[This article requires knowledge of Talmudic idioms and the yeshivos of Europe in order to be fully understood. Apologies in advance to those who do not understand many of the terms; it would have overly detracted from the article to translate or go into lengthy explanations. It is unusual for Cross-Currents to publish articles requiring this level of background. –Ed.]
One recent Shabbos, I ran into a well-respected, American-born talmid chacham as he was energetically advancing the theory that the average yeshiva student today is a more accomplished lamdan (scholar) than was the average yeshiva student in pre-War Europe. Since my friend’s father was himself a distinguished rosh yeshiva, who learned for many years under the Chafetz Chaim in Radin, I could not dismiss his claims out of hand.
But even if we need not bow our heads before our predecessors with respect to lomdus or kishronos, an issue I’m totally unqualified to judge, there is one area, at least, in which no one would deny the superiority of pre-War Europe. The pre-War yeshivos produced people of infinitely greater depth and seriousness. Reading the kabolos (behaviors undertaken to perform) from the Mussar vaadim in the Bais HaTalmud of Kelm of one hundred years ago, it is hard to believe that such people lived within recent memory.
Rabbi Shia Geldzhaler once told me that in Antwerp before the War frum Jews did not smile during the Three Weeks prior to Tisha B’Av. Today, even in entirely chareidi neighborhoods, who feels an air of tension during Elul?
During Elul, former talmidim of the Bais HaTalmud of Kelm returned from all over Lithuania to spend the entire month within its holy precincts. Who today can imagine taking off an entire month of work for entirely spiritual pursuits? The pace of modern life does not offer that option.
Of those who are scrupulously careful in halachah we have, Baruch Hashem, many. In Europe, however, they went beyond dikduk b’halachah to seek a level of refinement of character that is the ultimate goal of the halachah. Rabbi Shimon Schwab liked to tell a story involving the great Mirrer Mashgiach, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, that illustrates the point.
As a bochur learning in Mirrer, Rabbi Schwab decided one year just prior to Yom Tov to return home for the holiday. He borrowed money from Reb Yerucham for the trip. Upon his return to Mir, he repaid Reb Yerucham and thanked him. Reb Yerucham sharply criticized him for the expression of gratitude on the grounds that it raised serious halachic issues of ribis (interest).
The next year Rabbi Schwab again returned home for Yom Tov, and once again he had to borrow his train fare from Reb Yerucham. This time, however, he was careful not to thank Reb Yerucham when he repaid the loan. Nevertheless, Reb Yerucham once again castigated him sharply – this time for not saying thank you. Rabbi Schwab explained that the year before the Mashgiach had told him that saying thank you was forbidden. Yes, Rabbi Yerucham replied, but it should at least bother you that you cannot say thank you, and I don’t see on your face that it bothers you.
We have lost the ability to think deeply about anything outside the sugya in front of us — most importantly about ourselves. Prior to the last bein hazemanim, I heard a leading ba’al mussar expounding upon the potential for self-exploration and growth inherent in bein hazemanim, when one is outside of his normal framework of fixed times for learning.
But, he lamented, few use bein hazemanim to develop themselves in ways impossible during the regular yeshiva session. The very idea of reshus, of time where the schedule is not fixed, frightens us, because it forces us to think about how to use that “free” time. That, in turn, requires us to think about ourselves. To avoid doing so, he said, many yungeleit seek out a rav to dictate a schedule for bein hazemanim rather than trying to ascertain their own soul needs.
At no time of the year is it more crucial that we engage in some rigorous self-scrutiny than the forty days between Rosh Chodesh Elul and Yom Kippur. And not surprisingly, at no time of the year are we more acutely aware of how difficult it is for us to do so. The Shofar blasts from the beginning of Elul are designed to awaken us from our spiritual torpor. But too often, we are only aware that davening takes an extra minute.
By the first night of Selichos, we can no longer deny that the Day of Judgment fast approaches. Yet again, we are more conscious of the physical tiredness that results from staying up late or rising early than we are of any particular spiritual awakening. Cramming at the last minute before Rosh Hashanah with Sifsei Chaim or Michtav M’Eliyahu may help a bit. But as the great authors of these works would be the first to tell us, such reading is far removed from the primary preparation of the Aseres Yamei Teshuva.
Too often we arrive at Rosh Hashanah feeling woefully unprepared and wondering what happened to Elul. And unless our fear of missing the boat entirely spurs us into action, Yom Kippur may be no better. As Kol Nidre approaches, we rush around to those nearest and dearest to us to seek their forgiveness. But our requests lack the specificity that would indicated that we have given any serious thought to how we have wronged the particular loved one whose forgiveness is sought. Nor are our ritual assurances that we forgive with a whole heart worth much. On Yom Kippur itself, we too often find ourselves klopping Al Cheit with vague feelings, “Hmm, this one seems to have something to do with me. I wonder what.”
Without a real chesbon hanefesh, some form of regular spiritual diary – of both the positive and negative — we are in no position to ask Hashem or our fellow man for forgiveness. Where there is no recognition of our failures, there can be no genuine regret, which is the starting point of teshuva.
No less important, without an ongoing examination of our actions, we cannot begin to uncover the patterns of our failings and the triggers that set us off. Yet until we understand those patterns, there is no possibility of breaking out of them in the year to come.
The time for that chesbon hanefesh is late and growing later.
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, October 8, 2005