Approaching Mesillas Yesharim

Approaching Mesillas Yesharim can be a daunting task. The Ramchal is talking about reaching very high levels and most of us are still in the starting gate. The Ramchal was a master of systemization and in Mesillas Yesharim he presents a path to reach the highest levels a person can reach in this world. It’s a step by step process with many hurdles to jump along the way.

A person might say that this path is too hard for me, I’ll take an easier one. Is that a real alternative? The Ramchal’s path is firmly based on Torah sources and it’s what G-d expects of us. We may not reach the highest levels, but we have an obligation to understand the game plan as laid out in the Mesillas Yesharim and try to follow it given our set of circumstances.

A wonderful thing about Mesillas Yesharim is that it spells out the many pitfalls to spiritual growth. As the Ramchal points out, how foolish it would be to ignore those obstacles. And as an added bonus, the Mesillas Yesharim is loaded with ideas and techniques on how to overcome them.

Let’s deal with one basic idea which I heard directly from Rabbi Welcher and from Rabbi Shafier on a Shmuz mp3 this week. That simple idea is that we must THINK. Rabbi Shaffier points out the Tom Watson turned IBM into a mega-successful company with this simple mantra – Think! Rabbi Welcher pointed out that this is one of the main mussar lessons he has learned from his Rebbeim and from the Mesillas Yesharim.

That might seem like an obvious lesson, but it takes work to put it into practice. How often do we daven or do other mitzvos by rote? The halacha says we should think about what we are doing, but we often don’t follow that obvious perscription. How about our interactions with others? Do we really think about the effect our words might have and even what effect we would want them to have? And how about life itself? We believe that spirituality is more important than materialism, but how consistently do we live the spiritually focused life? I’m sure everybody can come up with many examples of where a little more Thinking is called for.

This is the first message of the Mesillas Yesharim and the point he makes often through out the book. THINK! Think about where you are, think about where you want to go, think about how you’re going to get there. Think about the long term and think about the short term. In fact, think about everything you do.

That’s what we’re going to try to do as we journey on the Path of the Just together. We’re going to learn to put proper thinking into practice, to make it a habit. And from making thinking a habit, we will, G-d willing, turn ourselves into mega-successful human beings, and turn the world into the mega-successful place it is destined to become.

This learning project is dedicated in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops. We would like to again thank Feldheim Publishers for permitting us to post R’ Yosef Leiber’s translation. You can review the first chapter below.

Author’s Introduction

The writer says: I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand. For within most of my words you will find general rules that most people know with certainty. However, to the degree that these rules are well-known and their truth self-evident, they are routinely overlooked, or people forget about them altogether.

Therefore, the benefit to be obtained from this work cannot be derived from a single reading; for it is possible that, after just one reading, the reader will find that he has learned little that he did not know before. Rather, its benefit is a function of continuous review. In this manner, one is reminded of those things which, by nature, people are prone to forget, and he will take to heart the duty that he tends to overlook.

Almost everywhere you look in the world today, you find that the majority of the bright and clever people are devoting their thinking and investigations to a profound analysis of worldly knowledge and its subtleties, each according to his intellectual capabilities and natural inclinations. There are some who focus their efforts on the study of the physical world and the laws of nature. Others immerse themselves in astronomy and geometry, and some follow the path of technological applications. And there are also those who have entered the realm of the sacred and are studying the holy Torah; some occupying themselves with the theoretical aspects of the Halachah, others with Midrash, yet others with the practical formulation of legal decisions.

However, there are few from this last group who choose to devote thought and study to the total perfection of the Divine service: to the love of the Eternal, the fear of the Eternal, the cleaving to the Eternal, and to all of the other aspects of piety. It is not as if they consider these aspects of knowledge unessential. For, if questioned, every one of them will maintain that these are of paramount importance, and that one cannot envision a truly wise person who has not comprehended all of these issues. Rather, their failure to devote more attention to the matter stems from its being so clear and so obvious to them that they see no need for investing much time in its study.

Consequently, the study of this subject and the reading of works of this kind have become the province of those whose minds lack subtlety and who are mentally sluggish. These you will see riveted to the study of piety, and this has given rise to the prevalent idea that anyone striving for piety is suspected of being dull-witted.

The result of this attitude, however, is detrimental both for those who possess wisdom and for those who do not, since it leaves both deficient in true piety and makes this quality extremely rare. Those who possess wisdom are deficient in piety due to their limited study of it, while the uneducated find it beyond their grasp. Piety, therefore, is construed by people to consist of the reciting of many psalms, making very long confessions, undertaking difficult fasts and performing ablutions in ice and snow, all of which are incompatible with intellect and reason. In the process, true piety, which we desire and strive for, eludes our understanding. For it is obvious that something which does not occupy a place in a person’s mind becomes of no concern to him. And although the beginnings and foundations of piety are inbred in the heart of every truthful person, if he does not utilize them he will lose the ability to discern their details, and he will pass over them without awareness.

For piety, fear of the Eternal, love of the Eternal, and purity of heart are not that deeply rooted within a person not to necessitate the employment of methods for their acquisition. In this respect they differ from natural states such as sleep and wakefulness, hunger and satiety, and all other natural instincts. Rather, the acquisition of these [qualities] definitely requires various methods and devices. Furthermore, while there are many factors operating to distance piety from man there are many elements that can counter these factors. Could it, then, conceivably, not be necessary to expend a great deal of time upon this study in order to know these truths and the means to acquire and keep them? How will this wisdom enter a person’s heart if he will not seek it?

Since the need for the perfection of Divine service and the necessity of its purity and cleanliness is recognized by every wise person (for without these it [the Divine Service] is certainly totally unacceptable, but rather repulsive and despised; “For the Eternal searches all hearts and understands all the workings of [our] thoughts” (Divrei HaYamim 128:9)), what, then, will we answer on the day of rebuke if we are lax in this study and forsake what we are required to do? This is the very essence of what the Eternal our God asks of us! Is it befitting our intelligence that we exert ourselves and labor in speculations concerning which we have no obligation, in fruitless debates and empty pilpul, and in laws that are not applicable to us, while the great obligation that we owe our Creator we abandon to habit and rote?

If we have neither contemplated nor studied what true fear of Heaven is or what its ramifications are, how will we acquire it, and how will we escape from the vanity of the world that renders our hearts forgetful? Surely it will fade away and be forgotten even though we recognize its necessity. And likewise, love of the Eternal: if we do not make an effort to anchor it within our hearts, with the power of all those means that lead us toward it, how will it exist within us? How will devotion and ardor for the Blessed One and His Torah enter into our souls if we do not direct ourselves toward His greatness and exaltedness, [thereby] internalizing it within our hearts? How will our thoughts be purified if we do not try to cleanse them from the blemishes infused in them by physical nature? Much the same can also be said about all the character traits, which need improvement and adjustment. Who will adjust them and who will correct them, with all the necessary rigor, if not us?

If we analyzed the matter objectively, we would no doubt discover its veracity. This would benefit us, and we could then teach it to others, thereby benefiting them as well. As stated by Shlomo (Mishlei 2:4-5), “If you seek it as [you would] silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand fear of the Eternal.” He does not say, “Then you will understand philosophy; then you will understand astronomy; then you will understand medicine; then you will understand the legal issues and judgments of Halachah,” but rather, “then you will understand fear of the Eternal.” We see that in order to understand fear of the Eternal, one must seek it out as he would silver and search for it as he would hidden treasures.

What has been transmitted to us through our parents and what is generally self-evident to every religious individual is insufficient! But yet we see that time can be found for all other branches of study yet for this no time is available! Why can’t a person at least designate specific times for this purpose, that would not interfere with other studies and endeavors that he pursues in the remainder of his time?

Scripture states (lyov 28:28), “Behold [Rein – ]n], fear of the Eternal – this is wisdom.” Our Sages of blessed memory comment (Shabbos 31b) that hein here means one, for that is the meaning of the Greek word hein. Thus, fear – and fear alone – is considered wisdom. And surely something that does not require study [and investigation] would not be considered wisdom. In actuality, all these matters demand profound study for one to truly know them rather than in a subjective manner or through faulty judgment, and particularly if one is to acquire and [truly] understand them. Therefore, he who delves into them will see that piety is not contingent on those things that the pseudo-pious, in their foolishness, consider relevant, but rather on true perfection and profound wisdom.

This is what Moshe Rabbeinu, may peace be upon him, teaches us when he says (Devarim 10:12), “Yet now, Israel, what does the Eternal, your God, request of you? Only to fear the Eternal, your God, to follow all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve the Eternal, your God, with all your heart and your entire being; [and] to keep the Eternal’s commandments and statutes….” Here he [Moshe] incorporated all the elements that are necessary for the perfection of that service that is desired by the Holy One blessed be He: fear of the Eternal, walking in His ways, love [of the Eternal], perfecting the heart, and observance of all the mitzvos.

Fear of the Eternal refers to the fear that His exalt-edness inspires. One should express fear before Him as one would before a great and awesome king, and he should feel embarrassment before the Eternal’s greatness, in every movement that he makes, and particularly when speaking before Him in prayer or when engaged in the study of His Torah.

Walking in His ways relates to the finest traits of character and their cultivation. As our Sages of blessed memory have explained (Shabbos 133b): “Just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful…” – the underlying principle being that a person must conduct himself with honesty and integrity in all his various actions. Our Sages of blessed memory summarized the idea as follows (Pirkei Avos 2:1): “That which brings acclaim to the doer and earns him the acclaim of others,” namely, all that moves toward the goal of true benevolence, meaning that it results in the strengthening of Torah and the promotion of harmony within society.

Love: to implant love of the Blessed One within a person’s heart so that his soul is stirred to find favor before Him, just as one’s heart is stirred to please his father and mother. And he will be anguished if he finds this quality deficient in himself or in others. Furthermore, he will zealously [safeguard] it and will rejoice intensely when implementing [even] a part of it.

Perfecting the heart: so that the service before the Blessed One should be carried out with pure intent, for the purpose of serving Him only and with no other motives. This means that one’s heart should be totally devoted to the Divine service, not like one who lacks commitment or acts out of habit; rather, one’s whole heart should aspire to this.

Observance of all the mitzvos: this means the complete observance of all the mitzvos with all their specifications and stipulations.

All of these principles require much elucidation. I have found that our Sages of blessed memory have incorporated these elements in a different type of arrangement, more detailed and specific, and systematized according to the order necessary for their proper acquisition. Their words are found in a baraisa cited in numerous places in the Talmud, such as the one in the chapter “Lifnei Edeihen” [”Before Their Festivals”] (Avodah Zarah 20b): “From here, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said: Torah brings one to vigilance, vigilance brings one to alacrity, alacrity brings one to [spiritual] cleanliness, cleanliness brings one to abstinence, abstinence brings one to purity, purity brings one to piety, piety brings one to humility, humility brings one to fear of sin, fear of sin brings one to holiness, holiness brings one to Divine inspiration, Divine inspiration brings one to the resurrection of the dead.”

On the basis of this baraisa, I have undertaken to compose this work to teach myself and to remind others of the conditions necessary for the perfection of the Divine service in all its stages. Regarding each stage, I will explain its content, components, and details, the methodology for acquiring it, those factors that undermine it and how to avoid them. As a result, I or anyone else who may be moved to read it will learn to fear the Eternal, our God, and we will not forget our duty toward Him. That which the material world seeks to remove from our hearts will be stimulated by reading and contemplation, and it will stir us to perform what we have been commanded to do.

May the Eternal support our aspirations and safeguard us from failure. May the supplication of the Psalmist, beloved to His God, be fulfilled for us (Tehil-lim 86:11): “Teach me, O Eternal, Your way; let me walk in Your truth; unify my heart to fear Your name.” Amen, so may it be His will.

2 comments on “Approaching Mesillas Yesharim

  1. IBM technology was a key element in Nazi implementation of their Holocaust program. See reviews of a recent book:

    Ironically, the US Army invading Europe during WW2 also used IBM equipment. My father was involved as a sergeant in record-keeping for his 701st Tank Battalion (ended war at Elbe River watching Germans surrender) and used IBM punch cards with an early computer. The 701st, traveling in support of the 102nd Infantry Division (US 9th Army) came across the results of a German atrocity at Gardelegen near the end of the war.

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