by Micha Berger
You will know today and answer to your heart
that Hashem is the G-d
in the heavens above and on the earth below —
there is none other.
– Devarim 4:39
There has been much attention given lately to the “crisis of connection”. We are a generation where the observant community is more informed than any before (perhaps since King Chizkiyahu; c.f. Sanhedrin 94b), but we mourn our lack of the kind of connection with the Almighty that came more readily to our parents and grandparents. We have started exploring ways to not only inform, to put concepts into our heads, but inculcate values into our hearts. Knowing something is a bad idea doesn’t always translate into making right decisions. (Otherwise, I would have lost that extra weight a long time ago!) Somehow we have to get ideas from the head into the heart, into our passions and motivations.
This need is also a critical part of dealing with another topic that the community has (finally) started realize it’s full life-changing potential — living in a world where the internet plays an increasing role, despite the challenges the internet makes all too available. We need to not only rely on external tools to minimized temptation, but in addition to find tools that help us resist temptation.
This notion of inculcation was a central part of the problem Rav Yisrael Salanter was addressing when he founded the Mussar Movement. Different people may find Mussar’s approach to framing Judaism more or less appealing than other approaches. But I want to just look at one of the tools he developed, which can be used to instill into the roots of our souls what we intellectually know regardless of which derech, which path in Judaism, you find best fits your own proclivities, abilities and weaknesses.
In his first letter (Ohr Yisrael pg. 42), Rav Yisrael was writing to students who were looking to connect, but didn’t have a supportive community. Among his first recommendations was to form a group that would meet weekly, on Shabbos, “to contemplate understandings of how to improve the quality” of their souls. This would provide peer support in their quest, and build a sense of community, as well as give each member of the group the resources of the others, their ideas and their more objective perception of the member’s current hurdles. This is a group that doesn’t meet to learn a text, but to work together to figure out how to apply it to their own lives. A mechanism to solve our problem of going beyond informing and actually inculcating the Torah’s values.
While Rav Yisrael worked primarily with homeowners and future rabbinic leaders, Mussar didn’t attract nearly as many members among the “balebatim” as it did as an educational movement. With this shift from adults to the yeshiva setting, this notion of group work also adjusted. The meetings usually centered around a mentor, the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counselor). This meant that they weren’t going to be specifically on Shabbos, since a yeshiva would have many groups but only one mashgiach. I write “usually” — some were run by the more advanced students at the yeshiva, and others were run by the members themselves, in rotation.
Rav Yisrael Salanter taught R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv (the “Alter of Kelm” 1824-1898), who took his rebbe’s ideas and founded the first Mussar Yeshiva, Kelm. One of the students there, Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel (the “Alter of Slabodka”, 1849–1927) gave it a prominent role in his yeshiva, where it became known as a Mussar Va’ad (from the Hebrew for “committee”). And because of the support Slabodka shared with other yeshivos, the va’ad idea reached beyond those who strictly called themselves Mussarists, in places like Mir and Grodna.
The shuls of today have grown in scope from being a place of prayer to becoming a destination for daf yomi, parasha shiurim, and other learning. Similarly, as we address this Crisis of Connection, the shul again would be the logical home for va’ad work for those of us beyond yeshiva age. We at The AishDas Society have had success since 2008 with what we call an “eVaad”, a va’ad meeting by conference call and supported with email. Still, we see this alternative as a second-best alternative, not as powerful as meeting with friends live, but perhaps the only option for someone who cannot find a core group in their neighborhood.
A typical rosh va’ad could be a rabbi or perhaps a more learned member of the shul, such as the sort who often steps up to give the daf yomi shiur. Or if no one is available, and the members have the skills themselves, they can run the va’ad like a chaburah, taking turns. To help a va’ad leader who doesn’t yet have experience in this area. or to lower the demand on a member whose turn it is to prepare his own va’ad, there are even texts with prewritten va’adim, such as the second volume of Alei Shur (R’ Shlomo Wolbe, 1914-2005) or Sifsei Chaim: Middos vaAvodas Hashem (R’ Chaim Friedlander, 1923-1986).
So what is a va’ad?
A va’ad is a group of 4 to 15 members who meet weekly, or at least every other week. There are groups today who hold ve’adim with a rosh va’ad (mentor), as well as those that run more like a chaburah, taking turns in leadership. While every meeting is organized around a text, the focus of the meeting is on how to apply the ideas in that text to our lives. What does it say that we have troubles accepting, or what do we have no difficulty seeing as truth, but difficulty achieving ourselves? And after the group feels they have a clear sense of where they wish to proceed in the topic, they would select together some step they could take, an avodah. It should be something clear and measurable, that incrementally moves them toward that ideal. This isn’t a class — the focus is on the work. Between meetings, members are available for support, around the shul, by phone, and our eVaad has an email group where you can reach everyone when something comes up. At the beginning of the next meeting, there is discussion of the progress and challenges since the prior meeting both in the area the va’ad is focusing on and in any other area in Judaism someone might want the groups insight about. And then that meeting’s text is introduced. One topic is explored for anywhere from a month to a half year, each meeting progressing one step further.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by example:
Say a shul board, or several people in the shul, decided to work on the respect they give tefillah. Not that they had a problem knowing that prayer is important, but they wanted something to help carry that through to practice. They could decide that it reflects a need to develop more sense of standing before the Almighty among the membership, and the board decides that a va’ad on the topic would not only develop such awareness in the participants, but play a large role in changing the shul’s culture in general.
The rabbi lacks the time to take on another project, so they ask one of the more Jewishly literate members of the congregation to do so. After talking it over, they announce to the shul that they will be forming a group that will be exploring “Shevisi Hashem lenegdi tamid — I place Hashem before me, always”. The new rosh va’ad is nervous with the board’s request, though; while he has given classes in shul before, this entire va’ad idea is unfamiliar territory.
Opening up Alei Shur, he finds a set of six ve’adim on Tefillah (vol. II, pp. 347-358). The first week, he presents some inspiring thoughts on the meaning and import of prayer. And the group commits to trying the exercises, the avodos, Rabbi Wolbe offers for the end of that first va’ad:
Go to bed punctually, wake up early enough to daven calmly. And you should wait at least one minute before prayer. This is in addition to the other preparations when getting up — they themselves are the practical actions that are mandated by “praying calmly”, and it is them we are obligated to take study and take personal lesson.
When they meet the second week, they open by discussing their experiences with the exercise. They could perhaps decide they could gain more by continuing with this practice a second week, or perhaps they are ready to move on. The group continues to meet to discuss tefillah, and week after week progress incrementally with exercises that reinforce proper and prayer.
Over time, the group takes tefillah more seriously, and they naturally would be less bored and less motivated to talk during davening. And through their change, their friends and the culture of the shul shifts. Davening is
Topics could range from proper prayer to doing more chessed, having more patience with one’s children, trusting in the Almighty, increasing willpower and mindfulness in a world with internet, any value that the Torah compels us to internalize. The va’ad enhances our toolset by incorporating both thoughts that can inspire and experiences that alter our habits and eventually our character. Many people in our community are grasping and trying to pull ourselves up in ruchniyus. We may go regularly to daf yomi, work on shemiras halashon, learn with our children, and engage in chessed, but still experience our observance as rote observance or feel disconnected from Yiddishkeit. A vaad brings people within a focused orbit and is well suited for inculcating those things that we know with our heads, but have difficulty carrying that one ammah (cubit) downard to our hearts.
(If you are interested in setting up a va’ad, I or someone else at AishDas
Rabbi Micha Berger established The AishDas Society, a community of Orthodox Jews using mussar’s and other tools to create a synthesis of the “aish”, the fire of inspiration and faith, with the “das” of halachic observance, to create a Judaism that both fully is and yet is greater than either of the parts. He is also a computer programmer in the financial industry.