In the Novardoker Yeshiva, they took their mussar seriously. They learned mussar, they talked mussar, and they worked on mussar, incorporating it into their daily lives, transforming it from theory to reality. Each month was designated for working on a different middah. Cheshvan, for example, was designated as a month of doing chesed. It was the time when new bochurim arrived at the yeshiva, and they were welcomed by the veteran talmidim with open arms, with kindness, and made to feel at home. During Kislev, when the parshiyos that we lain deal with the avos hakedoshim, they would work on aspirations for greatness. “When will my deeds reach the deeds of my father?” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah 25).
During Adar, as Purim was approaching, they would work on the middah of boldness, trying to emulate Mordechai HaYehudi, about whom it is said, “He neither stood up nor stood” before Haman (Esther 5:9). To dissolve fear and faintheartedness, and to become emboldened, not recoiling from difficult situations.
The bochurim would undertake special exercises to acquire bravery. For example, there were those bochurim who attended public communist rallies sponsored by Jews and asked for permission to address the audience. Thinking that they were supporters of their cause, the leaders of the assembly allowed them to speak. Thebochurim would step up to the podium and deliver fiery speeches deprecating the concept of communism and calling for them to return to the only true belief, the way of Torah. Understandably, the bochur would be showered with insults and perhaps even some physical blows. But he didn’t care. He got his point across and, just as importantly, he became more brazen in serving Hashem.
These exercises trained them for what awaited them in the future, facing the horrors of World War II. Many were unfortunately broken by the tragedies they faced, but the Novardokers remained as hard as flint. Those who physically survived became stronger in their emunah, and sometimes these performances were taken to an extreme. Let us listen to one of Novardok’s star pupils, the late great and inimitable Rav Yaakov Galinsky zt”l, as he describes it in his own words:
“I thought to myself: What act of bravery can I perform? Hmmm… What an idea! Just imagining it made me shudder. Everyone knows that the night is a time when sheidim, demons, are empowered. ‘One of the signs of a fool is one who sleeps in a cemetery at night’ (Chagigah 3b). It was also said that at night, the spirits of the dead immerse themselves in the mikvah near the cemetery where the niftarim are immersed before burial. For a live human to be toivel there is not only frightening, but also places his life in jeopardy, for the spirits don’t like it when their domain is invaded.
I decided to set out on my own at midnight to the bais hakevaros. How gruesome! What a shrek! And I will enter the dark room of purification where the spirits are located and immerse myself in the mikvah for the dead. What daring this would take. Ah! The middah of Mordechai Hatzaddik at its best! So off I went.
“The bais hakevaros was outside the city. It was enveloped in darkness. Only the white bright monuments on the graves could be seen. They were silent testimony to my audacious act. There it was, the mikvah house, and I entered where it was pitch black. My heart was beating like a sledgehammer. Now I was wondering if this was perhaps not an act of bravery at all, but pure foolishness, starting up with the dead. I thought I heard the water in the mikvah splashing. The spirits were in there. But if I want to acquire boldness, I will take this to the end.
“I groped my way to the mikvah and, yes, there was splashing. I stuck my toe in — it’s as freezing as ice! One quick dip and I’m out of here. Down I went… Oh! No! I stepped on a human head. It floated towards me…white as a sheet…seen even in the darkness. I was in shock, drained of my strength even to scream. I was frozen in terror. Somehow, I managed to quickly get dressed and flee for my life. Fortunately, I wasn’t harmed.
“I ran as fast as my legs would carry me and returned to the city. I decided not to tell a soul about my escapade, for those who hear the story would be divided in their opinion. Some would castigate me for doing something so foolish, for putting my life in jeopardy. Others would say that I didn’t do enough. If you’re already going to such an extreme to embolden yourself, why did you run away? Why didn’t you remain longer? But I knew that I did the right thing by running away. Let’s see what they would do if they were in my place, if they encountered a spirit emerging from the water!
“Falling asleep that night was impossible. I made an attempt to learn with concentration, but that didn’t go. Even during davening in the morning, my mind wasn’t fully into it. After Shacharis, I went to the dining room and saw my friend sitting by the table as white as a ghost and trembling. ‘You don’t look to good,’ I told him. ‘What happened to you?’
“‘You don’t look so good yourself,’ he answered. ‘But I’ll tell you what happened. We’re in the middle of the month of courage, so I was thinking, ‘What act should I perform to train myself in brazenness?’ An idea crossed my mind. Now I see that it was pure stupidity. I thought of going to the cemetery at midnight and immersing myself in the mikvah there, where it is said the spirits of the deceased are toivel. Pachad pechodim. What a great way of displaying boldness.
“I didn’t think much. I acted. I went. I jumped into the mikvah, when, suddenly, you wouldn’t believe it! While I was underwater, freezing cold, I feel a foot on top of my head – a real foot! Immediately, I jumped up and there was a deceased man staring me in the face!
“‘You have no idea what it felt like…
“‘I have an idea,’ I said. ‘Shoin ein mohl, I have an idea. And how!
“Then I was upset,” continued Rav Galinsky.“I reprimanded myself. ‘What a baal gaavah you are! You should be ashamed of yourself. Why were you so sure that you were the only one capable of carrying it out? You and no other.”
This is how they implemented the mussar lessons in Novardok.
Audacity and foolishness in and of themselves are not necessarily good things. “Az ponim legehennom – The brazen goes to gehennom” (Avos 5:24). Boldness must be coupled with yiras Shomayim and seichel to discern the proper situation for this middah to be used. Then it becomes azus d’kedushah. Fear was created for serving Hashem. “And now Yisroel, what does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your G-d…”(Devorim 10:12). It is also important for us to avoid things that are hazardous to us, both physically and spiritually.
However, fear can imprison a person, preventing him from doing great things. While considering whether or not to begin a new venture, some people have a tendency to first think of all the various reasons why it won’t work. In the process, we fail to appreciate its benefits and remain frozen in our tracks, deprived of a great opportunity. Perhaps it’s because in this day and age, we are spoiled by the amenities of modern society and we are afraid to step out of our comfort zone.
It is natural for people to worry, about parnassah, about health, and about their children’s welfare. But everything in moderation. “When there is a worry in man’s heart, he should suppress it” (Mishlei 12:25). “One opinion states that he should banish it from his mind, while the other says to tell the worry to others, for perhaps they can offer him good advice” (Yoma 75a).
People tend to ruminate about their worries like a cow chews its cud. Usually, our worries don’t pan out. It has been said in jest that doctors have found that worrying is good for you, because 95% of the things we are worried about never happen. Furthermore, we have a tendency to think that we are in control, that we are always in the driver’s seat, and that everything must go our way. We forget that life is a lot more complicated than driving a car. We are in the Hands of the Borei Olam, the Master Planner, who knows what is best for us. Learning seforim that strengthen our emunah allays our fears and makes our lives more serene.
Ignorance is bliss. Today we know too much. Modern technology and a blaring news media from many sources provide us with information from all around the world. Is it really necessary to hear about every single tragedy that transpires in every single city of every country? There is a limited amount of gigabytes in the human brain to handle so much information. It just makes you depressed and adds to your fears.
During this month of Adar, when we are marbeh besimchah, we would be wise to work on strengthening our emunah. In addition, we can resolve to filter out information that compromises our good cheer. After all, Purim is the time of ad delo yoda, and it just makes us tenser.