The first two defining stories about R’ Salanter occurred on Yom Kippur, and they both underscore his ability to discern and stick to first principles despite misunderstandings that might have brought on.
Because Yom Kippur is so holy and fraught with personal import, consequence, and meaning, most of us concentrate on our own spiritual needs then and pull away from other things. And we’re likely to be absorbed in the specific requirements of the Holy Day without giving thought to other, likewise sacred duties.
So we’re told that on one Yom Kippur eve R’ Salanter didn’t appear in the synagogue, which surprised and perturbed many. What had happened was that he’d heard a baby crying when the baby’s mother left him to pray, so R’ Salanter stayed with the baby until the mother came back, and prayed there himself. The point is that rather than concentrate on his own needs (i.e., to pray in a congregation, to illustrate to others there the sobriety of the moment, and frankly, to please his congregants), R’ Salanter chose to concentrate on someone else’s needs, which is an exceedingly important principle in Mussar.
For, while the religious demands of the day are vitally important as far as each individual is concerned, others’ needs — in this case, those of an utterly dependant baby — very often matter more. The larger issue that R’ Salanter was underscoring then is that if we’re only to care for our own needs on the holiest day of the year, how dare we demand that G-d Almighty care for our needs?
The other Yom Kippur tale taught a lesson about first principles, too. Cholera is a dread and terribly incapacitating disease, and it was rampant one particular year in that area of Europe where R’ Salanter and his congregants lived. Anyone who suffered from it could easily become seriously, mortally ill; and one had to replenish fluids and nutrients to replace those lost in the course of the illness in order to get well.
But on Yom Kippur? To eat and drink when, as everyone knows, the Torah forbids that? Wouldn’t it be in our best interests to fast then anyway, and to pray that G-d have mercy on us?
R’ Salanter took another tact. In order to prevent tragedy and forestall the rapid deterioration of those who’d be exposed to cholera, R’ Salanter forbad his congregants from fasting that year (to ensure their resistance to the disease), he ordered that the prayer service be shortened (so no one would tire himself out and be more susceptible to it), and he ordered that people hold services in the open air rather than in the synagogue (so that no one come into close contact with others and thus not to spread the disease). In fact, after the Morning Prayer R’ Salanter himself ascended the pulpit with a piece of cake in hand, said Kiddush over wine, and ate and drank in everyone’s sight.
Knowing full well that actively avoiding a danger to one’s life trumps nearly everything else according to the Torah, as most observant Jews know, still and all the stark application of that in the course of the Holy Day of Yom Kippur seemed to belittle the moment. So some people looked askance at what he did. But R’ Salanter knew that what needed to be done and what mattered most of all rather than what we’d ordinarily be expected to do had to be done, so he set out to do it despite appearances.