Monday, October 6, 2014
The Steps Not Taken
I had an unplanned reunion this past Yom Kippur and it left me wondering about what might have been.
A little more than 17 years ago, I made the switch from a Dati-Leumi kollel to a Charedi one. Although the move was not made for ideological reasons, my ideology soon began to change. Along with my change in worldview, my religious behavior changed as well. Each day, as I took two busses to get from Har Nof to Old City of Jerusalem, where I was learning at Aish HaTorah, I brought along two seforim in order to not waste a single moment of my commute. The seforim that accompanied me varied from day to day. At times I studied the weekly parsha with the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, other times it might be something halachic or the the gemara I was learning.
One day, for reasons that I no longer remember, I picked up Madregas HaAdam, the mussar (self-improvement) sefer of the Alter of Navardok, Rav Yosef Yozel Horwitz. I didn’t know anything about him or too much about the mussar yeshiva he had founder in Navardok. I was looking for something to challenge me, and the world of mussar, founded by Rav Yisrael Salanter in the mid-19 Century, fascinated me. The Navardok Yeshiva, as opposed to the yeshiva in Slabodka, was said to focus on eradicating the negative traits of man, rather than focusing on and building on the positive. What little familiarity I thought I had with the yeshiva came from hearsay, and a fairly well-known joke.
From the moment I picked up the Madregas HaAdam, it grabbed hold of me. The Alter’s uncompromising demand to be brutally honest with oneself, a demand that I soon learned he he had placed upon himself in a particularly extreme way, was like a punch to the chest. As I went through more of the sefer each day, and started looking deeper into myself, I began to wonder if I had the courage to live according to the Alter’s standards.
After discussing this sefer with a few people within the yeshiva, I was introduced to Rabbi Chaim Willis, whose religious journey had been the subject of a famous article by his sister Ellen (who recently passed away), in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1977. Rabbi Willis had developed a strong connection to the Madregas HaAdam, and was the one who could help me better understand the sefer. He and I spoke for a while, as he told me more about the yeshiva, including how scurrilous and unfair the idea behind the joke had been, and told me that he would be happy to study the sefer with me if I was interested. Despite continuing to study the Madregas HaAdam on my own, I never took Rabbi Willis up on his offer.
One day, on my bus ride home, I looked out the window and noticed for the first time the Novardok Yeshiva of Yerushalayim, which bore the name of its Eastern-European namesake. At first, I was excited, thinking that the yeshiva was alive in more than name only, although I soon learned that I was mistaken. As with other mussar yeshivas, and to a large degree with the serious study of mussar in general, the spirit of the yeshiva had not survived the exodus of Jews from Eastern-Europe to Israel and the US.
I never completed the Madregas HaAdam, and I eventually moved on, not only from the study of mussar, but back to the Modern-Orthodox world of my upbringing. From time to time, I’ve glanced at the Madregas HaAdam, as it gathers dust on my shelf, but other than one glance inside, it remains unopened. That changed on Yom Kippur, figuratively, if not literally. As I worked through Rav Shagar’s Shuvi Nafshi during the many hours I spent in shul, I discovered that the last section of the sefer focused on the Alter and his approach to teshuva in the Madregas HaAdam. Once again, I was taken with the unflinching honesty demanded by the Alter. I suppose, this is the point where a good story would tell you how I was so moved that I decided to jump back in, but I didn’t. The fear that prevented me from making the jump all those years before had only gotten stronger. My path to improvement through the act of teshuva would have to come from someplace different, from someplace softer, from a world in which I was not afraid to live.