straight • upright • righteous

newsletter of  The Mussar Institute


January 2013



“An unceasing inner gaze toward one’s responsibility leads to remembrance, remembrance leads to concern, concern leads to confidence, confidence leads to strength and strength leads to serenity and wholeness, internally and externally, in thought and in deed.”   
–  Rabbi Avraham Elya Kaplan

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Through a Mussar Lens: The Masters Teach Us Responsibility Through Their Actions

By Alan Morinis

Alan MorinisRabbi Alter Henoch Leibowitz (1918–2008) was the late Rosh Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens, N.Y., which his father had started in 1933. His father, R’ Dovid, had been a student of the Alter of Slabodka at his Mussar yeshiva in Lithuania. Then, in 1941, when the younger Rabbi Leibowitz was still only in his early 20s, the untimely death of his father thrust him into the role of leading the yeshiva.

The theme for this issue of Yashar is “responsibility”—achrayut, in Hebrew—and what I have already told you about Rabbi Leibowitz reveals a lot about his embodiment of that trait. He was unexpectedly cast into a position of responsibility and he embraced it, building the Chofetz Chaim into one of the foremost yeshivas in the world.

But it is actually another story about Rabbi Leibowitz that struck me as being a more penetrating example of the trait of responsibility that was rooted in his heart. I heard this story from Rabbi Moshe Katz of the Torah Learning Center of Chicago. Rabbi Katz’s mother was Rabbi Leibowitz’s second wife, so Rabbi Katz knew this story first hand, since it concerned his mother.

Rebbetzin Leibowitz did not want her husband to wash the dishes. Once she had to go to an appointment, and to ensure that he didn’t clean the dishes, she put a note on the sink: “Please don’t wash the dishes. There is a problem with the faucet.” When she returned home, she found that Rabbi Leibowitz had moved the dishes into the bathroom and was washing them in the tub.

A person who has grasped the importance of responsibility and has implanted that trait in his or her heart will find opportunities to use it, whether on the large stage of fulfilling their life mission or in the mundane and menial tasks required in their home. In fact, it is the latter that interests me most. I am so suspicious of anyone who says they have a great relationship with God but then in reality does not take care of other people. To me, it is a sign of real spiritual elevation for a person to take care of the small needs of the people around them because that attitude reflects humility and sensitivity, the crown jewels in real spiritual growth.

Many stories about Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, great rabbi, Talmudist and founder of the 19th century Mussar movement, revolve around his caring for the people around him. One of these tells of his being invited to the home of a wealthy man and washing his hands before the meal with only the minimum amount of water required by Jewish law. “Rabbi!” his host exclaimed, “Isn’t it written that he who washes with much water will be blessed with prosperity, as the verse says, ‘The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered’ [Proverbs 11:25]? This house is not lacking for water and so I wonder why you used so little to wash and deprived me of that blessing.”

“Who carries your water from the well?” Rabbi Salanter asked and then answered himself. “Your maid, is it not?”

The man confirmed that the elderly woman who helped out around the house brought the water from the well. Rabbi Salanter concluded: “What kind of blessing would it be if it was carried on the back of a servant whose workload would be unnecessarily increased at your expense?”

Two generations later, we find in a story about Rabbi Yisrael Yaakov Lubchanski (d. 1941; uncle of my Mussar teacher, Rebbetzin Shoshana Perr) that shows that the commitment to responsibility in Mussar circles had not diminished.

At that time, Rabbi Lubchanski was serving as a Mussar supervisor in Baranovich, a town in Eastern Europe. The stove in the synagogue had to be lit early every morning so the room would be warm in time for the morning prayers. In those days, poor people often slept in the synagogue and the caretaker who was supposed to light the fire relied on them to light it. But if no paupers slept in the synagogue, people would arrive to a frigid prayer room. Complaints mounted. But suddenly, all the complaints stopped because the fire was lit every day without fail.

One morning, the caretaker arrived early and found a man with his head inside the furnace blowing to get the fire going. It was still dark and the caretaker assumed it was one of the poor people, and so he jokingly gave him a tap on his rear. Little did he know that he had just kicked Rabbi Lubchanski, who had taken on the responsibility to light the fire every morning, unbeknownst to anyone.  At that moment, R’ Lubchanski realized that if he were to remove his head from the stove, the man would be terribly embarrassed. So he kept his face in the smoky stove until he was sure that the caretaker had moved on, by which time half the ends of his beard had been singed off.

If there is one moment in life when a person could be excused for putting his or her own needs first it would be in one’s final hours. Yet we find it told about Rabbi Meir Chodosh (1898–1989), the Mussar supervisor of the Chevron yeshiva in Israel, that when he was in the hospital with his final illness, he continued to display responsibility for the feelings and well-being of others.

One day a young doctor came into the rabbi’s room to draw blood. Rabbi Chodosh asked everyone to leave the room, which was surprising because he usually liked having his family and close friends present during medical procedures. His visitors protested, but he insisted that they leave him alone with the doctor.

A while later, the blood drawn, the rabbi explained to his visitors, “It’s hard for a doctor to find a vein in an older person’s arm. Usually he has to stick in his needle a few times until he finds one. The problem is compounded for a young doctor because he is inexperienced. I didn’t want him to feel anxious or embarrassed by being watched by so many eyes as he tried to do his job. So I asked you to leave us alone.” Rabbi Chodosh died soon after.

Finally, another story about a last act—in this case R’ Yisrael Salanter. In the closing year of his life when he was ailing, the community assigned someone to assist him with his daily needs. Late one night, R’ Yisrael felt that death was drawing near and he used his last moments on earth to explain to the simple helper that there was nothing to fear about being alone in a room with a corpse and he should not be nervous or frightened. And then he died.

These stories depict in flesh and blood reality the core meaning of the word achrayut. There is debate among scholars whether this word is derived from the Hebrew root achar, which means “after,” or “acher,” which means “other.” In other words, is the essence of responsibility being concerned about what comes after (i.e., the consequences of one’s actions) or to be sensitive to the other (i.e., attending to the needs of the people around you)?

I would say it is both. The beauty and value of the trait of responsibility is the awareness it creates that everything we do has consequences and that those outcomes really matter, whether they play out over time or in the lives of other people. When that sensitivity is ingrained in your heart, it will affect the major decisions and actions you take where the consequences will be so glaringly obvious. But it will also show up in the tiny things you do, like washing the dishes or being alert to the feelings of others.

Indeed, it is one of the truest measures of our souls to demonstrate responsibility in every context, including the lives of the people who are closest to us.


Newsletter Home
Through a Mussar Lens: The Masters Teach Us Responsibility Through Their Actions – by Alan Morinis
Welcome – by Jason Winston
World of Mussar: Seattle, WA – by Shirah Bell
My Mussar Journey – by
The Practice Corner

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