim Volozhin once commented that Shaarei Teshuvah is appropriate for every Jewish soul for all eras. The Chofetz Chaim said, “Every person, no matter what his nature, can benefit from studying Mesillas Yesharim.”

The Vilna Gaon was once asked to recommend the “best mussar sefer.” The Gaon responded, “They are all worthwhile. For me, the best of all is right there on that wall.” The disciple glanced at the bookshelves, but he could not locate even one mussar sefer. “My son, you misunderstood,” said the Gaon. “When I said that my favorite mussar sefer was on the wall, I meant the clock. Every second of the day, that clock ticks away, reminding me that time is still fleeting.

Points to Ponder:

      • Mussar must be learned in a way that stirs the heart.
      • A moving melody is an effective way to learn mussar.
      • Mussar should be learned daily, at a set time, just as Torah is learned.

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