Friday, December 31, 2004

"The Duties of the Heart" Gate 8, Ch. 3 (Part 1)

"In Search of Spiritual Excellence"

-- A Reworking of Classical Mussar Texts

Rabbi Yaakov Feldman's series on

"The Duties of the Heart" Gate 8, Ch. 3 (Part 1)

It's become clear that introspection at bottom is the act of taking stock of what we've been granted and thanking the Supplier. But just imagine all the instances in life we could dwell on to do that! So since we couldn't possibly feature all of them we'll focus on thirty of the most fundamental of all. This too will obviously take us quite a while but it will prove to be very helpful and enlightening -- if we take each one to heart.

The first instance to consider, obviously, is our birth. Ibn Pakudah asks us to reflect upon the fact that we each came from out of nowhere to life itself "not as a result of our merits, but simply because of G-d's generosity, goodness, and kindness". How true. For each one of us could simply have never been, and nothing we'd done beforehand would have guaranteed us existence or deemed us indispensable. G-d's love and generosity alone allowed for us to be, and we have a lot to be thankful for, for that alone.

So we're charged to thank G-d outright for that privilege by reflecting upon the following. "Just imagine you were thrown out into the street by your mother as an infant" Ibn Pakudah offers, "and a passing stranger took pity on you, brought you home, and took it upon himself to raise you. Imagine how obliged you'd be to him ... !" That's all the more so true when it comes to G-d. We'd do well to use that as a model for how freely we should be giving our thanks to Him.

We're to then contemplate upon just how generous G–d had been to us when He allowed us fully functioning, healthy bodies from the earliest points on (as most of us have, thank G-d), and what wonders He prepared for us subsequently. After all, He provided us with nourishment while in the womb, and with food when we were born -- and all again despite anything we had or hadn't done.

"Just think of how thankful and appreciative you'd be to someone if he furnished you with eyes, hands, or feet and made you whole, if you were born without them" Ibn Pakudah points out, "and how eternally grateful you'd be". So "that's the extent to which you should be drawn to your Creator, who formed your body and fully rendered your limbs" we're advised, which cannot be denied.

We're then to reflect upon how good G–d has been to us by granting us an intellect and senses, as well as all the other stunning, wondrous, and glorious traits that set us apart as human beings.

After all, imagine you were born dull-witted, and that someone somehow provided you with an intellect, Ibn Pakudah advises. "You'd certainly realize how your life had improved", and it would surely be clear that "a lifetime spent thanking and praising that person wouldn't be enough to repay him". So, isn't that "all the more so true of the Creator, whose favors are perpetual, whose generosity is never ending, and whose kindness is unceasing?"

We're then to take G-d's greatest favor to us to heart -- "His encouraging us to engage in the very life–blood of our existence in both worlds, the auspicious Torah" which our people have been so blessed with. After all, what Torah does is "expel our blindness, undo all our foolishness, enlighten our eyes, draw us closer to G-d's will, inform us of the reality of our Creator and of your obligations to Him (and all) in order to rescue us in both this world and the World to Come."

Reflect upon how hard you'd find it to thank someone who introduced you to G-d's Torah if you weren't granted it from childhood or if you'd been thrown off-track and been reintroduced to the glories of Torah anew. And imagine '''how inadequate your efforts to thank and praise (him) ... would be"! So, shouldn't we thank G-d Himself, "who encourages us in Torah all the time, and helps us to understand and observe it?" And shouldn't we rededicate ourselves to Him and his Torah everyday accordingly?

And then continuing to reflect upon Torah, we're encouraged to be introspective about how lax we often are when it comes to trying to truly understand what it's telling us, and how satisfied we often are with inadequate or faulty understandings of it.

After all, "we'd never do that if we were unsure of the meaning of a statement offered us by a king" having to do with things that were confusing or vexing to us, just "because the concepts were too profound or subtle, complex or ornate for us. We'd work tirelessly to set heart and mind to the task of understanding it". So if we'd do that when it came to a statement offered from a mere mortal, aren't we even more obliged to do so when it comes to understanding G-d's statement -- His Torah, "which is our very lifeblood and the source of our redemption"? How in all faith could we be satisfied with a "close enough" understanding? Consider all we're missing out on by settling for that!

(c) 2004 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman and

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AT LONG LAST! Rabbi Feldman's translation of "The Gates of Repentance" has been reissued at *at a discount*! You can order it right now by logging onto (or by going to and searching for it). Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason Aronson Publishers). And his new work on Maimonides' "The Eight Chapters" will soon be available from Judaica Press.
His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.
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