through the lens of Mussar - Rabbi Kravitz
Shabbat, October 16, 2021
Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
Adath Jeshurun Congregation
Sermon titled: Abraham's Journey through the lens of Mussar.
Sign ups are open for our selection of Mussar classes. To learn more and to find the links to sign up, please visit www.adathjeshurun.org/mussar.
Two years ago, in October of 2019 (which now feels like a lifetime ago), I had the privilege of a spending a Shabbat in the Philadelphia area at a Mussar retreat organized by the Center for Contemporary Mussar. It was led by Rabbi Ira Stone, a leading figure in bringing a contemporary understanding of Mussar to a new generation.
Define Mussar: Jewish spiritual practice to work on character development through the lens of traditional Jewish text and sources, as reflected through various middot/ soul traits such as patience savlanut, or orderliness seder.
We have developed a vibrant Mussar learning community here at Adath and similar classes can be found at various synagogues and schools around the Twin Cities.
We were fortunate to have hosted Rabbi Stone at Adath as a scholar in resident in March of 2017. We had a great turn out and he commented, “Who knew that there was such a vibrant Mussar community in MN? We have built it up considerably since then.
Today I want to spend some time studying the text, at least part of it, that formed the basis of that Mussar Kallah I did with Rabbi Stone two years ago this week.
Look at the opening verse Gen 12:1
Rabbi Berezovsky was born in Belarus. He made Aliyah in 1933 and eventually was designated the Rebbe of the Slonimer Hasidim and the head of their Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Bet Avraham. His teachings are captured in the text before us Netivot Shalom, as Rabbi Stone labels it, or Nisivos Sholom as it would be pronounced in the Slonimer’s world. It is a considered an important contribution to Mussar literature, combining the rigor of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, where the Mussar started as a Movement by Rabbi Israel Salanter, with the religious passion of Hassidism.
In May of 1998, I actually got to meet with him in his study with my friend Rabbi Elie Spitz at his Yeshiva Bet Avraham in Meah Shearim. I spoke about that encounter in a sermon I gave on Yom Kippur in 1998. Elie had been in Israel that year on sabbatical studying with Prof Zev Falk of Hebrew University, who was intrigued by the writings of the Slonimer Rebbe. I was in Israel for a short time and Elie and I got to spend the day together in Jerusalem. Elie wanted to make a future appointment to see the Slonimer at this Yeshiva. We made our way over there and got to speak with his secretary to see if an appointment could be arranged. He told us to wait and when he returned much later, he said that the Rebbe would see us now. I was not expecting to be part of this. We encountered the Slonimer Rebbe in his study, frail and in his bed. It was about two years before his death. We introduced ourselves and explained that we were Conservative rabbis from the United States and he gave us his message. I will return later to what he said to us.
For now, let us turn back to the Slonimer’s commentary on parsahat Lecha Lecha.
Rabbi Isaac Luria – HaAri of Sefat 16th c Leading rabbi and mystic whose conception of the creation story forms the basis of contemporary Kabbalah often referred to as Lurianic Kabbalah. You may be familiar with Luria’s teaching found here that every person is put into the world for a unique purpose. We often see it in the version written by Martin Buber, used at baby namings, that every person is brought in the world with a unique purpose.
The Slonimer is raising the key Mussar question: How are you perfecting your neshama/soul, which you alone were put into this world to achieve?
That destiny is unique for each of us. This is in line with the Mussar practice that while the principles of Mussar apply to all of us, each of us has our own work to do. This makes the soul curriculum of our Mussar work quite individualized.
Each of us, like Avraham, is on a soul/sole journey.
The Slonimer says this is “To teach that this is the task of the person, to walk always forward on the path of their destiny. This is hinted at by the three times the language of (Hebrew) journey.” He explains that this is exemplified in the three lecha lecha periods of Abraham’s life.
There is much more in the Slonimer’s commentary to Lech Lecha. In Phila at the Mussar retreat we spent the entire Shabbat in study unpacking it with Rabbi Stone’s guidance, along with other activities.
Before I conclude let me return to the encounter with the Slominer. When we left the Yeshiva, one of his Hasidim came chasing after us wanting to know what their rebbe had said to us. In Hasidism they believe that the Rebbe has a special pipeline to God so it was very important to know what he said. Well, the Slonimer heard that we lived in the United States and pronounced that we both should be living in Eretz Yisrael and not in galus or diaspora, or really in exile, as he sees it.
Unlike his Hasidim, I do not subscribe to the idea that their rebbe has a pipeline to God. I suspect that the Slonimer was imposing on us his view of the world, understandably given that he narrowly escaped the Shoah and saw his entire world destroyed by the Nazis. But following his teaching here, that each of us needs to realize and fulfill our unique destiny, I do not believe that mine had to conform to his view that all Jews should life in Israel. But who knows? Avraham didn’t get called to go to Israel until he was 75.
Each of us has to do the work of finding our destiny and Mussar provides a spiritual practice for clarifying it and perfecting it in the service of others.
Our Intro to Mussar will begin Mon evening Nov 15. I will be teaching it with our member Hope Melton. Heidi Schneider, who attended that Mussar retreat with me, will be teaching our continuing Mussar Vaad. I will also teach an advanced Va’ad studying a kabbalistic Mussar text Tomer Devorah that I will be learning with Rabbi Ira Stone this year. See our Adath website Mussar page for more information.
Let me conclude with one last comment from the Slonimer’s comment on Lech Lecha:
“Year after year the Holy One gives one opportunities in order to journey further in holy service and not to stand in one place.”
I invite you to take the next step in your journey
Parahshat Lech Lecha לֶךְ־לְךָ֛
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם
The LORD said to Avram,
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ
“Go forth from your land, your birthplace and from your ancestral home
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
to the land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1
We find in the Midrash (Beresheet Raba 39.9) Rabbi Levi said: “Twice it is written “Lech Lecha” and we don’t know which is more beloved - the first (Genesis 12:1) or the second (Genesis 22:2). From what is written “to the land of Moriah,” it seems the second is preferable to the first. However, it is still unclear between the two tests that are described in the language of Lech Lecha which is greater and more beloved. Whether it is the test of Lech Lecha from your land, your birthplace your ancestral home, or the test of the Akeda.
Seemingly we are greatly surprised. How is it possible to compare the two? Isn’t the test of the Akeda higher and more difficult for a person akin to giving up everything in their own life? And especially according to what is written in the Torah, “Take your son, your favorite, the one you love, Yitzchak.” For at the very hour the Holy One said this to him that love put every other middah of love in the world to shame and it is not possible that there is any test greater than this. So, how is it possible to doubt which (test) is more beloved?
In addition, we can say regarding the locution “Lech Lecha,” if according to the commentary of Rashi “Lecha” means “for your benefit” behold that which is written Lech Lecha to the land of Moriah does not fit this interpretation. Moreover, we find in the Torah three times when God spoke to Abraham in the language of journeying: “Lech Lecha from your home.” Gen 12:1 “You shall walk [Hitalech] before me and be upright” Gen 17:1 and Lech Lecha to the land of Moriah – the test of the Akeda 22:2 and we will discuss the meaning of this.
It can be said about this matter what we find in the introduction to “The Foundation of Worship” in the name of the Ari Hakodesh [Rabbi Isaac Luria], that no person is comparable to another person from the day of their creation and forward. And no person can repair that which is another’s to repair. Namely, each individual has their own destiny and task that their life is meant to work out. Included in this are those particular tasks that befall them for them to repair, as is well known. The Holy Blessed One appoints for each person all the tests and challenges for which they have all that they need to repair the task that they are meant to repair and to fulfill their destiny and task in the world.
Every challenge in the life of a person, material or spiritual, good or bad, all of them are given to them in connection with the repair of the world for only by way of these challenges are they able to achieve their destiny. And except for these they are not able to fulfill their task to repair. Since to each person there is a specific destiny, therefore there are different challenges for each. To one life is easy and to another it is more difficult.
Generally, what appears to one to be the course of their life’s journey cannot be the same as the life journey for another. Since each person has their specific task given to them with all its challenges, they are given the faith that they are able to fulfill their destiny. Even if their situation in life is difficult, they must strengthen themselves that this is only so that they may arrive at their particular repair, for nothing evil comes down from heaven and all is for the good of the person in order that they may repair everything connected to that which they must repay and, in this way, fulfill their destiny in the world…
This brings us to Lech Lecha from your land, your birthplace and your ancestral home. “Go forth” – that is to your destiny, to the correction of your neshama that you need to do in this world. This is the essence of your task as a person as it is said in the Torah of our ancestors - while a person in this world learns, prays and does good deeds, if they do not correct their destiny regarding what they must correct in this world then when they ascend to the upper world they will be asked: “What did you work at in this world?” In other words, if they did not correct the important things, the task that was your destiny, in the world. And this is what God said to Avraham and included in this also a lesson for all Israel, the seed of Avraham, “Go forth” in other words, journey toward the correction of neshama that is appropriate to you, is your goal, is allotted to you, regarding your land, your birthplace, your ancestral home, that is, all of the conditions and intentions that are natural for you…
Slonimer Rebbe, Netivot Shalom, (Jerusalem, 1982), Parashat Lecha Lecha
Translated by Rabbi Ira Stone, The Center for Contemporary Mussar, 2019
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