Sunday, February 8, 2009

Shabbos: Mekor HaBracha (The Source of Blessing)

This Shabbos was an "in yeshiva" Shabbos, which meant that we all had to stay in our diras (apartments), eat meals with each other in the cheder ochel (dining room), and daven (pray) at the yeshiva. At first I was a little disappointed that I would have to do all of this. I really wanted to go somewhere else, anywhere else, and have a Shabbos that was different from "everyday yeshiva". However, this Shabbos was far from "everyday".

The rosh yeshiva is famous for giving controversial speeches to the yeshiva. Often, he says that he makes a point to say what isn't allowed to be said anymore. Each speech that he gives challenges some accepted part of society, religion, or religious Jewish life. His talks this Shabbos were no different. As we were huddled together in a crowded little shul (synagogue) in the neighborhood, the rosh yeshiva spoke against mussar. Mussar is a style of giving detailed, often times harsh, speeches and lessons on how to curb morals. The mussar movement grew out of the Litvish (Lithuanian) Jewish world, and is often seen as the opposite of Chasidus (mystical, more positive school of thought).

Seeing as how the rosh yeshiva is himself Litvish, and attended some of the most prominent Litvish yeshivas, it might be assumed that he is very much in favor of the mussar movement. However, he has often stated that mussar is a replacement for real Torah, and this Shabbos was no different. He spoke from a sefer (book) written by R' Chaim Volozhiner, what many would think of as a true 19th century mussar authority. His words were very interesting. The Volozhiner's sefer says that the ikar (point) of Jewish life is not yira (the fear of G-d), but simply Torah, and anyone who tries to use mussar as the means to to establish real yira and accumulate Torah is wasting their time. According to the rosh yeshiva, yira is simply a container in which to carry the lessons of Torah, and without ever learning real Torah, all you have is a container, but how can something serve as a container with nothing inside? "Ein contents, ein container (no contents, no container)," he said. Really, if you focus your attention on only yiras Hashem, all you have at the end of your life is an empty jar.

The rosh yeshiva also held a post-meal "tish" of sorts. The rosh yeshiva sat at the head of a large table, while everyone else sat along the sides, with other people standing on benches on either side of the room. As I had walked to the kosel (Western Wall) with a friend immediately after the meal, I didn't get back to the rosh yeshiva's shmooze until it was almost over. When I walked in, the scene was a mini version of what one sees when they go to a Shabbos tish of a Chasidic rebbe. The room was full of people, those on the edges standing high on benches and chairs so they could get a good view, and those around the table leaned in so they could see and hear the rosh yeshiva clearly. My friend who went with me to the kosel commented that the yeshiva gets more and more Chasidish with regard to the rosh yeshiva as time goes on, and coming from a strong Chasidish background, his words clearly have truth to them; I felt the same way. After his shmooze, the rosh yeshiva took questions from any bochur (young guy) who had a question. His answers reflected his hashkafa (philosophic) strongholds of the essential reality of "Ein Od Milvado" (there is nothing at all except for G-d), that physicality is sheker (false), and people being trapped as "five-sense prisoners", as they fail to connect to real spirituality because they never move beyond their five physical senses.

One thing he said really touched me. When asked about the status of rabbis and rebbes, as well as people, who follow what seems to be a true derech (path), he said, "You must always assume that everyone you see is fake until proven otherwise. It doesn't matter the size of their beard or peyos, how intense their kavanadik (concentration-bringing) movements are during davening, or how much mussar or Chasidus they learn. You must operate with the assumption that they are fake, until you see them rubbing shoulders with the poor at least as often as with the rich."

The rosh yeshivas words over Shabbos were very inspiring, as everything that he says, he truly means and lives. The yeshiva that he runs is not a yeshiva for those who buy into the trappings of what is conventionally seen as what it means to be an ultra-Orthodox (or even Orthodox) Jew. The rosh yeshiva stresses the importance of learning Torah itself, for the sake of learning Torah. He also sees value in learning mussar and Chasidus, but only as an accompaniment of Torah, only at a pace that helps these ideas contain the Torah they were meant to contain, and only with the understanding that end result should be good middos (traits), not a nice levush (exterior).


  1. I was having a conversation with my friend about her warm experiences in Williamsburg. With my inexplicable curiousness as to what Chassidus really is, it drifted to Chassidim in general, and then eventually to the differences between Chassidus and Litivish approaches to Judaism. I am a keen observer and, based solely on my observations, it is all part of the same thing. A Yid is one who values the Torah and stringently tries to live by its every Halacha, continuously pushing oneself to grow as a person through mussar, and one who sees this world and everything in it as a means of connecting to our Creator, spiritually. A Yid has both components of what, according to my observations, define one who is Chassidish and one who is Litvish. We should all strive to be Chass-vish...or Lit-dish ;). It seems to me like your Rosh Yeshiva has a good hold on this.

  2. Hello from Maine:
    I knew you were a smart man but boy how you have grown. I finally had the time to sit down and read your messages.Your writing are real interesting and informative. I'm proud of you you know. I'll try to keep up with your journies in this insteresting country.
    Love you