By Rabbi Samuel Waldman
Here are a few good ideas. One is to learn (or to be taught, depending on your age) the main pinpointed, precise parts of the classic sifrei mussar v’hashkafa that I shall suggest to you. (This is not an all-inclusive list, and of course, other people may have different ideas, but here are my humble ideas.) This will help imbue you with the important Torah Hashkafa needed for everyday life (and especially for improving your Tefilla). This is a crash course in Mussar and Hashkofa. Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off by mentioning the scary word “mussar” however, whether we like it or not, it’s truly essential to learn the specific parts of the seforim that I will recommend. This in order to create the necessary spiritual fuel and energy that is needed for serious proper Tefilla. Tefilla with kavana is NOT easy, so a LOT of spiritual fuel is necessary for that required energy and I wouldn’t lie and tell you otherwise (People avoid Mussar since it typically obligates them to do more mitzvos and to fulfil all the mitzvos in a much better way, [not a bad idea actually] and it tells us to avoid aveiros [also not a bad idea] that we prefer not to avoid, hence, the serious aversion to learning or hearing mussar. However, that’s a serious copout of our ENTIRE purpose of being in this world, so we must tackle learning the basic mussar and hashkafa seforim.) So, I present here somewhat of a very short and basic “curriculum” for a crash course in basic Torah Hashkafa. I would start of as a very, very basic step in the right direction to learn the beginning of the Mesillas Yesharim, (available in English – Feldheim Publisher) which is one of the most basic of all the sifrei mussar and hashkofa. Specifically, it’s especially important to learn the entire preface and the entire first two topics of Z’herus and Zrisus, [that’s chapters 1-9], however if that’s too much, then at least learn the Preface and chapters 1-5, and if that’s too much then just learn the preface and chapter 1. Being this is such basic Hashkafa, this should be learnt over A FEW TIMES until it gets into your bones. This is crucial basic material that we all MUST get into our bloodstream as soon as possible. Another great sefer for this purpose would be parts of the sefer Sharei Teshuva from the Rabbeinu Yona (available in English – Feldheim Publisher). I would recommend learning the entire Second Shaar, and in the third Shaar I would recommend learning at least numbers 13-19 and then 147-158. The preface to the sefer Chovos Ha’levuvos (available in English – Feldheim Publisher) and the preface to the sefer Orchos Tzadikim (available in English – Feldheim Publisher) are both very important and they will provide a lot of important hashkofos as well. A great (unacceptable under normal circumstances, but I consider this an emergency) short cut that will provide a lot of the basic teachings (in a very abbreviated form) would be to learn the Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh from the sefer Chovos Halevuvos. Just learn the entire chapter 3 of that Shaar. It has 30 (relatively short) ideas (calculations) that people should be thinking and adopting those thoughts into their daily lives, in order to live a more meaningful and purposeful life of Avodas Hashem. This is also a chapter that is important to review all the time. In fact, everything that I have just recommended is crucial and needs to be reviewed often. For slightly more advanced learning, it’s important to learn from the sefer Derech Hashem from the Ramchal, (who also authored the Mesillas Yesharim ) at least the second chapter of the first chelek, as a bare minimum. Also, I recommend from this sefer that you learn the fourth chelek, chapter two which speaks about the amazing light and holiness that one gets when learning Torah. It’s really a very important sefer, but it’s not easy to learn. It is also available in English from Feldheim Publishers. (On the point of limud Hatorah, there’s an EXTREMELY IMPORTANT Ramchal that nees to be learnt by all who learn and TEACH gemora. The Ramchal wrote a short sefer called Mamer Ha’Ikrim. In the English Derech Hashem with the translation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, z”l, (Feldheim Publishers) The whole maymer is good to learn, however the last chapter is on the inyan of Torah Shel Bal Peh and Shas. You could learn the whole chapter, but specifically it’s CRUCIAL to learn from the paragraph starting with וצריך שתדע עוד… which speaks about the many drushos that SEEM TO BE THE WAY THAT CERTAIN HALACHOS ARE LEARNED OUT FROM and that’s totally incorrect. All the main halachos in Shas, especially those found in a Mishna, were KNOWN already from Moshe Rabbanu. This drashos are just ways they found a connection of those halachos to the Torah Shebiksav. He writes that Chazal had a tradition that it’s important to find connections from halachos of Torah Shel Bal Peh to Torah ShBiksav. This was learnt as a concept of Toras Hashem Temima. Meaning that the whole Torah, Shel Bal Peh and ShBiksav, should be connected in some form wherever possible, even if it’s just a slight remez, and even if it’s pretty far fetched, that’s also ok, since IT’S NOT THE WAY WE LEARN OUT THE HALACHA, WE ALREADY KNEW THE HALACHA. Even if it means having a long machlokes about it, even though they knew the halacha already since Moshe Rabanu’s time, it was still considered a proper thing to do. This is a crucial point. The Steipler ZT”L in his sefer Chayei Olam recommends some seforim for chizuk Ha’Emunah. The second one on the list is The “sefer nifla” Kuzari Sheini. With regards to this point of the Ramchal, the Kuzri Sheini writes at great length to show this point in Vikuach Shein. It is crucial reading for all those who teach gemorah. MANY A TALMUD (especially from the modern orthodox community) HAS BEEN TURNED OFF WITH THE MANY OF WHAT SEEMS ILLOGICAL DRASHOS, and way out of context drashos (not my words – the Ramchal and the Kuzeri Sheini use such terminology) that seem to be the source to VERY IMPORTANT halachos and Mitzvos. It does seem far fetched and it is a big turn off if that were actually the case. Again, both talk about how all these halachos were WELL KNOWN before those sometimes far fetched drashos were ever darshened, and the drashos are just as asmachtos, and/or for remembrance purposes, and/or to provide the Toras Hashem Temima aspect as well, but NOT that they are the source that teaches us the actual halacha or mitzva. In the Vikuach Sheini there are numerous examples, and I will just point to a few that are very good and powerful proofs amongst` many. See #134, 136, and 157-166. (And I will add on an important one. We know that in Mesechet Sukka on daf 35A the gemorah discuses how we know that פרי עץ הדר means an esrog. So, the gemorah gives 3 different opinions in how we see from the word הדר that it means an esrog. And if not for these explanations we wouldn’t know? What did they use for פרי עץ הדר before these explanations were given? Of course the gemora already knew from Moshe Rabanu that it means an esrog, just the gemora wanted to see how we could connect their tradition to any words found in the Torah, and in this case it worked out with the words of .פרי עץ הדר)
One last sefer, for people over 20 years old, I would HIGHLY recommend learning from the sefer Nefesh Hachaim (written by Reb Chaim Voloziner ZT”L, the main talmid of the Vilna Goan ZT”L) the first Shaar from the beginning (you could skip the first two chapters) through chapter 14, for extremely basic kabbalistic hashkofos that everyone (over 20 years old) really must know. Of course, there’s many more seforim, and these seforim mentioned, eventually you should try and learn each one in its entirety, but what I have suggested is for this basic “crash course” in Hashkafa. The first full mussar sefer to learn is surely the Mesillas Yesharim since it is the most basic and the most important mussar sefer ever written (these are NOT my words but the words of many Gedolei Yisroel of every sect of Judaism). I would also highly recommend that you try and get a hold of as many lectures from Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZT”L’s recordings as possible. They contain crucial Torah Hashkofa unmatched by anyone else that I personally have ever heard. As a distant second place option, you can read any of his English hashkofa seforim, such as Rejoice O Youth, Sing You Righteous, Awake My Glory, and his sefer on Tefilla called Praise My Soul. Of course, you can ask other people for their opinion but I think this is a list that is very much on target. Pieces of Rabbi Miller’s recordings are now put out in print in the weekly Toras Avigdor parsha pamphlet that you can get by email. Those are also very helpful, but it doesn’t come to actually hearing his lectures. It’s a totally different flavor. For seforim that help fortify basic Emunah I would suggest that you read the two famous seforim from Rabbi Lawrence Keleman called Permission to Believe, and Permission to Receive. However, they are a more suited for advanced readers. If I may, I would also humbly suggest reading the sefer that I wrote on Emunah, BS”D, called Beyond A Reasonable Doubt: Convincing Evidence to the Truth of Judaism by Feldheim Publisher’s. It covers many more topics than Rabbi Kelemen’s books. It’s also a much easier read. BE”H, I hope there will be a third edition coming out soon. For seforim that talk about Emunah in Hashem’s running of the world, the set of seforim from Rabbi Dovid Ashear called Living Emunah would be a great sefer to read. [There’s a whole bunch of books in that series. It’s from Artscroll Publishers.]
As a side point. For those looking for more spiritual inspiration I also think it’s a good idea to read seforim about big Tzaddikim. Take your pick. They are all valuable. (Personally, I liked the one about Hagoan Hatzadik Rebbe Yechezkal Levenstein ZT”L, he was in a league of righteousness all his own. Also, All For The Boss is a very amazing sefer, and of course, the book on Horav Avigdor Miller’s life was very inspiring to me. The Steipler ZT”L has a few good seforim about his life as well. But, truthfully any Tzaddik is great to read about. It helps imbue the reader with Yiras Shomayim and we need Yiras Shumayim to be able to daven properly.