Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rabbi Akiva's lesson for Gap Year students

When I was in yeshiva in Israel (Kerem b'Yavneh, 20 years ago), mid-December was the time when hundreds of young men spending their "gap year" learning in Israel toppled over the edge of burnout.

Sometime around November, a combination of 1) studying mussar, 2) experiencing peer pressure 3) sensing they had a rare opportunity to learn and 4) escaping home supervision reached a tipping point and students began learning until 1 AM or later, taking few breaks other than to collapse into bed. Calls home were reduced, the "Out Shabbos" or Shabbaton was a nuisance, showering became a special pre-Shabbos experience, and relatives' visits certainly did not warrant leaving the yeshiva campus.

I don't know that things are still so, but in those days this phase would last for weeks, and then burnout would set in. The pace would prove too much, and most guys would drop into bed for a few days before coming to some sort of equilibrium. I have fond memories of that time.

One of the main drivers of the whole experience was the mussar I mentioned above – messages focussed on convincing us to take advantage of every moment. One of my favorites was the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Goldvicht zt"l's answer for a question raised in Tosafos Kesuvos 17a מבטלין:

The gemara there seems to conflict with a story involving Rabbi Akiva. The gemara says that one who is learning Torah should cease his study to take care of a funeral. On the other hand, a story (recorded in Masechet Derech Eretz) presents Rabbi Akiva saying, "Once, early in my time serving the sages, I was walking along the road and I found a meit mitzvah [a corpse without anyone to take care of it]. I took care of it, transporting it 4 kilometers until I reached a cemetery and buried it. When I reported this to [my mentors] Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, they told me, 'Each step you took was like spilling innocent blood.'"

What was wrong with Rabbi Akiva's actions? Don't funeral needs override Torah study?

Tosafot there asks the question and offers two explanations, but I recall the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l explaining it in his own way: Rabbi Akiva was 100% right for taking care of the meit mitzvah. However, being right doesn't change the fact that he had lost many hours from study, and he would never be able to re-coup those hours. Even were he to add hours from other activities, those would be hours which he could always have added. The Rabbi Akiva he could have become would never exist; he had murdered his potential self.

That sort of thinking can drive you crazy, I know that, but it's so blunt, black-and-white, unvarnished and unapologetic, that I find it compelling. It's true – being "right" doesn't mean you get what you want – and it's demanding. I loved, and still love, lessons like that.


  1. I have always found Musar to be powerful. But I also had several problems with it. The least of all problems (and which maybe should not be called a problem at all),-- but Musar does not deal with human issues,--issues that even as a regular yeshiva guy bothered me. Rebbi Nachman at least deals with human issues--whether you like his answers or not he does not ignore human problems. in fact he relishes them his entire though revolves around the difficulties people have in life. Even Kabalistically speaking his sees more deep in the human heart than in all the higher Kabalistic realms.
    the other problems i had with Musar were largely intellectual. i know many books of kabalah take liberties with the Gemara but when Musar would do that it bothered me more than Hasdidut which was meant to be along the lines of vort'lich (analogies). like here in this case in which the Gemara says "met mitzvah kone mekomo" which cancels the entire Musar Vort (word). This type of thing i saw also in the books of the Alter of Slobodka.
    the worst of all problems was the schizophrenic nature of musar. I mean either you hold of the path of the Rambam (I mean the old Geonic school--like Saadia and Chovot Levavot ) or you don't. I mean in Musar you put the Shaarai Teshuva and Mesilat Yesharim along with Chovot Levevot? How much sense does that make?
    and then the quality of the books also bothered me. I mean the Guide of the Rambam and Chovot Levavot are great books but the rest are just selling Frumkeit with no insight. They are "paint by the numbers" books.

    After all this it should be no surprise that I discovered some of the most lunatic, megolmanic, sadistic, people are mashgichim and roshei yeshivot people that learn and teach Musar.
    (I am not saying that i did not discover as much and much worst problem in hasidut. My point here is to give my critique about Musar. but in comparison with everything i saw in the world of chasidut as a whole i must admit musar comes out looking like virgin snow)

  2. We often assume that in any situation there is a right thing to do and a wrong thing to do (halakhically, ethically, practically). The problem is that we are often faced with choosing the better of two goods or the lesser of two evils, such that we can always spend time obsessing over what would have happened, what we would have become, had we chosen the other one. I'm not sure that this is psychologically healthy (speaking as someone prone to such thoughts sometimes).

  3. Notice the critique of R. Akiva is the idea of presenting consequences. All our choices have consequences, some good and some bad. The problem is I am not convinced that schmoozes like that are appropriate for American Yeshiva students who are spending their first year in a formal yeshiva environment without any "distractions." To me, hearing you describe that these ideas led to burnout indicates that there was no means of tempering the challenge the R. Akiva story presents. I do grant that sometimes extreme ideas are needed to get a point across, but, post high school teenagers are not discerning enough to realize what the implications are until too late.

  4. For most of us, making all but one activity treif, or, at best, a necessary evil, would typically impair our ability to do that one activity. Would any rational Jew call the Taryag Mitzvos 612 distractions (G-d forbid!) plus 1 true obligation? In reality, the performance of each obligation in its proper time and place, and with the proper enthusiasm, perfects the Jew.

  5. I'm probably not going to say this right, so apologies ahead of time. Are we really supposed to believe that learning in depth about every mitzvah but never taking the time to observe them in actual practice makes us a perfect person? Should not the point of the learning be so that the learner can perform the mitzvah, perform being the key word? Why call them "mitzvot aa'sey" if the act of doing the mitzvah--obviously requiring some time to do--means you will not be a "perfect" person? Seems to be a contradiction here.

  6. "One of the main drivers of the whole experience was the mussar I mentioned above – messages focused on convincing us to take advantage of every moment."

    The point is well taken, and this approach helps many, if not everyone, if taken correctly. Two points:

    1) See attached link("The Pursuit Of Perfection:Vice Or Virtue In Yiddishkeit").

    I believe Dr. Sorotzkin is coming from a perpective that sees the dangers of perfectionism, and therefore emphasizes both parts of the equation, but is not opposed to a custom-made demanding approach, ie, custom-made mussar.

    Also if dealing with any psychological issue as the author does, it's a totally different discussion, and one would emphasize less the demanding approach, at least temporarily, or integrate mussar into whatever challenge is being discussed(eg, "mussar" for shyness, an issue actually discusssed by the Stiepler and touched on by the Chovos Halevavos in discussing anavah) .

    2) Adam Zur mentioned that Mussar doesn't deal with "human issues". Some Seforim might be better at this(eg, Alie Shur).

    The above points were touched on in an article in this week's Yated by R. Avroham Birnbaum in reference to taking inspiration from speeches("Two Uninspiring Speeches And A Lesson"):

    "Similarly, so many of today’s chassidishe yungeleit listen to a droshoh about a yahrtzeit and wonder, “What do these platitudes about how great that tzaddik was have to do with the very real nisyonos that I am facing today? Why can’t the speaker get up and give guidance on how to live in a world gone mad, in a world where one confronts spiritual challenge and temptation wherever one goes, in a world where one sometimes has no one in whom to confide because, wrongly or rightly, he thinks that his mentors or his rebbe are so holy, so far removed from his world and his daily struggles while interacting with the outside world and earning a parnassah, that he feels alone and bereft?”

  7. Adam-
    The mussar I am familiar with does address human issues, but maybe my definition is broader. Would you include Bnei Machshavah Tovah as mussar?

    I'm not sure I see it as "choosing between two evils". I see no evil in R' Akiva failing to become what he could have been; it's simply so.

    A worthy point, but I suppose it depends on the level of the consequences. A 3-day burnout followed by moderation doesn't seem bad - but I acknowledge that other consequences are possible, particularly for students who don't have natural coping mechanisms.

    Is that what you see here? I see it as recognizing the price that comes with not-engaging-in-one - and it will apply to any of the 613.

    I think I understand what you're saying, but my answer is the same as it was to Bob. The phenomenon applies with all mitzvot.

    Thanks for the points you make here. I need to print out the Dr. Sorotzkin article and read it 'for real.'

  8. rebbetzin's husband wrote The mussar I am familiar with does address human issues, but maybe my definition is broader. Would you include Bnei Machshavah Tovah as mussar?
    Answer: The Musar i was referring to was the classical medieval books plus the books written by the first generation disciples of R. Israel salanter. this set of books has a a powerful message which in essence i agree with.the major problem that i was referring to start with second generation musar and with musar mixed with pop psychology and or new age idea s and especially ideas of Nietzsche about self fulfillment.
    It is not that i am against Nietzsche. but if someone is preaching self fulfillment the i would hope they would give credit to Nietzsche or ant least not pretend that this is an ideal of classical musar. why not just admit that Nietzsche and Hegel were immensely popular and their idea have taken over the world to such a degree that it is almost impossible to have a simple conversation with commitments and authenticity and ego and Id (that is from Nietzsche popularized by Freud.)getting into the conversation.

  9. life is about maintaining a dynamic balance - it's not black and white but the overall message of time being our most valuable commodity is important, as is having advisors who can help us find our balance
    Joel Rich