Daily Learning and Introspection

Nov 26, 2014

Methods for Changing Character

From one of the most popular mussar works: “The foundation of ethical education (hachinukh hamussari) is not listening to mussar talks (shmuessen) and reading articles, but in fixed daily learning. The things people usually say, write, preach, and think about in the name of “mussar” are really “desert”, while the central point is really this: the obligation to set a daily session for ethical learning and introspection (Alei Shur vol. 1, pp.).

He claims this goes back to the roots of the Mussar Movement (citing Rav Yitzele Blazer z”l’s “Shaarei Or,” his introduction to Or Yisrael). He bases himself on the Rambam’s statement in his Shemoneh Perakim (Chap. 4): “The complete person should constantly remember his character traits, measure his actions, and be involved in daily introspection . . .”

The impact of daily learning and introspection is not always apparent, but, as Rav Yisrael Salanter says (Letters, Or Yisrael 10), mussar “transforms one into another person.” As Rav Naftali Amsterdam z”l (one of Rav Yisrael Salanter’s three greatest disciples) writes in his ethical will:“The sole thing that put me on my feet in matters of avodat Hashem (service of G-d) is mussar study. . . . Any day that I learn mussar all my actions, speech, and thoughts are better.”

Rav Naftali Amsterdam, following Rav Yisrael Salanter, divides mussar learning into to two stages:

  1. Understanding and comprehension – learning the passage of Mesillat Yesharim, Chovot Halevavot, etc. using the same intellectual processes other Torah learning require: analysis, connecting to broader themes, solving problems, etc;
  2. Internalization and inspiration – taking a short passage of Pirkei Avot, Mesillat Yesharim, Reishit Chokhma, etc. and learning it excitedly, repeating it over and over again.

Daily ethical learning and introspection are no less crucial today than they were a hundred years ago. On the contrary, spiritually difficult periods demand more spiritual work.

The requirement of daily ethical learning appears in the Mishneh Berura (603:2), who traces it back to the Arizal. Commenting on the Rosh’s suggestion to review Rabbeinu Yona’s Letter on Teshuva during the Ten Days of Repentance, he writes, “The Arizal writes that there is an obligation to learn ethical works all year (not only during the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), and the Gra mentions this in his commentary on Mishlei in a number of places.”
Daily learning has a power to it – it is fixed, builds on itself, imprints itself on a person. On the other hand, it is more realistic to change day by day than in spurts (just as it is easier to keep a house clean by tidying up daily than by pushing off the work until it involves a major difficult project). In the words of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, “By doing something each day, we break down the challenge of chraracter development and refinement into manageable units, and the task is no longer formidable.” (Growing Each Day, introduction)

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