Chicago Chesed Fund

Friday, July 23, 2021

Baalei Mussar

 I recently was talking to a scion of the Novarodoker dynasty, and I learned a remarkable thing. 

I said that my father zatzal was a baal mussar. As years pass after my father's petirah, I realize more and more what a great man he was. I always knew that he saved many lives during the war, and fed and clothed and healed many bnei Torah in Samarkahnd when so many were dying in the streets of exposure and starvation. I always knew that he led a group of Yeshiva-lait from Russia to Soviet Asia - my mother's first notice of my father was at a gathering in Moscow, where the olam was trying to figure out what to do, and she saw his stand up and point to the east and say better to go to Uzbekistan rather than starve in Moscow.  I always knew he was from the best talmidim in Slabodkah - he learned bechavrusa for ten years, all day and all night, with Reb Leizer Platzinsky, the alter's grandson, who had his choice of chavrusas.  And the Rogatchover said "Der Yekke ken maseches Shabbos!" But only with the passage of time have I realized what a great Baal Mussar he was. He never said a bad or vulgar word or lost his temper, but he was a lion in business and in yashrus. He never took a penny that might not have been his. He dedicated his life to learning Torah and harbotzas Torah. He treated his wife with the greatest respect and deference under very challenging circumstances. A friend of mine, Reb Dov Peikus, is a nephew of Reb Aharon and Rebbitzen Ella Soloveichik, and he lived in their house for a year before his uncle's yeshiva had a dormitory.  He told me that his uncle never referred to my father by his first name. In all the private conversations in the house, he was always Rabbi Eisenberg. Reb Ahron! Who knew Yerushalmi Baal Peh!

When I said this, that I only now realize what a Baal Mussar my father was, the reaction was  immediate and dismissive - he was a great man but he was not a Baal Mussar at all.

So I learned that even, and perhaps especially, in the great Mussar families, the insularity and provincialism that characterizes Jewish communities is alive and well. He was not a Baal Mussar. We are Baalei Mussar. 

It's a remarkable thing. Evidently, you can be a noach lichos and noteir eiva and kasheh leratzos and rodeph kavod and betza and meracheik krovim, but you can be a Baal Mussar anyway, because all these things, whether you, ignoramus that you are, realize it or not, are really lesheim shamayim and davka what a Baal Mussar should do.


  1. Was he a gornisht? ��

    1. Thank you. I think you're right. The mussar of Slabodkeh never emphasized that. This does not take away from my complaint, though. Of all people, a baal mussar, especially one who is a certified "gornicht," ought to recognize that there are other equally meaningful ways to be a baal mussar.

  2. I believe Anonymous was making reference to an old famous joke of which the punchline is (in yiddish, and there are a few versions) "look who thinks he's a gornisht!"- I was also immediately reminded of that joke when I read this post.

    1. Yes, good old joke. Like the best old jokes, it contains a truth, and in this case, a deep truth. It's easy to convince yourself that you have vanquished your gaava and negiyus, "ליבי חלל בקרבי," but in most cases, if not in all cases, it is just willful self delusion.
      But the reaction I had when I read it is that Reb Yisroel Salanter's mussar movement truly quickly came to comprise many disparate and sometimes incompatible ideas. How exactly to describe that I would leave to the experts, such as my friend Rabbi Yitzchak Resnick, who has made a serious study of this question.