Time to Think about Ourselves

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[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

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9 Responses

  1. Mordechai says:

    For the record, R. Joshua Geldzahler is not of Litvish background, rather Hassidic (even if his Rebbetzin is Litvish). Also the fact is that Antwerp was/is not a Litvish city. There were/are many Galicianer Yidden living there.

  2. ksh says:

    “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.”

    Students in prewar yeshivas in Europe were a selected elite; i find this hard to believe. From a sum total of several thousand prewar yeshiva bochurim, I think I could name from personal knowledge 100 gaonim, and I have no special knowledge of this sort of thing. Of course the style of learning has changed, esp when compared to Poland (but this is not necessarily an umitigated blessing or a blessing at all).

    “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.”

    With some trepidation, I’ll say that a) I’ve always disliked this story and b) disliked even more that people repeat it so happily. What is the lesson that one is supposed to draw from this story? To me, it illustrates that mashigichim had fairly intrusive and somewhat manipulative relationships with their students, which they may well have used to good effect most often, but which is a serious drawback both of the mussar movement as it was practiced, and one that haunts our society to this day. I suspect, further, that what was intended was a personal lesson to a relatively yekkish personality, and not a lesson for general consumption, and these type of stories were almost always geared to the individual student, personally, not meant as general lessons to apply equally to all.

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    Unlike DovBear, I don’t see R’ Yonason admiring wars, sickness or early deaths. They also had all of those during the era of the Tanaim and Amoraim — should we not admire the level of learning that the Tanaim and Amoraim achieved?

    As for those who left their jobs… it’s funny, people leave their jobs for several weeks at a time in our day, and many of them are hardly unemployed. On the contrary, they head off on a cruise or to lay out in Cancun. It all depends upon what they consider more important than their jobs. It’s a great pity that even some Orthodox people can’t even imagine putting Elul in that category, much less doing it.

    Manny could be right, but was Nitra under Nazi control “in the 1930’s”? Until late in that decade, did people in Slovakia imagine what would happen to Europe? [The Czech portions of Czechoslovakia were taken by the Nazis in 1939, and only later that year, after the last Three Weeks of the 1930’s, did Slovakia become a Nazi puppet state under Jozef Tiso.]

  4. Manny says:

    sarah elias: “a description of the Jewish community of Nitra, Slovakia… in the 1930s… Upon visiting the shul, he encountered the entire population sitting on the floor and sobbing as if they had just received a telegram from Jerusalem informing them of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. We are not talking the yeshiva bochurim, we’re talking “simple” baalei-batim and storekeepers. These were “amoliger Yidden” and we are so far from their madreiga that we can’t even imagine someone being on that level.”

    I would argue that this behavior among the “simple baalei-batim” is likely due in large part to the experience of living in 1930’s Eastern Europe, with rampant anti-semitism and the rise of the Nazi party…

  5. DovBear says:

    I hate to rain on the nostalgia parade, but it wasn’t so great in the old days. Remember the wars? The sickness? The early deaths? Moreover, if people could abandon their jobs to spend a whole month in Kelm, it only means that they were unemployed.

  6. Joshua says:

    Jonathan,
    You are very correct in what you said about people asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur. People ask people who they really didn’t do anything to or they know they will forgive
    them. My father use to say the people that we really had a fight with or a dispute those are the people we should be calling to ask forgiveness but how many of us do this? I think the one thing that needs to be done is a way to prevent machlokes many things that are written unfortunately create disputes. I think we must all work together to create harmony. In the sefer Prach Mateh Arhon written by Hagaon Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes about how Rav Chaim his gerandfather went to ask forgiveness of people. The story I am sure is wriiten elsewhere and everyone should read it before Yom Kippur. A Gmar Chasima Tova to everyone.

    Sincerely,

    Joshua Nathan

  7. sarah elias says:

    Not only the Litvish world. There is a description of the Jewish community of Nitra, Slovakia (Oberlander, minhag Chasam Sofer Jews, far from Litvish) written by someone who visited in the 1930s during the Nine Days. He arrived at noon, and found all the Jewish shops closed and not a Jewish soul on the street. Upon visiting the shul, he encountered the entire population sitting on the floor and sobbing as if they had just received a telegram from Jerusalem informing them of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash. We are not talking the yeshiva bochurim, we’re talking “simple” baalei-batim and storekeepers. These were “amoliger Yidden” and we are so far from their madreiga that we can’t even imagine someone being on that level.

  8. Edvallace says:

    Yoinoson,

    I would suggest that the attitude that YR discusses probably was not descriptive of the Chassidic community in general who were more into Simcha. Rather it typified the Litvishe Yeshivah communities and their ilk. In places like Telshe, Kelm, Slabodka and the like, this attitude was the norm. The saying in Lita was that “during Elul even the fish trembled in the water.”

  9. Yoinoson Schreiber says:

    I lived in Antwerp in the ’70’s and early ’80’s. Several people I knew including close relations had lived in Antwerp before the war and had survived the camps. To suggest that they wouuldn’t smile during the three weeks is ridiculous. They were chassidish inclined ballei battim, staunchly chareidi, but not in the way you wish to suggest.