The 29th of Shevat

Today is the 80th Yahrzeit of R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkelzt”l, the Alter of Slabodka.

The Alter’s school of mussar focused on gadlus ha’adam – the greatness of man. Anavah (modesty) needs to be distinguished from having a poor self image. A person who thinks he is worthless will not try to accomplish much, since he doesn’t think there is much he is capable of accomplishing. An anav is someone who can not take credit for what he did because he is well aware of the gifts Hashem gave him, and much more he could have accomplished.

In the past, I suggested the term anvanus for poor self image, using the gemara in which Rabban Gamliel blames anvanuso shel R’ Zechariah ben Avqulus, when he refused to take a strong stand in the story of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza, for causing the fall of the second Temple. (The essay is about the Purim story, so it may make good reading for Rosh Chodesh Adar.)

The Alter of Slabodka offers this bit of advice to his students. At all times a person should keep in one of his pockets a note that reads “For me the world was created” (Sanhedrin 37a), while in the other pocket he should keep one that reads “But I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:27). The Alter recommends that one have a pair of dialectical views about one’s self-worth.

The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished. I would propose that anavah is a kind of synthesis between egotism and anvanus; a keen awareness of the gap between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, unlike shefeilus which says “Who am I to try anything?”, anavah is a powerful motivator.

R’ JB Soloveitchik credits this refocusing of mussar with its absorbtion into mainstream Lithuanian Orthodoxy. That the objections Vilozhin (including his grandfather, Rav Chaim Brisker) had toward mussar no longer held.

I believe that of all the schools of mussar, Slabodka may have the most to say to people of our generation. It was the only one to take real root in modernized German soil, in the form of the Seridei Eish, Rav Avraham Elya Kaplan, and Dr. Nathan Birnbaum.

And, the teacher of the greatness of man produced a remarkable number of great men. The Alter succeeded in creating a very large percentage of the Torah greats who planted the Torah in new lands after WWII, fundamentally influencing yeshivos from YU’s RIETS (R’ Yaakov Moshe Lessin) to the Mir (R’ Lazer Udel Finkel), from Chevron (which was a branch of Slabodka) to Lakewood (R’ Aharon Kotler), from Rav Kook to Ponevezh (R Yosef Kahaneman, R’ Schach). There are literally over a dozen yeshivos founded by his students.

The Alter’s shmuessin were written up in a number of journals, and were collected into Ohr haTzafun.

The project Growth and Greatness is distributing an 8 page tribute to the Alter titled “Tzohar leOr haTzafun – A Glimpse of the Hidden Light“. There is a biography, some stories, some Torah, and the eighth page is an impressive list of some of his better known students, and thus a testimonial to a master of the art of showing people how to find their own path to holiness and how to become the kind of person who can walk it.

In our own lives, this is a fine line we must walk. We must always dream high, realizing the true worth of the gifts Hashem gave us, not settle for a life of mediocrity. And yet know that these gifts come with the responsibility to use them, that we must work at honing ourselves to our full potential.

Next time you catch yourself saying “they ought to…” Stop and think. Aren’t I part of the “they”? “In a place where there is no person, strive to be a somebody!”

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  1. Barzilai says:

    1. Seridei.
    2. Rav Rudderman and Rav Hutner.
    3. Speaking of epigramatic descriptions for movements. Slabodkeh- Gadlus Ho’odom. Novorodok- Shiflus Ho’odom. Telz- Gadlus Ho’odom and Shiflus Ho’odom; I’m nobody, but I’m still better than you.

  2. micha says:

    Joking aside, Novhordok was more about man’s dependency on Hashem rather than his lowliness in and of itself.

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