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Shiur #16: Summing Up...

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein
Our analysis of hitbodedut in the previous two shiurim rounds out our survey of techniques and practical approaches to Mussar.  It goes without saying that the literature has much more to offer than we have indicated here.  But I hope we have been able to represent faithfully some key ideas, and provide a framework in which additional types of guidelines will find a place.
Now, in the hope that this series has made the goal of ethical and religious advancement a bit closer and more attainable, we must prepare to take our leave.  The path we have trodden has been varied.  After examining the necessity of actively pursuing Mussar, we grappled with the roadblocks which make it so difficult, in general and particularly in the present day and age.  The ground covered included issues confronting the Mussar-oriented individual - such as humility, normalcy, religious and secular value systems - and questions of methodology, such as matching the text with the person, learning Mussar from non-didactic texts, and various techniques taught by sages of past generations.  Above all, we stressed the conflict between the study and practice of Mussar and modern life in all its complexity.  I believe that in order to be effective, Mussar today must take into account the specific characteristics of the world we live in.
Whatever we have been able to do here is only a beginning, a pointing of the way.  More remains to be worked on in order to adapt various aspects of religious ethics to modern life without diluting the former.  But the best person to do this is you.  Perhaps our shiurim have given you some directions of thought which can help you develop your own ways of dealing with the problems. 
I can't resist telling you, in closing, about two things which recently underscored for me how dire is the need for attention to this neglected area.  In a revealing interview, the director of the Israeli film "Ha-Hesder" (about students in a yeshivat hesder, which alternates periods of Talmud study with military service) says that the ideologically-saturated environment of the film is incidental.  The film is about people acting in their own self-interest, which is the way it is in real life, as he sees it.  He mentions Rav Lichtenstein's position that, for a yeshiva student, service in the army should express the value of CHESED and solidarity with the community and nation. 
Today one can easily see that it isn't so.  No one goes to the army today for reasons of chesed, but for reasons of self-actualization ... I have three brothers.  They go to mekhinot (one-year yeshiva programs that include pre-military training) in order to train and then be accepted into the elite combat units, which will enable them to stand out and "be somebody."  The rabbis can't see this.  Their rhetoric is about "mission" and chesed.  To my mind, the thought that people can be induced to do their best by making them the bearers of a mission, is wrong.
            Another incident in a similar vein.  An Israeli politician of relative prominence is interviewed by a "political commentator."  A major function of political commentators (in Israel, in any event) is to interpret the entire political arena on the basis of self-interest alone, without need to resort to principles and ideology.  The newsman is trying to steer the discussion to power politics, while the interviewee produces his past behavior (i.e. resigning his government ministry over a matter of principle) to prove that he is motivated by the public interest.  The journalist doesn't really have a way to refute this, but after the interview he ignores this state of affairs and proceeds on the air with his usual ego-slanted analysis. 
            The commentator knows that this type of analysis is what is expected of him, because this is what the public wants to hear.  To the common man, the idea that someone would sacrifice power and prestige simply for the public good, is a very real threat - a threat to his outlook and his whole way of life.  If such a thing were possible, his conscience would be liable to demand, Heaven forbid, that he, too, be altruistic; that he, too, actualize his self-transcending human potential, his image of God.  Cowardice and egotism simply love company.
If there was ever truth to the position that specific attention to Mussar is superfluous, I can't see the tenability of such a position in our present situation.  Today, a different question - a serious one - is the one that challenges us: is it possible at all? But I think we have no choice.  I can only reiterate here what I said at the very beginning, and what I have been trying to argue throughout: THERE MUST BE A WAY!