By Aaron Howard
We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. You’ve probably heard a version of that metaphor. It’s attributed to a number of people, from Isaac Newton to the 13th-century Talmudic commentator Isaiah di Trani. The metaphor refers to how we benefit from those who came before us, in order to gain greater insight and understanding.
Torah Outreach Center of Houston executive director Rabbi Aryeh Wolbe knows what it is to stand on the shoulder of a giant. Rabbi Wolbe teaches Mussar classes in Houston. Mussar is the practice of perfecting of one’s character traits, in order to attain spiritual development. Rabbi Aryeh learned the elements of Mussar from a giant of a teacher, one who had integrated the practice into his life. That giant was his grandfather, Rav Shlomo Wolbe.
Known to his students as the mashgiach, Rav Shlomo educated an entire generation of talmidei chachomim in Mussar and authored the Mussar classic, “Alei Shur.” This book, written and revised over 13 years, illuminates the basic areas one should work on, in order to attain and grow in the service of Hashem.
There’s a story Rav Shlomo tells in “Alei Shur.” Some Torah Jews observe mitzvot out of habit or because that is what’s expected of them. So, when you ask, “why do you observe mitzvot?” the answer often is, ‘That’s how I was educated.’” That’s ridiculous, commented Rav Shlomo. It’s like asking someone, “why are you eating lunch,” and they answer, “That’s how I was educated.”
“We should be observing mitzvos because we are hungry for these mitzvos,” wrote Rav Shlomo. “Therefore, we should perform mitzvos with enthusiasm, because we enjoy them.”
His grandson, Rabbi Aryeh, commented, “Mussar becomes an integral part of your life when you learn to intellectually overcome your emotional elements. Much of the world today – and that’s always been so – is based on emotions, people just following their emotions and their habits. Mussar harnesses the power of intellect, in order to achieve mindfulness in all that we do.”
Mussar essentially is a spiritual discipline. To simplify: One’s spirituality is linked to one’s personal and moral behavior. You cannot bring yourself closer to G-d, dragging the weight of all your bad traits (midot). That is, one cannot emulate G-d without improving or refining one’s character.
One begins the refining process by learning and understanding one’s behavioral traits. Which traits of yours are out of balance? Understand how negative traits really play out in your life. Next, comes focusing on a particular problem trait. Step four is internalizing that trait, so you can change your perceptions, your habits, and your responses, all of these.
Rabbi Aryeh has been successful in bringing Mussar classes to many Jews in the Houston community, from liberal to Orthodox. Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh’s grandfather’s goal was to reach out to any Jew who sought a more spiritual meaning in his or her life.
“My grandfather was born in Berlin in 1914, the only son of secular parents,” related Rabbi Aryeh. “My grandfather went to a Jewish day school (gymnasium) and then to a yeshiva in Switzerland until he was 17. His parents were on a cruise and on the boat, there was a fortuneteller. The fortuneteller told my great-grandparents they would receive a letter from their son when they arrived at their destination. Whatever your son requests in that letter, grant it to him, advised the fortuneteller. Sure enough, they received a letter from my grandfather at their destination, requesting to go learn at the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. They approved. My grandfather always related that he felt like he was born when he arrived at the Mir Yeshiva.”
The Mir Yeshiva was one of the great Torah centers of the world in the early 20th century.
“One of the main attractions of that yeshiva was their leader, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz. He was a person who had absolute control of all his faculties, from thought to focus to traits. He was iconic of the completely spiritually developed person in every way,” said Rabbi Aryeh.
“Mussar was one of the most important elements of the yeshiva’s function. And, my grandfather couldn’t get enough of it. I think he felt this was the maximization of what a Jew should be in this world. Our goal in this word is to emulate G-d. We’re here in this world as an image of G-d. If we don’t have control of our emotions and our intellect, then we’re just living by habit. Mussar gives us the opportunity and the tools to analyze our very essence. And, it gives us the tools to change ourselves to become the best person we could be.”
One can study Mussar in groups or study it alone. Rabbi Aryeh favors group study.
“In a group, you can gain perspectives and ask questions,” he said. “We speak about many aspects of life, including how to teach our children good traits. To hear how this is practical every single day is relevant.
“I’ve seen an incredible burst of interest in Mussar. People are excited about this avenue of connecting with themselves and their Judaism. It is practical, relevant and nonthreatening. We don’t discuss observance; we discuss traits.
“I’m a firm believer that Torah is not given to rabbis; it’s given to every Jew. Every Jew deserves the right to access their relevance to Judaism. It’s not complicated to learn how to be the best you. But, neither is it a fix quick. It’s a lifelong mission. It takes a lifetime to fix up our rotten self.”
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TORCH offers five Mussar classes each week in various locations, including Meyerland Minyan, Congregation Brith Shalom, Congregation Beth El and a class for high school students. For information, visit torchweb.com.