Mid-19th Century Eastern European Jewry saw the founding of the Mussar Movement. This represented a paradigm shift in which attention and emphasis turned to self-development, middos, personal ethics, and conduct. The nascent movement was led by Rav Yisrael Salanter, first in Lithuania, and ultimately, through his illustrious students, across the world.
A story is told of how Rav Yisrael Salanter was compelled to dedicate his life to teaching and spreading mussar and the Mussar Movement:
Mottel was a simple shoemaker who lived in a typical Litvishe shtetl. While he barely eked out a living, Mottel was an ehrliche Yid, hardworking and honest. His small shop in the local marketplace was next door to a blacksmith, tailor, and bookbinder. Together, they shared a daily lunch of black bread and salted fish, and schmoozed to while away the time when business was slow.
One day, excitement broke out in the shtetl: Mottel received a letter postmarked from the big city. Unable to read, the postman informed him that a distant, wealthy relative passed away and left his entire fortune to Mottel, the humble shoemaker. Life would never be the same for Mottel and his family. A gentle and kind man, Mottel was thrilled to be able to help anyone in need, and distributed tzedakah to all who sought assistance. He sponsored the weekly seudah shlishis in the local shtiebel, and a lot more. Overnight, Mottel became a gvir of renown, and was beloved far and wide for his generosity and willingness to help. Mottel took good advantage of his great fortune to hire private melamdim to teach Torah to him and his children. As the years passed, he grew to become a respected talmid chacham, referred to as “Reb Mottel,” and he was “granted a seat at the eastern wall, spending his time discussing the learned books with holy men.”
When the shidduch was made between Mottel’s son and the town rabbi’s daughter, the townsfolk were filled with joy, and everyone celebrated the wonderful match. Everyone, that is, except Mottel’s old friend, the blacksmith, who never came to terms with his friend’s success. He struggled to make ends meet, working long, exhausting hours. Over the years, he stewed in bitterness and jealousy.
The chasunah was a simcha of grand proportions and guests arrived from all the neighboring shtetlach to celebrate. It was the greatest night of Mottel’s life. He could never have dreamed he would become a talmid chacham, a baal tzedakah, and a mechutan with the Rav. It seemed too good to be true.
After the glass was broken, everyone settled into the meal, and throngs of well-wishers approached the dais to congratulate Mottel and the Rav. At the head of the line was his old friend, the blacksmith.
“Mottel!” he shouted above the music, loud enough for all to hear, “Mazel tov to you, Mottel…or should I say, Reb Mottel?” Although the eyes of the blacksmith had darkened in cynicism, Mottel beamed at the sight of his old friend and stood to embrace him.
Suddenly, the blacksmith reached into his bag and pulled out an old pair of worn shoes, holding them up for all to see. Snickering bitterly, he shouted, “Hey, heilige Reb Mottel! How much would you charge to fix these shoes for me? And do you think you can have them ready for Shabbos?” The blacksmith looked the mortified baal simcha in the eye and added, “With all your good luck, it seems you’ve forgotten that all you are is a shoemaker!” and threw the shoes at the feet of Reb Mottel.
People froze in horror. Mottel turned red, then white, at a loss for words. Humiliated in front of his family and guests, Mottel’s pride and elation were completely deflated. The band stopped playing and the glow of simcha was ruined. The blacksmith’s nasty antic was the talk of the evening. Hurt and ashamed, Mottel felt too sick to join the sheva berachos. Embarrassed beyond words, he died of a broken heart a couple of days later.
The shocking story spread across Lithuania. When Rav Yisrael Salanter heard what happened, he decided that something had to change. How could such a tragedy occur to Klal Yisrael? As a result, he began a campaign to refocus education on tikkun ha-middos, personality and character development.
A common misconception is that Rav Yisrael Salanter was galvanized by the cruel behavior of the blacksmith and his lack of good middos. But that’s not true. What galvanized Rav Yisrael to begin his Mussar Movement was the behavior of…the shoemaker!
The issue is how Mottel, a respectable eved Hashem and ben Torah, lacked the confidence, self-esteem, and resilience to handle the bitter outburst of the blacksmith. How could it be that a Jew, a ben Melech, had such a poor sense of self that he was so easily broken by the insult? What shame is there in being a shoemaker? It wasn’t the lack of Ahavas Yisrael on the part of the blacksmith; rather, it was Mottel’s weak sense of self that launched the Mussar Movement.
Rav Yisrael understood that true self-esteem, resilience, and Ahavas Yisrael flow from the ‘self-love’ and dignity and gadlus ha-adam. Acceptance and love of others is an expression of ahavas atzmo, love of self, which is ahavah atzmis, the quintessential, most natural expression of love. V’ahavta l’rei’acha begins with kamocha, ‘like yourself.’
Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik was one of the great teachers of Mussar of our times. A student of Novardok, he survived Siberian exile during World War II and dedicated his life to transmitting the authentic Mussar tradition to the next generation.
In “Sparks of Mussar,” Rabbi Chaim Ephraim points out the hashgachah that the yahrzeit of Rav Salanter (25 Shevat) falls on the week when Parashas Mishpatim is read. In this parashah, the Torah deals with the laws of interpersonal propriety, respect for one another’s belongings, robbery, injury, and personal responsibility. The yahrzeit is thus a sign from Heaven, attuning us to the importance of the spirit of these interpersonal laws: V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, which is rooted ahavah atzmis.
May we reflect on the essential gadlus ha-adam in ourselves—and in its warmth, may we allow any shame or low self-esteem to melt away. May our “kamocha,” our healthy self-love, shine as beautiful as our middos as our careful, devoted practice of Hashem’s mishpatim brings light to all those around us.
Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi, and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife, Ora, and their family.