The study of Mussar is meant to provide us with tools, so that when the time comes and we are faced with a challenge, we know how to deal with it.
A person who knows he is about to wage war, makes sure to arm himself for the fray. He prepares equipment, protective armour and he trains himself in warfare. When the time to fight arrives, he is ready. He reaches for his pre-prepared weapons and employs all the tactics he had studied in preparation for this fateful encounter.
In much the same way, a man who studies Mussar internalises its lessons and equips himself with the necessary tools to face life’s various challenges.
When the time arrives — perhaps his spouse, friend or child says an irritating sentence, and he feels the imminent burst of anger — then he draws upon all that he has learned in order to remain calm, and that is the practical application of him working on his Middos. Without facing the challenge in real life, the trait cannot be fully integrated into his soul!
So, while we hope and pray: “Veál tevienu lo liday nisayon velo liday bizayon” — And, please don’t test us or bring us to shame, if it so happens that someone is faced with a test, which is the natural way of the world, one should be amply prepared, with the right “muscles” trained in advance, so that the soul is ready to face the evil inclination and put into practice everything that has, so far, been only an intellectual exercise. This will be the crunch time. The chance to deal with life and face challenges that, ultimately, build one’s character.
Shaping One’s Character — Only in This World!
An interesting fact comes to light through some of our Sages testimonies regarding the existence of Dybbuks (the souls of deceased persons who descend from the other world and enter the living — a rare phenomenon that was common in earlier generations).
When the Dybbuk was approached, and encouraged to leave the body of the living person, the Dybbuk would moan about his suffering and his harsh reality. A moment later, without any warning, he would begin spewing forth such foul obscenities that all those present would have to block their ears to avoid hearing the verbal filth.
One such tale was related by the Tzaddik, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian Zt”l, who heard it in person from an eye witness. He said that when the Dybbuk was asked: “How did you manage to get so angry to the extent that you allowed your speech to deteriorate so badly? You are already in a better world, a world of truth —you know what is expected of man up there! How can still express yourself in such a profane manner?”
The Dybbuk’s response was highly illuminating. “As long as I resided in a mortal body in this world, I could work on refining my character traits. I could aim for perfection. This world is where the action is. But the moment I departed from this world — I lost the power to change. The person I was at the time of death, is the person I shall remain for all eternity. In this world, I was accustomed to frequent bursts of anger, during which I spoke with great vulgarity. I can no longer do anything about it, and even now — in my immortal state — if I get angry, I resort to vulgarity!
How terrible! And how greatly this knowledge obligates us!
This is what Shlomo HaMelech, a”h, the wisest of men, was referring to when he said: “Kol asher timtza yadcha laásot bekochacha aseh, ki ein maáseh vecheshbon v’daát v’chochmah bisheol asher atah holech shama.” — Whatever your hand attains to do, [as long as you are] with your strength, do; for there is neither deed nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom in the grave, where you are going. (Kohelet 9;10).
Sheol is the grave. While man is in the land of the living, he can mold his character — for the physical body, with all its inclinations, is the “training room” that strengthens the soul with each challenge that man meets and overcomes. But once he leaves his body behind, he no longer has his gymnastic equipment. There is nothing to stretch his muscles with, no earthly challenges, and the way he is right then, is how he shall remain forever.
This knowledge is a powerful motivator for a person to stop procrastinating and to get working on perfecting his character. The thought that “one day I shall get around to perfecting my flawed traits” is no longer a good enough answer, for if we don’t start elevating ourselves to new spiritual heights today – who knows when we will be able to.
Adapted from ‘Man and His Universe’ by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Coming to you soon in English