Teshuva through Mussar
Sefer Mishlei says: “The parables of Shlomo, the son of David, the king of Israel: to know chochmah and mussar, to understand sayings of wisdom” (1:2). The commentaries differentiate between chochmah and mussar by explaining that chochmah is the knowledge to distinguish between what is and what is not permitted. Mussar, though, is meant as a tool to help bring those ideas into action (see Sha’arei Teshuva 3:3; Meiri on Mishlei 1:2). In a previous article we explained that without knowledge of the relevant halachot, learning mussar is not enough to help one do the right thing. For example, one may learn all the mussar literature about how horrible it is to speak lashon hara, but without the knowledge of what is considered lashon hara, no amount of mussar can prevent him from speaking lashon hara. This is what Chazal mean that without wisdom, there is no fear of Heaven (Pirkei Avot 3:23).
However, Chazal also tell us that without fear of Heaven, there is no wisdom. The commentaries explain that just like every government has a ruling body and enforcers of law, so too, halacha is the law and mussar is its enforcer (see Alei Shor I p.87). There are many things we hold to be true intellectually, but without mussar we don’t live by them practically. For example even though we know that we are talking to
Even though we know that the damage that aveirot (transgressions) cause to our neshamot (souls) is not worth the petty pleasure of a few moments, it is still an ordeal to avoid those transgressions. Even though we may realize that every second of our existence in this world is precious, and it is foolish to waste time, many moments are wasted without thinking twice. Since we only see our physical desires instantly gratified, not the instant spiritual damage that aveirot bring or the instant spiritual benefit mitzvot bring, it becomes a challenge to avoid aveirot, and not waste precious time.
The gemara says that a person doesn’t sin unless a ruach shtut (a spirit of insanity) enters him (Sotah 3a). It is illogical to commit a transgression, but one does so anyway because his knowledge stays only in his intellect. This idea is neatly captured by the verse “You should know it on this day, and enter it to your heart” (Devarim 4:39). It is one thing to have the knowledge, but another thing to bring it to one’s heart and live by it (see the Chafetz Chaim’s Shem Olam).
To combat what we are being fed by our senses we need to be constantly reminded of the truths we don’t tangibly see or aren’t always on our minds. Chazal frequently feed us with vivid parables and sayings that help us internalize some of these ideas. For example, Chazal abundantly discuss the transience of this world, and compare this world to a corridor, only meant to be a passageway to the main banquet hall, which is Olam HaBa — the World-to-Come (Avot 4:21). They also stress the growing opportunities of this world by telling us: He (Rabbi Ya’akov) used to say, “Better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World-to-Come" (Avot 4:17). Someone who repeatedly occupies himself with such concepts will feel it much harder to waste time and perform aveirot.
It is not always subconscious forgetfulness, but rather a person’s physical desires that deter one from doing the right thing. For such a yetzer
hara (inclination to transgress), the aggadot in the gemara and mussar teach us ways to wage battle. For example, Chazal tell us that one should consider three things that will prevent him from sinning: He originated as a putrid drop, he will end up under the earth with the worms and maggots, and he will eventually account for his actions before
Learning mussar also helps us by guiding us on how to work on our middot, such as pride, anger, jealousy, and improper flattery. The mussar sefarim give us guidelines on how to improve ourselves by expanding on each midah, and explaining how it takes a positive or negative form, as each trait may be channeled in either direction. See, for example, Orchot Tzaddikim, which goes through each middah, describing its positive and negative usages. Mussar sefarim also explain how one may overcome a negative character trait. These concepts are not elaborated in halacha works, so the only way to really “work on them” is by learning the mussar sefarim that discuss them (see Minchat Chinuch, 611).
Based on above it is clear why the poskim write that one should dedicate specific time everyday to studying mussar (see Mishnah Berurah 1:12 & 613:2, which quotes the Rosh, the Arizal, the Chida, the Vilna Gaon, and the Chayei Adam). This is especially so when performing teshuva, as Rav Yisrael Salanter said: Someone who wants to change his ways without learning mussar is analogous to someone who wants to see without eyes, or hear without ears (Ohr Yisrael, 14).
We conclude with the Baal Shem Tov, who says that often the yetzer hara wouldn’t tell someone to stop learning Torah altogether, because, for many, it is not something he would accept. However, the yetzer hara might tell a person to ignore areas that will help him change. This is why he says there is a big yetzer hara not to learn halacha and mussar — because these areas have the largest impact on changing a person. May we all be zocheh to defeat this yetzer hara and perform proper teshuva by knowing the will of