Question & Answer With Neil Harris - Taking The Right Prescription
A Simple Jew asks:
I have always preferred sifrei Chassidus over sifrei Mussar. I find sifrei Chassidus to be uplifting and many sifrei Mussar to be somewhat depressing since they break me down and remind me that I am nothing. Although they may be the right prescription for another type of neshoma, I feel that for me it would be equivalent to taking the wrong type of medicine.
As someone who feels an attraction to sifrei Mussar, do you think my observation is an oversimplification?
Neil Harris answers:
Well, A Simple Jew, what you describe as "somewhat depressing since they break me down and remind me that I am nothing", is very much, in my humble opinion, reminiscent of the Novardok school of Mussar. They were very into the idea that one must break the ego, for next to Hashem we are, for lack of a better term, nothing.
You can look at the "classic" Mussar seforim like Chovos HaLevavos, Orchos Tzadikim, and Mesillas Yesharim and see that just looked at on the surface they hold us up to a rather high standard of Avodah. The hard work entailed in reaching that "idea" level of serving Hashem might make one relect on what one is lacking. I know that for myself it's much easier to look at ways that I don't measure up instead of looking at the ways that, with Hashem's help, I do attempt to measure up.
I think that in working on Tinkun HaMiddos (working on your middos) people (and by people I mean myself) tend to get caught up in the mechanics of the process (the Avodah), and forget that it's part of our Avodas Hashem.
The joy of working on a particular trait and actually feeling the bechira (choice) of serving Hashem by controlling such things like the urge to speak Loshon Hora or not getting angry is, in my experience, amazing euphoric.
That joy has seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way.
Your "oversimplification", I think, is actually on target based on where "mussar" fits into the average life of the Torah observant Jew. Most of us don't want to be told what we are not doing correctly, and that's sort of why mussar has such a negative connotation.
I believe that you hit the nail on the head with your analogy of what prescription of medicine. Each of us are different and connect to Hashem with a different style of Shulchan Oruch based Avodah. Since Chassidus and Mussar are both ways of relating to our creator, it really just deciding which prescription is best of you. Many medicines do contain similar ingredients, though.
This is a quote from the former Mashgiach from the Mir, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, "Woe to a person who is not aware of his faults, for he does not know what he has to correct. But double woe to a person who is not aware of his virtues, for he is lacking the tools for correcting himself", writen in R Shlomo Woble's sefer Alei Shur.
Doesn't that sound very similar to the ideas in the lesson of Azamra from Reb Nachman?
For me there's as much Mussar (with a capital M) in Rav Dessler's works as there is in the writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (in fact, Chovos HaTalmidim reads like a mussar sefer). Mussar can be found everwhere.
Thank you for asking such a great question, and I hope that my humble thoughts gave you an answer. I know you have many more knowledgeable readers that will add to this discussion.