Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 3)

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul: Why I Delight in Mussar

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 3. The Meaning Of Life, Writ Large

To begin with, I found myself fascinated by others who searched for the meaning of life, when I was a young man. But they seemed to do it more profitably than I -- because they seemed to have found the answer.

The romantic that I was, I was dazzled by stories of people who would spend the better part of their lives travelling off to a hot climate. And spend years and years mastering an ancient language in order to delve into hoary old texts. All to arrive at the meaning of life.

Somehow or another I found myself doing the same, going off to Israel to learn Torah, and applying myself to the study of Hebrew -- a verifiably ancient language [2]. And after years of study I collected a “short list” of the most succinctly-put statements about the meaning of life, and of human potential.

Many of the quotes can be found in the Torah itself as well as in the writings of Solomon, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Bachya Ibn Pakudah, Rabbeinu Yonah, Rambam and many, many other lofty souls. And we will cite those statements, later on [3].

Anyway ... how enthralling it was after so many years to come upon all that! How fulfilling and rewarding! And to think -- I’d come upon the secret of the universe in the process of delving into the ancient and holy texts, as I’d always dreamed.

Fine. A personal victory, a puzzle solved, if you will. An Everest climbed, a continent discovered. But, once you learn what’s required of you in your life -- which is, admittedly, no small feat -- what do you do? And therein lies the great drama of having to *live with* the secret of the universe.

It seems there are two ways a person reacts to having hit upon the meaning of life: by either following through on it and acting accordingly. Or, as I’m sorry to say I did for far too long ... by “studying it further”. That is, by being so delighted by the *idea* of the meaning of life he’d stumbled upon, that you want to read all about it on an ever deepening level.

That’s not to deny the utter elegance of the idea that we actually have meaning. I refer you back to our introduction, where we started to discuss the profound need we have for it. But a problem arises when we center upon the idea, rather than on its practical implications and on living it out. It’s little different than liking the *idea* of being sober if you’re alcoholic, and reading everything you can get your gnarled and shaking hands on about sobriety.

So, I came to understand that it’s not enough to know. One has to do. As the Gemorrah puts it (Berachot 17A), "Tachlit chochma teshuvah u'maasim tovim -- The whole point of having wisdom is (being inspired by it to do) teshuva and good things.”

That is, what good does it do you to know, when you don’t act like you know? So, on one level that’s why I took to Mussar and backed off a bit from Kabbalah and Chassidut: to learn how to act upon what I learned [4].

But all this goes even deeper than that. And it touches upon a discussion of prophecy, and the intense relationship to G-d the prophets (and many near-prophets) enjoyed. Because it came clear to me that assiduously following the path laid out by Mussar would lead one to prophecy.


[2] It may have been the temper of the times or the fascinating foreignness of it all, but it was de rigeour then to expect wisdom to come through the study of either Sanskrit, ancient Chinese, or the like -- anything but Hebrew!

[3] See section 5 of this essay entitled, “Then Back Again to Heaven“.

[4] Two points: first, it’s obviously vital to learn halacha to know what to do, and I certainly do learn it. What I am talking about is learning things that *motivate one to follow halacha*. And second, to be sure, one can certainly learn how to draw close to G-d through Chassidut and Kabbalah (though Kabbalah is a more abstruse system to use to accomplish that). But the kind of Chassidut one would learn to come to draw close to Him is very, very close to Mussar anyway. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov counseled his students to study Mussar every day (see the very first paragraph of Tziva’at HaRivash.). So, I don’t at all argue against learning Chassidut en toto -- only against over-concentrating upon the more cryptic parts of it.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

(Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org )

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 www.tinyurl.com/49s8t (or by going to www.rowman.com 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.
Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes on www.torah.org entitled "Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal".