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Rav Yisrael Salanter-Saving a Soul Print E-mail

Yahrtzeit-Rav-Yisrael-SalanterThe 25th of Shevat is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yisrael (ben Ze’ev Wolf) Lipkin Salanter (1810-1883), founder and spiritual father of the Mussar movement. Born in Zager (near Kovno), Lithuania, he was a descendent of the Vilna Gaon. Rav Yisrael became a close talmid of Rav Zundel of Salant, who introduced him to the classic works of mussar. In 1840, he became Rosh Yeshiva of the Rameillas Yeshiva in Vilna, and later opened a yeshiva in Kovno. A compilation of his thoughts were recorded in a sefer, Or Yisrael, written by one of his closest talmidim, Rav Yitzchak Blazer of Petersburg. Among his other close disciples are Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm, Rav Yosef Yozel Hurwitz of Novardok.


“It is worthwhile to give one's life for the saving of a single soul in Israel.” This remark of Rabbi Israel Salanter's may well be taken as the motif of his own life. An unending battle takes place in history between the spirit of divine holiness and that of selfish desire. It must be fought out in the heart of every individual and in the life of every community. In a time of crisis, Rabbi Israel assumed leadership, to save his own soul and that of his age.

The power of man's natural instincts is such that it is apt to threaten our spiritual aspirations at the very moment at which they seem to triumph. Our innate selfish tendencies, the archenemies of our divine mission, are not necessarily checkmated by our observance of the laws. There can be no true perfection without these; yet they may be turned into unthinking habits or, even worse, become tools of our selfishness. Piety can become a source of spiritual pride, Torah study a quest for scholarly prestige, and law observance a matter of showing off. The visit to the synagogue can easily be turned into a social event, as we know so well, and charity into a tool of social ambition. Even where our intentions are of the very best, we may fail; a kind act may flow from unjustifiable weakness, and a good deed may often hide a better one left undone. Such dangers must not of course be taken as justifying disregard of the Torah; on the contrary, they represent a warning to us never to relax in our striving for perfection, for at the very moment at which it seems with in our grasp, it may slip away from us.

Indeed, the Torah has warned us again and again to be on guard against this danger. It has exhorted us always to see in the Law the means to our perfection and to make every observance a conscious act of divine service. This conception, like a golden thread, runs through all the books of the Bible; the Sages of the Talmud constantly emphasized the “duties of the heart,” and in the course of the centuries a vast ethical literature sprang up, which, ever stressed the need for thoughtful observance and was industriously studied at all times. The modern age with its intellectual and social distractions greatly aggravated the problem. Thus it became vitally necessary for the future of European Jewry, to point out the spiritual wealth inherent in the traditional observances.

This problem was particularly acute in Poland. Here, 17th century persecution had undermined the spiritual and material development of the Jewish community; and here, too, a solution was offered; Chassidus. It pointed out the proud meaning of man's divine service; and for filling the Law he not only redeemed himself but lifted up the entire universe to God. They inspired a great upsurge of religious enthusiasm among the Jewish masses which, under the leadership of the Tzaddikim, inspired joyful divine service. However, they did not appeal to the state and restrained Lithuanian Jew.

“While running after a mitzvah, one can do a great deal of harm,” Rabbi Salanter used to say. With his penetrating insight into human nature he pointed out that the Hasidic teachings could turn even the drinking of whiskey into an act of divine service, but that, on the other hand, fasting could be devoid of religious spirit. Deep-rooted evil impulses obstruct and vitiate man's most noble aspirations; they are responsible for the “sickness” from which, as he realized, his age so bitterly suffered. It was his historic role to find a remedy for it.

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