Rabbi Bernard Fox




“And he (Moshe) spoke to Korach and all of his congregation saying, “In the morning Hashem will make known who is His and who is sanctified He will draw close to Himself.  Who He chooses, He will draw close to Himself.”  (BeMidbar 16:5)

Should we devote time to the study of mussar (moral discipline)?  It would be best by defining the term mussar.  But the term is not easy to accurately define.  Mussar is not so much a subject matter as it is a process of study with a specific objective.  It is easiest to understand the term mussar in relation to this objective.  At a basic level, mussar is study directed towards motivating the student to conduct himself in everyday life in a manner consistent with the Torah.  In other words, mussar responds to a specific problem.  Knowing how to behave does not necessarily translate into proper behavior. A student can study Torah and understand halacha and the expectations of the Torah but yet encounter difficulty in converting knowledge into action.  Mussar is designed to address this issue.  It is designed to provide encouragement and the motivation needed to advance from knowledge to action.


Based on this definition, it seems clear that the study of mussar is invaluable.  But there is substantial controversy regarding the study of mussar.   In fact, various of the Roshei Yeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva discouraged students in the Yeshiva from studying mussar.  At least one even referred to the study of mussar as a distraction from the study of Torah.[1]


This controversy is difficult to understand.  What is the basis for this discord regarding the study of mussar?


There is an interesting account of a debate between Rav Chaim Soloveitchik and Rebbi Yitzchok Belzer regarding the study of mussar that may illuminate the issue.  Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was one of the last Roshei Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva.  As mentioned above, the study of mussar was not encouraged by the Yeshiva.  Rebbi Yitzchok Belzer appealed to Rav Chaim to reconsider the Yeshiva’s stance.  He supported his arguments with a comment from the Talmud in Tractate Berachot.  The Talmud explains that a person should always incite his yetzer ha’tov – his good inclination against his yetzer ha’ra – his evil inclination.  If a person cannot overcome his yetzer ha’ra by this means, then he should immerse himself in the study of Torah.  If this measure is not effective, he should read the Shema.  As a final resort – when all else fails – the person should contemplate his day of death.[2]  Rebbi Yitzchok Belzer believed that this final measure represents a mussar approach.  Therefore, it is clear that the Sages of the Talmud endorsed the study and methods of mussar.


Rav Chaim pointed out that there is another text from the Talmud in Tractate Succah that seems to contradict the comments of the Sages in Tractate Berachot.  The Sages comment that if a person encounters the yetzer ha’ra, the person should take his yetzer ha’ra to the bait midrash.[3]  In other words, the best response to the yetzer ha’ra is to change one’s focus and concentrate on the study of Torah.  Rav Chaim explained that the two texts do not contradict each other.  In order to resolve the apparent contradiction between the texts, Rav Chaim offered an analogy.  If a person is suffering from digestive problems, a doctor might prescribe castor oil.  But for a healthy person, it would not be advisable to take this medication.  In fact, use of this medication would make the healthy person ill.  Based on this analogy, Rav Chaim explained the two texts.  I person who is spiritually ill needs to be treated.  The treatment for this ill person may include counseling the person to more carefully consider his mortality – a motivational or mussar approach.  But a person who is healthy should instead respond to the impulses of his yetzer ha’ra by focusing on Torah study.  For this healthy person, contemplation of mortality – or the study of mussar may very well have a negative psychological impact.[4]


It is not our purpose here to remark on this debate between Rav Chaim and Rebbi Yitzchok Belzer.  But the debate does provide an insight into the nature of mussar.  Two observations emerge from this debate.  First, Rav Chaim understood that there is a clear difference between the study of Torah – in its purist form – and the study of mussar.  The objective in pure Torah study is to understand the Torah.  Once the student shifts the emphasis of his study from seeking an understanding of the Torah to other more personal objectives, the student is no longer studying Torah in the ideal manner.  Second, it is apparent from Rav Chaim’s analysis that the very nature of mussar dictates that it cannot be regarded as ideal Torah study.  Because the objective of mussar is specifically, the reworking of the personality and the evocation of personal motives to deny the urges of the yetzer ha’ra, it diverges from pure Torah study – devoted to seeking a deeper understanding to the Torah.


Rav Dov Katz, in his study of the mussar movement, objects to the perspective articulated by Rav Chaim.  He argues that the Torah is not just a work of law.  It includes a lengthy account of the lives of the Avot – the forefathers.  Other narratives discuss the redemption of Bnai Yisrael from Egypt and their experiences in the wilderness – including their various shortcomings.  These narratives are sources of personal moral instruction.  Rav Katz asks, “Is this not mussar?”[5]


Maimonides seems to echo this sentiment.  He explains that one of the fundamental principles of Torah Judaism is that the entire Torah was revealed to Moshe at Sinai.  He explains that this revelation includes not only the laws but also the narrative portion of the Torah.  He adds that every element of the Torah – including the narrative sections – is the source of unimaginable wisdom.[6]  If we accept the contention that mussar is the essential objective of these narrative section, then Maimonides’ comments seem to confirm Rav Katz’s contention that Torah and mussar are inseparable. 


This week’s parasha offers an opportunity to explore more carefully the contention that the Torah itself includes accounts that are akin to mussar in their very nature.  The parasha discusses the rebellion of Korach and his followers.  The Torah explains that Korach and his followers objected to Moshe’s assignment of positions of leadership to himself, Aharon and to others.  It seems that Korach and his cohorts coveted these various positions and wished to challenge Moshe’s right to appoint the leadership.  Moshe attempted to reason with his opponents.  The Torah does not explain in detail these conversations or debates.  But Rashi provides a description of one of Moshe’s responses to this upraising.  Moshe explained that Hashem created the universe with boundaries.  For example, night is separated from day.  It is impossible to convert the day to night or the night to day.  Similarly Hashem created boundaries within Bnai Yisrael.  He separated Aharon to be the Kohen Gadol.  Just as the boundary between day and night cannot be opposed, so too, the status conferred on Aharon cannot be reversed.[7]


Rashi’s account of Moshe’s appeal is difficult to understand.  It seems that Moshe’s main point is that he did not appoint Aharon as Kohen Gadol.  He was merely following Hashem’s directive.  He is telling Korach and his followers that there is nothing to be gained by opposing him – Moshe.  Hashem is the source of Aharon’s appointment.  But if this is Moshe’s appeal, his reference to the boundaries that Hashem established between night and day is superfluous.  Why did Moshe stress the immutable nature of these boundaries?


In order to more fully understand Rashi’s comments, let us consider a related issue.  The Torah commands us not to covet.  We are also commanded to not desire the possessions of another person.  These two commandments are included in the Decalogue.  Maimonides discusses both of these commandments in his code of law the Mishne Torah.  We would expect these two mitzvot to be included in the section of Maimonides’ code that deals with midot – character traits.  But instead, Maimonides incorporates the discussion of these mitzvot in the laws concerning robbery.  Maimondes provides an insight into his reasoning.  Before we consider Maimondies’ comments on this issue, we must clarify some terms.  The prohibition against desiring a friend’s property is violated once one begins to contemplate how one might pressure his friend to part with the desired object.  The mitzvah prohibiting coveting is violated if this plan is put into action.  Based on these definitions, Maimonides explains the desire leads to coveting.  If the pressure does not lead to the friend selling or delivering the desired object, the coveting leads to robbery.[8]  It seems that this reasoning provides the rational for placing the mitzvot prohibiting desiring and coveting in the laws concerning robbery.


However, Maimonides’ assertion that desiring a friend’s property may ultimately leads to theft seems to be extreme.  It is possible to imagine the unfolding of the scenario that Maimonides describes.  But it does not seem that this scenario is completely probable.  What is the point in suggesting a scenario that seems somewhat remote?


Perhaps, Maimonides’ point is that the underlying attitude expressing in desiring and coveting someone else’s property is the same attitude that underlies robbery.  In order to be drawn into violating the prohibitions against desiring and coveting someone else’s property two basic elements must at work.  First, the object must be something that attracts the person.  For example, my friend may have a wonderful set of water skies.  But I am not at all interested in water skiing.  So, I will not desire or covet the skies.  Second, the person must be able to form a fantasy of the object being his.  I think the White House is a nice home.  But I cannot imagine myself as one of its residents.  So, it is not likely that I am in danger of violating the prohibitions against desiring or coveting someone else’s property as a result of my interest in the White House.  Now, the first of these elements is not really the problem.  There is nothing wrong with being attracted to material objects – as long as we don’t become overwhelmed by the pursuit of material ends.  But the second element is of concern.  The fantasy that someone else’s property can be mine is a denial of the ownership rights of that person.  His property is his property and no one else has any right to it.  The moment a person indulges in the fantasy of possessing someone else’s property, this person has lost sight of the boundaries that halacha creates through property rights.


Now, we can better understand Maimonides’ comments on the relationship between desiring, coveting and robbery.  The violation of the prohibition against desiring involves indulging a fantasy that is contrary to the reality of the property rights established by halacha.  Coveting is a further indulgence of this fantasy and a further deterioration of the person’s grasp of reality.  Once coveting occurs the basic attitude underlying robbery has been established and reinforced.  The person who desires and then covets is lost in fantasy and has lost sight of the reality of the other person’s ownership.  This may not result in robbery.  The person may be afraid to go this next step or not act out his fantasy for other reasons.  But nonetheless, that basic attitude underlying robbery has been firmly established.


This interpretation of Maimonides comments is confirmed by Rashi’s account of Moshe’s appeal.  Although Korach and his followers may not have technically violated the prohibition against desiring and coveting – they were not seeking property – their basic attitude was the same as that underlying these two prohibitions.  They were wholly absorbed in the fantasy that the leadership roles that Moshe had assigned could be theirs.  Moshe appeal was directed towards this fantasy.  He explained that just as day cannot be night, they cannot acquire these roles.  Hashem – Who created the boundaries between day and night – also assigned the position of Kohen Gadol to Aharon.  Imagining themselves in these leadership roles was as far removed from reality as imaging that day could be night!


Let us consider whether this lesson is mussar – as Rav Chaim understood the term.   Moshe was not attempting to evoke a countervailing fear or sense of shame that would suppress the rebellion.  He was not telling Korah and his cohorts to contemplate their deaths or to merely consider the guidance of their consciences.  Moshe’s appeal does not include any type of motivational material.  He was appealing to the rational or intellectual faculties of his opponents.  He was demonstrating the error in their thinking and indicating that their desires were founded upon a flawed and fantastic view of reality.  The approach used by Moshe was very different from Rav Chaim’s conception or mussar.  In fact, Moshe employed an approach that was the opposite of Rav Chaim’s understanding to the mussar approach.  He did not attempt to motivate by appealing to an internal fear or impulse.  Instead, he asked his opponents to rise above their subjective perceptions and fantasies and look at the issue from a strictly objective – truth seeking – perspective.


Using this example as a model, we can anticipate Rav Chaim’s response to Rav Katz’s contention that the Torah itself includes mussar.  It is true that the Torah includes vast narrative sections.  It is also true that these sections are designed to serve as a source of moral instruction.  However, it is important to recognize that according to Rav Chaim, not all moral instruction can be defined as mussar.  When the instruction is primarily motivational, then the lesson can be regarded as mussar.  However, material that is primarily designed to reveal a fundamental truth – even an ethical or moral truth – would not be regarded as mussar.  Rav Chaim would argue that the narrative sections of the Torah are not intended to be merely inspirational or motivational.  Instead, the Torah demands that we guide our lives by truth and these sections reveal fundamental truths.  Therefore, he would not agree with the contention that the Torah is permeated with mussar lessons.


Again, this discussion is not intended to evaluate the value of the study of mussar.  However, hopefully this discussion does provide some insight into the nature of the debate.


[1] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on Pirke Avot, p 2, note 3.

[2] Mesechet Berachot 5a.

[3] Mesechet Succah 50b.

[4] Rav Y. Hershkowitz, Torat Chaim on Pirke Avot, p 2.

[5] Rav Dov Katz, Tnuat HaMussar, pp. 22-24.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 16:5.

[8] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Gezaylah Ve’Aveydah 1:9-12.