30 May 2012


We ate one of the Shavuos meals with a gentleman who is full of stories of the previous generation.
It is surprising how many such gadol-quips have become common knowledge, but also how many have not. To hear a new one is like finding molten chocolate in a cookie... I have an especial weakness for them.

We were discussing approaches to the study of mussar and whether the word "inspiring" actually means anything, how some lectures are calculated to uplift whereas others are deliberately grounded in the practical - "If you daven a better maariv after one of my shmuesen [concentrate better during the evening meditative prayers following one of my lectures]," said Rav Chatzkel, "you didn't understand it." Inspiration, a temporary boost, a feeling of holiness, was not the point.

Our friend speculated that others, e.g. Rav Shalom Schwadron, might characterize their own lectures differently. (I remember the day I gobbled up an entire book of Rav Schwadron's stories in one sitting, and how different the world looked afterward.) Inspiration, or its effects, can last.

Then our friend related the following exchange between two of my favorite people... ooh, chocolate!

Rav Yerucham (Rav Chatzkel's predecessor) asked the Alter of Novhardok why the students of Novhardok so often seemed depressed, and--

Wait a minute, I said. Novhardok strikes me as the happiest of the three famous schools of mussar. In Slabodka, they taught the greatness of man: man is great! When you see the greatness of man, you see how much you have to live up to - which can be daunting and depressing if you don't know how to take it. But in Novhardok, they focused on the lowliness of man, and taught that nothing in the world matters but what you do with it: the world is nothing! That's incredibly freeing! (I love Novhardok!) How could they possibly get depressed in Novhardok?

But our friend didn't hear me, and this is how the story goes.

Rav Yerucham asked the Alter of Novhardok why the students of Novhardok so often seemed depressed.

"If you don't climb onto the roof," said the Alter, "you cannot fall to the ground."
Rav Yerucham, said our friend, relished the answer, so different from his own, grounded approach. 'We don't climb up to the roof!'

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