Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Pill: The Greatness and Lowliness of Human Beings (Ki Tavo)

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Two of the most well-known schools of thought within the mussar movement are known as Slabodka and Novordok, after the towns in which these yeshivos were located. Like other schools of thought within the broader mussar movement, these yeshivos sought to understand what makes us tick and gradually improve both our inner characters and external behaviors.  Slabodka and Novordok took diametrically opposed views on how to pursue this goal.

The Slabodka yeshivah was founded in 1882 by Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, one of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s very close students.  In time, the Slabodka approach to mussar came to emphasize what it called “gadlus ha-adam,” the greatness of human beings.   Thus, Slabodka mussar tends to reinforce the idea that each person is a unique individual with incredible potential to bring singular good to the world, and demands that its students dress and carry themselves with an appropriate measure of class and self-respect. 

The Novordok yeshiva was established at the very end of the 1800s by another student of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Yosef Yoizel Horowitz.  In contrast to Slabodka, Novordok focused on what it called “shiflus ha-adam,” or the lowliness of human beings. Thus, students of Novordok mussar tended to dress shabbily, intentionally put themselves in embarrassing situations, and focus on the eradication of negative character traits like jealously, laziness, and haughtiness.

Of course, the differing approaches to self-improvement offered by these two schools of thought do not represent a zero-sum-game debate.  They reflect different emphases on different—but coexisting—aspects of a broader project of personal growth and refinement. 

Parshas Ki Tavo includes the commandment of Viduy Maaser, or “the Tithe Confession.”  After one has finished taking the required maaser tithes for the previous year, the Torah instructions that one makes a declaration before God.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that it is strange that we refer to this declaration as “Viduy Maaser.”  Viduy is a confessional prayer.  We say it often this time of year.  Each and every time we say it, however, the viduy consists of a recital of our sins and shortcomings; it is a veritable laundry list of what we have done wrong and is an integral part of the teshuvah process.

Yet the Viduy Maaser is a very different animal.  Viduy Maaser is a declaration that one has not sinned; that one has not done anything wrong.  Viduy Maaser consists of a declaration that one has followed the Torah’s commands regarding maaser perfectly and too the letter (see Chumash Mesores Harav, Devarim, pp. 206-207).

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that referring to this very positive, observance-confirming declaration as “viduy” communicates a basic principle of rabbinic thinking about confession and repentance.  

Human beings are unique in our ability to critically self-evaluate.  While it is often hard, we can—and do—hold up a mirror to our own lives. This is viduy and teshuvah as a most basic level; we recognize what we should be doing, we appreciate where we have failed to meet those expectations, and we resolve to do better in the future.  

This is also the central underlying idea of Novordok mussar.  People are filled with negative drives and harmful character traits, and our life’s work is to identify, tackle, and slowly correct those flawed parts of us.

At the same time, however, teshuvah is premised on the basic recognition that for all their challenges and flaws, human beings also possess innate spiritual drives to improve and a deep-seated moral compass that can urge us to do better.  It is important to recognize that any self-critical viduy comes from an incredibly powerful desire to improve in the first place, and that ultimately there is no benefit to breaking one’s self down through viduy if one cannot harness that drive to move beyond past mistakes to do better going forward.

This is a fundamental principle of Slabodka mussar.  In order for people to refine and develop themselves, they have to appreciate and cultivate their own sense of self-worth, individuality, and personal dignity, which can help one realize, “I can be and do so much more.”

With the Yomim Nora’im now upon us, it is important to keep both these ideas in mind.  This time of year is useful for thinking about where we stand in life, where we are coming from, where we want to be going, and how we plan to get there—step by step.   The students of the Slabodka and Novordok yeshivos used to move through Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with a palpable sense of purpose.  In Novordok they may have focused more on breaking down their own egos and individuality in order to more honestly evaluate themselves and their place in the community, and in Slabodka they may have emphasized building up their own sense of self-worth and uniqueness so as to better inspire them to be the kinds of people they knew they could become.  

Both approaches to self-improvement have their own unique benefits and challenges; neither is sufficient, and each is necessary as part of a complete program in perpetually reinventing ourselves as we prepare to begin a new year.

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