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Mishlei 19-27

Discretion

Key Concepts

It is important to engage in the study and contemplation of Mussar (lessons in moral discipline) on a regular basis. The time spent in Mussar activities is essential for each person’s character development. It enables the person to understand his own behavior and ultimately to do mitzvos with greater devotion.

However, it is advisable to use discretion in how you apply the concepts of Mussar. Mussar instructions are broad training guidelines, which cannot cover the unique characteristics of every case. Thus, there may be situations where discretion is called for. For example it would be a sin for a man to let false modesty prevent him from saving a drowning woman.

Mussar lessons should be understood as a means to help a person understand his own inclinations as he is drawn one way or another by his emotions. That training is very valuable but should not be blindly followed, especially in situations where there are conflicting options. Ultimately, the decision as to what to do in a specific situation is determined by Daas (Torah wisdom).

Exploring Mishlei

 חֲדַל בְּנִי לִשְׁמֹעַ מוּסָר לִשְׁגוֹת מֵאִמְרֵי דָעַת

(27) My son, exercise restraint in arbitrarily obeying the lessons of Mussar,
when they cause you to deviate from the words of  Torah knowledge .

This proverb compares two valuable learning activities, Mussar methodologies and Torah wisdom. Although both are important, one should be viewed as laying the groundwork for the other. Since it is ultimately a matter of priorities, the proverb is structured in a provocative way to catch the reader’s attention. This is done by downplaying one activity in favor of the other.

Learning Mishlei

Exercise restraint — חֲדַל
my son — בְּנִי,
in listening to Mussar teachingsלִשְׁמֹעַ מוּסָר,
when they cause you to unwittingly stray  —  לִשְׁגוֹת
from teachings of Daas
(Torah knowledge)מֵאִמְרֵי דָעַת.

Additional Insights

(1) The methods of Mussar address the mechanics of moral self-improvement. These methods may require over-emphasis of one character trait to compensate for a weakness in another character trait. This can lead to obsessiveness (or fanaticism) in arbitrarily emphasizing one behavioral trait at the expense of another. Thus a person perfecting the trait of honesty may ignore the allowance that needs to be made to promote peace.  (אלשיך)

(2) The study of Mussar makes use of creative thinking to develop understanding of the workings of the person’s mind. Such thinking runs the risk of going astray, leading to conclusions that conflict with Torah knowledge and halachah. Therefore, the student needs to be on guard to avoid being carried away. (תבונת משלי)

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