Taking Mussar to Heart

Vay’dabeir Hashem el Moshe acharei mos shnei bnei Aharon (Vayikra 16:1)

In commanding Aharon not to enter the Kodesh Kodashim without permission, the Torah invokes the death of Aharon’s sons who approached Hashem improperly. Rashi compares this to the case of a sick person who needed to be warned not to eat cold food or sleep in a damp place. One doctor simply gave him the instructions, while a second doctor added, “Unless you do so, you will die like so-and-so died.” Because the warning of the second doctor is much more effective, Hashem similarly told Moshe to convey the mitzvah to Aharon in this manner. The Darkei Mussar points out that it is astonishing to realize that we are discussing somebody as righteous as Aharon, who certainly would have followed Hashem’s instructions even without the implied threat of punishment. From the fact that even somebody on the level of Aharon, who was considered equal to Moshe in his spiritual accomplishments (Rashi Shemos 6:26), still needed additional warnings to reinforce his adherence to the mitzvos, we can appreciate how much we on our levels need to study mussar to strengthen our commitment to the Torah.

Unfortunately, intellectual knowledge of what a person is supposed to do is insufficient, as we see from Hashem’s interaction with Aharon. Until that cerebral awareness is able to be impressed upon the heart, it won’t be strong enough to guide and direct a person’s actions and decisions. The Alter of Kelm commented that just as Reuven’s knowledge has no impact on the actions of Shimon, so too the information that somebody possesses in his mind is unable to influence the choices of his heart, as the distance between the mind and the heart is effectively the same as the distance separating two different people. The only proven and effective means to transfer intellectual knowledge to the heart is through the passionate study of mussar, just as Hashem used to help Aharon internalize this mitzvah. For this reason, the Torah requires us to recite Shema twice daily, as our mental awareness of the mitzvah to love Hashem is insufficient unless we repeatedly transfer this knowledge to our hearts.

Harav Yisrael Salanter’s three best-known students were the Alter of Kelm, Harav Itzele Blazer, and Harav Naftali Amsterdam. The Alter of Kelm was renowned for his mussar study. Rav Itzele Blazer was famous for his brilliant Torah insights. Rav Naftali Amsterdam was known for his diligent Torah study, to the point that he had a fixed subject to study whenever he was going to get a drink of water.

Once, on a long and cold Friday night in the winter, they sat and studied together until their candle went out. At that point, Rav Naftali Amsterdam announced that he was tired and went to sleep. Rav Itzele Blazer continued his in-depth study of a complicated section of the Gemara in Bava Basra (26b). The Alter of Kelm rested his head on a lectern and proceeded to spend the entire night repeating to himself the verses (Tehillim 118:19–21): “Pischu li shaarei tzedek avo vam odeh K-ah, zeh ha’shaar l’Hashem tzaddikim yavo’u vo, ode’cha ki anisani — Open for me the gates of righteousness, and I will come into them and thank Hashem; this is the gate to Hashem, to which the righteous come; I thank You (Hashem) for You have afflicted me.”

The Alter explained that when a person asks Hashem to open for him the gates of righteousness so that he can ascend and come close to Hashem and thank Him, Hashem replies that the key to reaching these heights is the ability to thank Hashem for causing him to suffer in order to atone for his sins. The Alter understood that the key to internalizing lessons so that they guide our decisions is the repeated and intense study of mussar until they enter the heart, and he therefore remained awake in the dark for the entire night repeating and internalizing this lesson.

Q: How is it possible that somebody became Biblically impure and was able to become pure without having to wait for sunset?

Q: How was Yaakov permitted to marry Rochel and Leah, two sisters, which is forbidden (Vayikra 18:18) by the Torah?

A: Although a living animal is ritually pure, the Torah decrees that the man who is in charge of transporting the goat to Azazel on Yom Kippur becomes ritually impure as soon as he exits the walls of Jerusalem. After completing his mission, the Torah requires him to immerse both his clothing and himself in a mikveh, at which point he may reenter the Jewish camp. The Ibn Ezra comments that the immersion alone suffices to render him pure and he is not required to wait until sundown. Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, notes that this is quite unusual, as it is the only case of a person who is Biblically impure yet is able to become pure even before sunset..

A:The Ramban maintains that the Avos only kept the mitzvos in Eretz Yisrael, whereas Yaakov married them outside the Land of Israel. The Moshav Zekeinim answers that Rochel and Leah were only paternal sisters, and before the Torah was given relationships were determined through the maternal side. Alternatively, he suggests that Rochel and Leah were considered converts, and the Gemara rules (Yevamos 97b) that a person who converts is legally considered newly-born and no longer related to his blood relatives. The Nefesh Hachaim answers that the Avos only observed the mitzvos as a stricture not required by the law, with the flexibility to act otherwise when called for by the situation. In this case, Yaakov recognized that marrying both Rochel and Leah was necessary for the spiritual future of the Jewish people, so he did so. Finally, the Rema writes that although the Gemara teaches (Yoma 28b) that Avraham observed all of the mitzvos, this wasn’t the case with Yitzchak or Yaakov.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.