This letter is actually a response to one sent to R’ Salanter from his
students whom he’d been writing to all along. It seems that they’d said in
their letter to him that they’d faced strong opposition at home to the
Mussar movement that R’ Salanter had abjured them to set in place, and that
R’ Salanter was now responding to that. R’ Salanter himself experienced a
lot of criticism from opponents and had to draw upon the truth of the need
for Mussar study and its great worth to go forward, and that he was now
asking his students to do the same.
As such, he told them not to “fear the voice of the mighty storm” of
opposition, and that they weren’t to “become anxious” about their prospects
for the future. Indeed, they were to encourage those around them to delve
into Mussar study, since (among other things) it protects those who are
“drowning in the forces of their habitual (untoward) longings”.
After all, he underscored, “the study of Mussar calls out, ‘Life’!” to those
who’d listen to it. That is, Mussar encourages one to live fully cognizant
of his stellar capabilities as a human being, and to delve into that his
whole life long. And R’ Salanter pointed out that in fact the “effort
required” for Mussar study and mastery “is small, while the rewards are great”.
And he wisely offered that if, despite his efforts, a student of Mussar
nonetheless feels “that he hasn’t awakened, and he feels that no impression
(has been made) upon his soul” that he shouldn’t despair, because that will
happen in time and he’ll indeed be elevated.
In fact, that’s how the great Rabbi Akiva grew -- step by step. We’re taught
in Avos d’Rebbe Nossan that Rabbi Akiva was forty years old and hadn’t yet
studied Torah, and he wondered how he’d ever manage to succeed by that point
in his life. Here’s the epiphany that helped.
We’re taught that “once while standing next to a well he wondered (out
loud), ‘Who chiseled this stone?’” He was told that it was the waters that
dripped upon it day by day that chiselled it. So he said, “if what is soft
(the water) can carve what is hard (the stone), then surely words of Torah
which are as hard as iron will (eventually) penetrate my heart, which is
flesh and blood”, which happened in fact.
R’ Salanter’s point is that that can be your experience too if you slowly
but steadily study Mussar texts. (The subtle, unstated implication here is
that the slow encouragement of a Mussar Movement will also eventually
succeed in piercing the hearts of its opponents.)