Everything has its consequences. Take a left turn rather than a right, for
example, and the course of history shifts; say yes rather than no, or the
reverse, and nothing will ever be the same. That goes for our ethical and
mitzvah-based choices all the more so: each decision to do this rather than
that has its worldly or other-worldly repercussions, some of which are dire.
The point of the matter is that if I were to do something particularly wrong
to someone else, not only would he be harmed in the process -- I would be,
too, and perhaps to an unimaginable degree.
That was the Mussar theme that R’ Salanter most especially dwelt upon, and
the full understanding of its implications is termed Yirat HaOnesh --
fearing the penalty that can come upon you if you harm someone (or go
against G-d’s intentions on other levels).
In fact, he contended that the first and most fundamental thing anyone who
hoped to achieve spiritual excellence would need is to take the
repercussions of his misdeeds very, very seriously, and to worry about them.
And R’ Salanter derived this from the frankly intimidating idea that each
one of us is to be acutely aware of “where you’re heading (after death) and
before Whom you’re to give an account and a reckoning” for all of your deeds
in life (Pirkei Avot 3:1).
But most of us would definitely not like to focus on death and its
aftermath. It’s too frightening and depressing. We’d rather concentrate on
life and its beauty.
“The fact is, it’s kind of astonishing though that mankind doesn’t
concentrate on acquiring this” -- the fear of punishment, R’ Salanter is
noted as having said, what with “all the calamities that force themselves
onto the world that agitate the soul to its core, and which would be
expected to fill one’s heart with dread” anyway, but which somehow don’t. We
prefer to not concentrate on such things.
But R’ Salanter likened that to hiding under your pillows at the crack of
thunder in the night and sticking your fingers in your ears, and imagining
that that will save you from harm! But in fact there’s no escaping the fact
that every action has its eternal and temporal consequences, and that each
one of us is to consider the role we ourselves play in those we brought on
to others, and those we ourselves will have to bear.
R’ Salanter made the point that some people shun Mussar study just to avoid
these ideas. But he offered that that shouldn’t be so, since the fear of
punishment doesn’t just come over you from the first: it takes years and
concentrated Mussar study to come upon it, so you should study it for all
the other good things you’ll derive from doing that. Secondly, you’ll be so
absorbed in your study and captivated by the ideas you come upon there that
you won’t belabor the point and won’t be saddened by it after all. And you’d
also be so drawn by the notion of your fulfilling your personal potential as
a human being and as a Jew that you’ll only want to go on with your studies.
Still and all, if you’d rather not concentrate on the above, then there’s a
world of inspiring material in Mussar literature that would encourage you
onward. You might want to concentrate instead on the bounteous reward due
the righteous in the afterlife in contrast to what’s due the wrongful; or to
focus on G-d’s benevolence, His caring for and His watching over us all the
time, and so much more.