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Thought for the Day: Halacha and Mussar/Plan and Motivation

Two stories today!  (For some of you, that mean more to skip, for others it means more of interest.  I try to be a full service blogger.)  While a graduate student at University of Utah (which at the time was the furthest east I had ever resided), my research advisor spent some time visiting University of Chicago.  Upon his return, he told me that the professor he was visiting gave him very detailed instructions on how to get from his temporary residence to the university.  Those instructions came with an exhortation not to deviate in the smallest detail, as the neighborhood could go from "take normal precaution" to "reckless endangerment of life" in one block.

After graduate school, I worked for a year as the physicist in a radiation therapy facility.  Part of my duties was to make sure the patients were getting their prescribed dose by double checking the sums entered by the radiation techs each week.  Let me preface this by noting that I do not list reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic on my resume under "Skills".  Nonetheless, I checked and rechecked those sums; I sweated them... and even woke up a few times in a cold sweat thinking I had made a mistake.  Mistakes could usually be corrected in subsequent treatments, but uncorrected mistakes could lead to anything from unnecessary suffering to failure to contain the disease.

I know how to add and my research advisor could certainly follow directions to walk a few blocks.  The likelihood of accidental mistakes is miniscule.  On the other hand, the likelihood of laziness in being precise can be quite high.  Adding many columns of figures is not a fun activity for me and I just want to get it over with.  The knowledge of the consequences, however, turns a simple walk of a few blocks and the sum of a few numbers into a harrowing experience.

Halacha is our plan for living our life.  There is nary a situation in life that is not already covered from several angles.  One only need look himself or ask a competent rav.  How could a mistake get made; especially for something that has no real benefit?  Simply: we're lazy.  We're can also be (more than) a bit petulant... Why should I have to do it that way?  I want to do it my way!

That's where mussar comes into the picture.  As the consequences of deviation become more clear, the desire to deviate and the laziness to be sloppy diminishes drastically.  It's easy to say, "Oh... I won't be lazy.  I won't be petulant."  Easy to say, and exactly what the evil inclination craves.  We are lazy and petulant by design, and it takes constant work to eradicate both of those ultimately devastating character traits.

Halacha without mussar leads to big mistakes.  Mussar without halacha, though, leads to even bigger mistakes.  There is nothing like the enthusiasm of someone acting "for the principle of the thing, darn it!"... especially when they don't have clarity on the principles.

Because of this, our basic halacha texts for daily living -- Shulchan Aruch, Mishna Brura, Aruch HaShulchan, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch -- all start with the place where mussar and halacha meet, the basic prescription for how a Jew lives: You are always standing in the presence of the Creator... always.  One's speech, mode of dress, and even thoughts are not the same when one is alone as when he is in the presence of any person who -- on even a whim -- can immediately and dramatically change his life; be it king, surgeon, or even a boss.  All the more so, of course, when he is in the presence of the King of kings, the Author of Reality... HaShem Himself.

That simple statement is mussar (as it reminds you of the consequences of your actions), and halacha (it is a directive on how to dress, talk, and even think), and it's also just plain common sense.


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