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A Musar message for Chanukah


Dear Friends,

In the late l9th century, a new movement was started among the yeshivos of Eastern Europe, and it was known as "The Musar Movement." One of the meanings of the Hebrew word "Musar" is ethics, and this movement encouraged Jews of all ages to put more emphasis on studying Torah teachings related to ethical behavior and the development of good character traits.

One of the great sages of the Musar movement was Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel who was known as "the Alter of Slobodka". A central Torah principle underlying all of his teachings was that all human beings are precious, be they Jews or Gentiles, for they were created in the image of God. Through his words and deeds, he showed honor and love to them all. The book "Sparks of Mussar" by Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik ( Feldheim Pub. ), has a fascinating chapter about the Alter of Slobodka which contains beautiful teachings and stories. The following excerpt is one of my favorites:


"Whenever a guest left his house, R' Nosson Tzvi escorted him outside.
When he was in a German spa, he used to accompany the trains leaving the place in order to fulfill the mitzva of escort. Once a caravan of gypsies passed by, and he accompanied them, too."


Two of my high school Rebbes were students of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, who was a disciple of the Alter; thus, through my teachers, I feel a personal link with this great sage of musar. He has been a source of inspiration to me, and I believe the following story is in the spirit of his teachings:


When I was about fifteen years old, I and a small group of friends took the subway one Saturday night to Manhattan . Sitting across from us on the subway car was a black man lying down in a drunken stupor. He was muttering to himself incoherently, and my friends found the whole scene to be hilarious. This bothered me in some way, and I told my friends that I was going to demonstrate to them that this man - though drunk and incoherent - was a human being created in God's image. I crossed over and stood next to him, and I then began to sing the opening verses of a Black spiritual that I had learned from attending with my father several meetings of the Black civil rights organization known as the N.A.A.C.P. To the amazement of my friends, the man started to sing with me, and his face began to glow. When I returned to my seat, they were no longer laughing. They looked at me with wonder and respect, and I saw that they got the message.

I would like to conclude this letter with an excerpt from the book "Generation to Generation - Personal Recollections of a Chassidic Legacy" by Rabbi Abraham Twerski - a noted Chassidic teacher who is also a noted psychiatrist. In the second chapter of the book, Rabbi Twerski describes how his father - a Chassidic Rebbe - taught him to believe in the essential goodness within each human soul, and how this teaching influenced his own life:

"Many years later, my psychiatric practice led me in the direction of rehabilitating persons who had fallen victim to alcoholism and drug addiction. Thank God, this effort has been very rewarding, as I have been privileged to witness thousands of virtually miraculous successes in treatment.

I am often asked how one can have the patience to persist in pursuing recovery for a person who has had repeated relapses and whose persistent failure to recover must surely be frustrating to the point of utter despair.

The answer is that the word 'despair' was rendered alien to my vocabulary. Despair is the absolute abandonment of hope, and Father taught that the Divine spark is in every human; whereas its glow may be diminished almost to the point of distinction, it is never completely extinguished."

As we light the lamps of Chanukah, let us also remember that it is written: "A lamp of God is the human soul " (Proverbs 20:27).


Shalom, and a Good Chanukah,


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, Shlomo Ben Avraham Hakohen, who passed away on the eighth day of Chanukah, 5759.

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