Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Shmuz on the Parsha

The Shmuz on the Parsha
by Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier
Published by Feldheim

Reviewed by Shmuel Sofer

The Mussar Movement made famous by R. Yisroel Salanter and his students held that pure Torah study might not adequately train students and adults to perfect their lives and align them with the ethical principles and worldview that is befitting of a “Ben Torah”. Its proponents argued that the Talmud is replete with ethical instruction but, like many of the legal passages, those texts are often distributed throughout the Talmud and rabbinic literature in a manner which makes a programmed study difficult. The classic “mussar texts” such as Mesilas Yesharim, Orchos Tzadikim and Shaarei Teshuva culled through the sea of the Talmud and organized the material into an organized text. Mussarniks advocated regular study of these classic works. An additional component that the mussarniks innovated was the role of the mashgiach ruchani, a spiritual/ethical counselor who would oversee students ethical development. One of the mashgiach's key tasks was to deliver a mussar shmuz or inspirational lecture designed to motivate students. Often topical or arranged according to the weekly parsha, the shmuz became a means of taking the lessons of the mussar works and bringing them to the students in a very practical format.

Click here for moreThe mussar program of R. Yisrael Salanter took root in many yeshivos and has survived today in a somewhat modified form. Some yeshivos minimize the study of mussar while others place a greater emphasis on it. The weekly “shmuz,” though, has become a mainstay feature in virtually all yeshivos, in part because of the practical lessons which students can integrate into their daily lives. In recent years, shmuzen from some of the great mashgichim of the “yeshiva world,“ such as R. Chaim Schmulevitz of Mir and Rabbi Eliahu Dessler of Gateshead, have been published and in some cases translated into English.

In the United States, the Chofetz Chaim networks of yeshivos have earned themselves a reputation of strong emphasis on mussar and ethics. R. Henoch Leibowitz z”tl, the long term Rosh Yeshiva and visionary of the Chofetz Chaim system, was a strong proponent of mussar. In addition, Rabbi Leibowitz recognized that after leaving the “walls of the Bais Medrash” to earn a living, many yeshiva students were at risk of floundering or losing their previously strong connection to the Torah institutions where they had studied previously. To fill this void he charged Rabbi Ben-Tzion (Barry) Shafier, a rebbe from the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva high school system, with creating Torah Programs for “working guys.” His Tiferes Bnei Torah has taken root in Monsey, Queens, Brooklyn and other metro neighborhoods. One of the preeminent features is Rabbi Shafier’s weekly “shmuz.” Following in the mold of the mussar mashgichim of old, Rabbi Shafier delivers a regular lecture on a timely topic, often connected to the weekly parsha or upcoming Yom Tov. The recorded lectures are available on his web site, along with access to several other features.

A popular speaker, Rabbi Shafier is able to combine Torah lessons and infuse them with interesting real life stories and events that bring home his point. Rabbi Shafier often lets slip a personal vignette which allows the listener to recognize that he personally has experienced many of the issues either himself or vicariously through his students over the years. His lectures are well researched and he regularly enhances the discussion with a slew of trivia facts and anecdotes designed to capture his audience's attention as he brings home his message -- fidelity to Torah ethics despite living in a contemporary world. Rabbi Shafier has developed an extensive marketing campaign promoting his product -- Torah and musar. In addition to his organization, he has a website which hosts his lectures and he produces a weekly “parsha sheet” wherein he discusses a classic Torah commentary, midrash or statement of Chazal and analyzes it for the ethical lesson which he can mine from it.

This book The Shmuz on the Parsha is a condensed form of many of these lessons. Rabbi Shafier begins with a direct quote of the statement of Chazal which he then paraphrases and analyzes. He then develops a question based on that analyses and attempts to resolve it with a lesson for the student. The book is designed to be used as “Shabbos Table Vort” which can generate discussion around the table. For optimal benefit the reader would review the “5 minute“ dvar Torah in advance. The book then contains marginal notes and summaries that will assist the user in being able to relay the message without having to read aloud word for word, usually something I find boring a detracting from a dvar Torah.

This is not a book geared to academics or those with a focus on “pshuto shel mikra” in the sense used by modern Bible scholars. It is a book filled with wonderful insights and and lessons directed at American “yeshivishe” Orthodox families. The only criticism that I can offer is that the page format with scant numbers of words on the page, large type etc. results in a 376 page book which could have been much more compact. The 8½ x 11 page size results in a “coffee table” size which is a bit awkward for Shabbos table use. Likewise the “list price” of over $45 is overly expensive, but I suspect that this is but a marketing ploy as the “pre-publication“ price of $29.95 is more in line with other similar works.

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