March 1, 2009


This excerpt originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series.

The World of Novaradok

Just another circle on the map of Russia, Novaradok was an imposing presence in the yeshivah world of pre-war Europe, and a militant, rather extreme force within the Mussar Movement. (The Mussar Movement was an outgrowth of an initiative by Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin of Salant in the mid-1800's to promote a sensitivity to purity of motive in all one's actions; it had its greatest imprint on Lithuanian yeshivos.) The Novaradok yeshivah, under the leadership of der Alter, Reb Yoseif Yoizel Hurwitz, assumed two Talmudic expressions as guiding mottos, one directed inward, one outward: 'Preach beautifully and live accordingly (Naeh Doreish V'Naeh Mikiyeim)" and "Your springs should flow ever outward (V'Yefutzu Maayanotecha Chutzah)."

When the Bolshevik dictatorship took over Russia, the Alter and his many talmidim (disciples) at first chose to fight head-on against the Communist ideologies of atheism and dialectical materialism. But the Alter soon recognized the criminal nature of the regime: every dissident was unceremoniously shot. So he ordered his followers to cross the border into Poland. The border, however, was sealed shut. Many of his talmidim were shot in their attempts; others were sent to Siberian prison camps, but six hundred did make it. Novaradok Yeshivah was established in Bialystok, and under the leadership of the Alter's son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Yoffen, it soon became the center of the movement. Following the doctrine of "springs flowing outward," in but a few years they established yeshivos all over Poland.

Thus the effects of the Novaradoker brand of Mussar penetrated many parts of Poland. This included Baranovich, where, in Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman's yeshivah, the Mashgiach was Reb Yisrael Yaakov Lubchansky, another of the Alter's sons- in-law.

Stopover in Bialystok

Novaradok was best understood by experiencing it. I sampled it several times when, on trips home from the yeshivah in Baranovich, to Lomza, I spent several days in Bialystok visiting my uncle. I started with a casual Maariv visit to the Novaradok Yeshivah, after which I never failed to return whenever possible. It had been an ordinary Wednesday evening but the Maariv had felt every bit like Yom Kippur.

The following year my parents had sent me money to have a new suit made for Pesach. Ready made suits were unheard of in Europe... The perfection of the fit was the tailor's professional pride, and a good portion of that pride usually rubbed off on the wearer.

Entering the Novaradok Yeshivah in Bialystok in my brand new suit that pre-Pesach, I felt like a millionaire among paupers, for poverty, tattered clothing and general negation of this world were the "in" style at Novaradok. Looking about, I realized that I was in the middle of a birze; the talmidim were walking the long study hall in pairs, immersed in heated discussions. One walked up to me and, after a hearty Sholom Aleichem, took me by my arm. He did not waste any time, or ask any questions. He just talked.

"Did you ever wonder," he began, "why of all the berachos of the Torah we only use the one Yaakov bestowed on Yoseif's sons - 'Through you shall Israel give blessings, saying: May G-d make you as Ephraim and as Menashe (Bereishis 48:20)?

"Let me tell you what Novaradok says. Yaakov, Yoseif, Menashe and Ephraim all knew the importance of a berachah. Remember, Eisav had wanted to kill Yaakov because of a berachah. Also, realize that Yaakov's actions concerned seniority in any number of areas that touch eternity. In all of them, Ephraim would take precedence, even though Menashe was firstborn.

"Yet Menashe, the loser, kept silent. No complaints, no resentment, no ill feelings. Can you imagine his midos? Many a man has fallen from great heights because of a little bit of glory and honor.

"While Eisav never accepted Yaakov as bechor even though he had sold his birthright to him as a teenager, Menashe was different. That's why Yaakov insisted that for generations to come Jews shall use this berachah; a blessing of brotherly love and humility - the exact opposite of kavod and ga'avah - arrogance and pride."

I was deeply impressed, but birze meant "debating," and had nothing to say.

Then he continued, "Why don't you go out in the street, and stretch out your hands and call out to all passers by: 'Look at my ten fingers! Marvel at how they operate! Look at my head! My two eyes, two ears. The wonder of me!'!

"You'd never do it. Who doesn't have ten fingers, a head, and the rest? Yet, when you put on a silly suit, made to fit perfectly, you want the world to stop and admire it Big deal! What stupid ga'avah!"

He then added philosophically, "Of course, you may be right. The Rambam sets a rule: If the absence of something is considered a shortcoming, then when it is present, it is not an asset. However, if an item's absence is not a shortcoming, its presence is an asset. Hence, without hands a person is considered a cripple - suffering a great shortcoming, and possessing hands is not an asset at all. But owning a magnificent suit is different. Its absence is not a shortcoming at all; one can live a lifetime without a new suit - which makes its presence an asset. Hence, the justification for your pride - your stupid pride!"

This young fellow, a teenager like myself, probably never had a new suit of his own on his shoulders. Yet he knew my inner thoughts and feelings.

Much later I realized the importance of the birze. More than just criticizing and tearing the other fellow apart (in a thoughtful and friendly manner, of course), it was also a tool for self-improvement, in the spirit of, "Let your ears listen to your own words." In the midst of polishing another's character, he is bound to ask himself, and what about me?"

The Shaper of Novaradok

Novaradok was shaped by its founder Reb Yoseif Yoizel in his own image. A merchant of yeshivah background, he met Reb Yisrael Salanter on one of his business trips. He became deeply impressed by Reb Yisrael and his Mussar approach. Reb Yisrael sent him to his talmid Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer (Reb Itsele Peterburger), who educated Reb Yoseif Hurwitz in the ways of Mussar.

Reb Yoseif at once broke away from his past, gave up his business and dedicated his life to the spreading of Torah and Mussar - and he demanded the same from his followers: "One must sever all ties with his past without a moment's delay," he would say. "Why doesn't a person usually change his life-style for the better? Because he's held back - because of character weaknesses, family obligations, earthly desires. All these factors will be with him ten minutes later, a month later, a year later, ten years later, a life-time later! So, if one doesn't break away from his past this very moment, he never will."

The break must be a total one, teaches the Alter, not in installments. Like the man who decides to keep kosher but since he can't afford a new set of dishes and kitchen utensils, he buys them one at a time - a new dish per week. By the year's end, instead of a fully kosher set of dishes, they'll be treif, from mixing with each other. So, claims the Alter, do a person's evil acts overcome his good ones, and make them all treif.

Just as he spent days and nights in hisbodedus (solitude and contemplation) in a room, or deep in the forest, so did he demand that his talmidim do the same. Thus, a room designated as the beis hamussar was installed in every Mussar-oriented yeshivah, where one could search his inner-self and study Mussar in privacy, whenever the need was felt.

Some Mussar Basics, as per Novaradok

The Rambam states that spiritual ailments are no different from physical illnesses. One can treat the symptoms, or cure the very source of the illness. Mussar aims at the cause of the spiritual ailment by eradicating evil within the person and replacing it with good.

The Midrash relates that G-d sys: "My children, pierce your hearts with a Teshuvah opening as tiny as the tip of a needle and I shall open for you a passage wide enough for wagons to pass through." Asks the Alter: "Is it possible that we never opened such an opening? Of course we did," replies the Alter, "but there are all sorts of holes. One drills a hole into steel, and it remains open forever. And one puts his and into a bucket of water, also making a hole. But the moment he removes his hand, the 'hole' closes up. Mussar makes the hole permanent."

The Emotional Impact

For the serum of Mussar to be effective, it must be injected with hispa'alus (emotional intensity). One cannot be cured and build up immunity against evil by merely reading a Mussar sefer. Only by repeating a Chazal or a Mussar statement with emotional intensity will it become engraved on the heart.

Indeed, when entering a yeshivah during the Mussar session, one might be shocked at the sounds: each ben Torah, in his own way, vociferously attacking his personal weaknesses. One summer a passerby was attracted by the loud voices exploding through the open windows of the Novaradok Yeshivah and entered the building. He asked the Alter, "Is this a crazy house?" "Indeed it is," replied the Alter. "People enter the yeshivah crazy and when they leave, are refined and sane."

The Utter Break

Novaradok, like other Mussar schools, demands shviras haratzon - virtually shattering one's desires, eradicating any vestige of evil habits. For that purpose, Novaradokers would carry notebooks, in which they would daily enter records of failures and achievements. Before bedtime they would check their "bookkeeping" and make plans-of-action for correcting faults. One method of "breaking" oneself was by denying oneself the rewards of a sin. For instance, during Shmoneh Esrei, one must be totally immersed in prayers. If an irrelevant thought intruded, they would deny themselves the satisfaction of carrying out the idea that entered their mind.

When Reb Yisrael Yaakov was chosen to succeed his father as Rav of Baranovich, he was required to deliver a derashah, so he practiced his projected speech before his wife. (Usually, in that part of Europe, a Rav spoke twice a year, Shabbos Shuvah and Shabbos Hagadol, except for his inaugural address - customarily on Shabbos after Minchah when the entire city came to shul to hear the new Rav.) How shocked the Rebbetzin was when she heard Reb Yisroel Yaakov later deliver an entirely different derashah from the one he had prepared. He later confessed that during the Minchah Shmoneh Esrei his prepared derashah kept popping up in his mind, so he denied himself any use of it. Novaradok practices what it preaches.5

"Emunah" and "Bitachon"

If one has emunah (belief in G-d), he must also have bitachon (trust) that Hashem will supply him with his needs. If a person works as if everything depends upon his own efforts, it demonstrates a lack of bitachon. Hence bitachon is always pitted against hishtadlus (exertion of effort). How does one determine how he should apportion his efforts, finding a balance between the two? The Talmud records a debate on the subject (Berachos 35b): Rebbi Yishmael calls for a normal work involvement, trusting in Hashem for success. Rebbi Shimon Ben Yachai prescribes an extreme approach - all bitachon and no hishtadlus. While the topic is discussed further by later authorities, the After of Novaradok practiced total bitachon his entire life, from the time he had broken with his past. When he was asked about Abaye's statement on the same page in Berachos, "Rabbim (many) attempted to follow Rebbi Yishmael's way and succeeded, while rabbim (many) attempted to follow Rebbi Shimon Ben Yachai's way and failed," the Alter pointed to the key word "rabbim." Rebbi Shimon's way was surely not for the masses. But individuals can and should reach the ultimate level of bitachon. After "working" upon oneself, individuals can reach the level of total bitachon, completely free of hishtadlus. When one has achieved perfect faith and has total trust in G-d, all one's material needs are met without hishtadlus.

So the very elite among Novaradoker men would set out on foot to strange communities without a penny in their pockets. They would simultaneously abstain from speech, not asking for a ride, or even for food. Upon reaching a town, they would enter the beis hamidrash, and without a word to anyone, study Torah ... relying totally on G-d for their needs, without the least hishtadlus on their part.

The summer before my Bar Mitzvah I was visiting my grandparents in Tiktin, which was some fifty miles from Bialystok. I was studying in the shul when a young, pale, poorly dressed stranger walked in. He washed his hands, took a seat, and began to study with such fervor that I sat watching him, forgetting my purpose for being there. Later, feeling hungry, I ran to my grandparents' store. It was market day, and the store was packed with customers, so Bobbe brushed me aside: "Take something yourself in the kitchen." I then told Grandfather about the young man in beis hamidrash. Zeide instantly looked at Bobbe, she abandoned all the customers and turned to me: "Come!" She heated up some soup and loaded a tray with an entire meal, ordering me to carry it to the young stranger at once. I protested: "I'm hungry!" But she insisted, "First hurry to that young man, then you'll be fed."

Zeide later explained, "Men like him are ba'alei madreigah - men of unusual character refinement. They won't come to the house even if invited, for fear they might break their silence, and to avoid looking at women. In the street they cast their eyes downward, but in a private home, they cannot control the environment. So they never accept invitations." I had met my first practicing ba'al bitachon.

With this method of bitachon, Novaradok established in Poland alone no less than seventy yeshivos. Dispatched from their headquarters in Bialystok, surveillance teams would investigate towns and cities for suitability for a yeshivah. Once Bialystok decided on a place, nothing could stop them. Without a single penny, but rich in bitachon, a Rosh Yeshivah and ten boys would enter a community, occupy a beis hamidrash, learning Torah and Mussar. The local Jews had no choice, but to supply them with food and shelter. The boys would take to the streets, talk to parents, and recruit children. These yeshivos, which were under Bialystok's direct guidance, supplied half the talmidim to Eastern Europe's famous yeshivos. No wonder the Chofetz Chaim remarked: "We are sitting and writing seforim, while Reb Yoseif is creating yeshivos." "Springs flowing outward" was more than a beautiful sermon; it was a realized ideal.

Novaradok... Today?

Novaradok seems so far removed from contemporary America, especially the Novaradok demand for a starkly simple life and its rejection of luxuries, as opposed to the American involvement in sensual experiences.

The Alter insisted that teaching in the smallest yeshivah was of greater significance than being a Rav in the largest community. "The right price" never entered in his scale of values. What response would his call find in today's starved chinuch market?

Nonetheless, the American fascination with psychological motivation and its rejection of phoniness would surely have much to find in Novaradok (except that elementary psychology entails digging into others, while Novaradok demanded digging into oneself).

The old saying goes: "Whoever touched the doorknob of a beis hamussar will never enjoy an aveirah." One can add: "Whoever touched the doorknob of Novaradok will never stop digging within himself, breaking apart his inner self."