“Is there a fool who’d walk in darkness when there was a brilliant light
shining right in front of him?” R’ Salanter asks. Given that no one would be
such a fool, R’ Salanter asks, Well then, “who wouldn’t reflect upon his
actions in order to draw close to” such a light? That is, is there anyone
who’d dare avoid the truth of the consequences of his actions and settle for
the bleak ignorance of it? It’s unlikely anyone would.
But R’ Salanter then accuses us all of such short-sightedness. And he
counsels that in order to avoid that we’d need to consider the reality of
the Afterlife, where the dark nature of our misdeeds will be made manifest
and truth will shine.
Why don’t we think about that while we’re still alive and can better
ourselves? Because all we care about is our own reputations and good name,
he says. And as a consequence “our minds are in turmoil, and our energies
are drained” in pursuit of that rather than our ultimate status.
We thus neglect Torah study as a result (after all, there’s only so much
time in a day, and if a chunk of it is spent concentrating on that, then
what time is left for Torah?), and we grow lax in our mitzvah-observance and
in character development.
What can we do, he asks rhetorically? We can concentrate on Mussar study
right here and now, and learn how to set our spiritual priorities. For
Mussar will remind us that life is short, and that we’ll all eventually be
called upon to answer for our actions in this world. Indeed, Mussar itself
is the great light that shines right before our eyes alluded to above and
our avoidance of it is the terrible darkness.
“Set up daily, fixed times” to study it, R’ Salanter suggested. And do all
you can to stick to that schedule. Study the very most ennobling works, he
continues, and study them with fervor, slowly, intently, emotionally, and
consciously (see R’ Salanaters’ Innovations ) so as to be inspired and
Turning directly to his disciples to whom this letter is actually addressed,
he makes this point. Be patient, though, when it comes to yourself (and
don’t expect quick change), and humble when it comes to others. For his
disciples were to have others study Mussar too, and were nevertheless not to
consider themselves better than others.
And they were each to use the unique gifts granted them from G-d to
accomplish that end rather than think that one has to be someone he actually
isn’t. To be sure, this last point is specified to R’ Salanter’s disciples,
as we said, but the truth is that we all need to take that to heart.