Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 4)

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

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 4. Ascending Heavenward

The truth is, the entire Jewish Nation experienced prophecy. Not just the Prophets, not just the Patriarchs. And twice, at that. At the crossing of the Red Sea [5] and at the giving of the Torah at Sinai [6]. And all of us were there, too, on a spiritual level [7]. As such, they could be said to be the quintessential Jewish experiences [8].

Hence, prophecy is “indigenous” to us as Jews and in our bones [9]. And we ask for its reintroduction in our prayers everyday when we say, “Shine a new light upon Zion, and may we all soon merit basking in it” [10] and, “Bless us all together, our Father, with the light of Your countenance, for it was with the light of Your countenance, G-d our L-rd, that You gave us the Torah of life." [11]

It could also be said that whatever moments of glorious insight, stunning revelation, sudden epiphany, or sublime acumen we might experience in life is a minor reencounter with nativistic Jewish prophecy. In fact, all wishes for just such moments (as well as for other peak experiences) can be said to be primal cravings for prophecy and the intimacy with the Ribbono Shel Olam it entails.

So, if we all yearn for prophecy (on a subliminal level, at least [12]), it would behoove us to know how to come to it. In short, it involves attaining wisdom, correcting your character, and controlling your physical desires [13].

(A quick aside. I dread losing the reader at this point, fearing he or she might succumb to the notorious counter-Mussar “eye over-glaze”. It's a common enough visceral response brought on by an acute and sudden anticipation of moralizing. And I just introduced terms that are notorious for triggering it off. Suffice it to say, dear reader, that I will *present* these ideas at this point, rather than impel them. And I will go on to explain them on a spiritual level soon enough. Have patience!-- but, then again, isn't that actually another bit of moralizing, though one that somehow seems easier to swallow?)

Or, to quote now from my late esteemed teacher, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, zt"l [14]:

"In order to attain the enlightenment of Ruach Hakodesh, one must first purify all ten levels of the Nephesh. There are methods especially prescribed for purifying these ten levels. These are the ten steps leading to Ruach HaKodesh outlined in the Talmud [15]: Study, Carefulness, Diligence, Cleanliness, Abstention, Purity, Piety, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness."

"According to this program one begins with constant study and observance, leading to scrupulous care not to violate any religious law. The next step is constant diligence to obey every commandment, and then to lead a completely clean life, both in thought and in deed. One then reaches a level where he avoids even permissible things when they can possibly lead to wrong, and once this is accomplished, he can purify himself of all evil, past and present."

"The individual is then ready to lead a life of piety, dedicating himself to G-d far beyond the call of the law, and this leads to humility, the negation of the ego. A person can then gain such a clear perception of good that he literally dreads sin, being totally aware of the banality of evil. He is then ready for the highest of these ten steps, holiness, the total negation of the physical."

"The very next level is that of Ruach HaKodesh. These ten steps thus provide a program of discipline for the individual who wishes to attain true enlightenment."

And then Rabbi Kaplan says something quite astonishing, which touches upon our very discussion of the relationship between Mussar and prophecy. He adds, almost parenthetically, that ...

"It is interesting to note that one of the most popular devotional texts, 'The Path of the Just' ... is nothing more than a commentary on these ten levels. This text is studied by individuals in all walks of life, but few realize that it was originally conceived as a handbook for initiates who sought to enter the highest realms of enlightenment."

The master Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital [16], cites a number of other Kabbalistic sources that discuss Mussar themes like character improvement [17], humility [18], fear of G-d [19], joy [20], being satisfied with your lot in life [21], avoiding positions of power and honor [22] and the like, along with Divine Inspiration [23]. Bachya Ibn Pakudah included abstinence [24]. And none other than Rambam would include acquiring noble character traits [25], loving G-d and not occupying your mind with mundane matters [26] among them [27].

Hence, learning how to cultivate that became a strong impetus for my delving into Mussar literature [28]. However, after a spell of marriage, career and fatherhood, it occurred to me that I would never be a prophet (or, was that itself a prophecy?).


[5] ... where a simple handmaid experienced a higher degree of revelation than Ezekiel ever could (Mechiltah 37A).

[6] Mechiltah on Exodus 19:11 (see Malbim there as well); Sefer HaChinuch (Hakdamah).

[7] See Deuteronomy 29:13-14, “Not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath. But with him who stands here with us this day before G-d our L-rd, and also with him who is not here with us this day“, and Rashi’s comment at v. 14 that this includes all future generations of Jewry, who were all there (ourselves included) on a spiritual level, as the Sifsei Chachamim explains ad loc. As was the case at Mattan Torah as well (See Shanhedrin 146A).

[8] In fact, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein equates Mattan Torah with Gan Eden and with Techiyat HaMasim, so all-encompassing is it (Ohr Yechezkel III, p. 254).

[9] We ordinarily think there were only a handful of prophets, the most famous of whom were cited in Tanach. But we’re told that prophecy was very common in ancient Israel. In fact, we're taught that there were one to two million prophets in the first Beit HaMikdosh era. And that half of them were women, in fact. (The reader is referred to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zt"l’s discussion of the subject in “The Handbook of Jewish Thought” vol. 1, ch. 6, especially at 6:79 and 6:84, and the sources cited in the notes there, which we've made use of in this section.)

[10] Immediately preceding Ahava Rabbah in Shacharit.

[11] Sim Shalom in the morning Shmoneh Esrei.

[12] ...and very often on a very subliminal, inchoate level, we're afraid. Nonetheless, “af al pi iyhu lo chazi mazla chazi -- Even if he isn’t aware of it, his spirit is” (Sanhedrin 94A).

[13] See Shem Tov on “The Guide for the Perplexed” 1:5 for the process of preparing for revelation in steps analogous to Mattan Torah: One is to stay away from the mountain for three days (i.e., study the three wisdoms), wash his clothing (i.e., correct his middot) and separate himself from his spouse (i.e., control his cravings).

[14] “Meditation and the Bible” (New York:1978), pp. 20-21.

[15] Rabbi Kaplan then cites Avodah Zara 20B, Sotah 9:15, and other places.

[16] This is all to be found in the long-expurgated Fourth Gate of the well-known Mussar-Mystical work, Shaarei Kedusha. This author is fortunate to have the Ahavat Shalom edition out of Israel (1988) which includes the Gate based on handwritten texts.

[17] Said in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak D’man of Acco.

[18] From Mesechet Kallah, in the name of Eliyahu; Brit HaMenucha; and see the well known Iggeret HaRamban as well.

[19] From Brit HaMenucha.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Rabbi Yitzchak D’man Acco; See Rambam’s Shmone Perakim, Ch. 7 as well.

[22] Rabbi Yitzchak D’man Acco.

[23] It is interesting to note the fact that the masters of Mussar inclined toward the study of Kabbalah, whose connections to personal spiritual strivings are well known. See "Israel Salanter: Text, Structure, Idea" by Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg (Ktav 1982), pp. 210-219, where the author goes to great pains to show how likely it was that Rav Salanter zt"l studied Kabbalah, as did many of his disciples. And one only has to look through Michtav Me'Eliyahu, Ohr Yechezkel, etc. to see how often contemporary Mussarnikim refer to the Ramchal’s more abstruse revelations. See the end of Rechev Yisroel (Jerusalem: 1996) for other such allusions.

[24] “The Duties of the Heart” 9:2, (p.411 in my translation).

[25] Shmoneh Perakim, ibid.

[26] See Moreh Nevuchim 3:51, “You have been granted the capacity to strengthen the bond (between you and G-d) if you want to, or to diminish it step by step until it becomes undone if you want to. But you can only strengthen this bond by using it to love G-d and to advance in that ... or make it weaker and more fragile by occupying your mind with anything but Him.”

[27] Also see his Iggeret HaMusar, where Rambam writes that, “the main goal of Mussar is your bettering yourself physically and refining your character in order to open up the Gates of Heaven to you."

[28] Other such points are made in Chassidut as well, including for example the Slonomer Rebbe’s statement that, "The 613 mitzvot are actually 613 pieces of advice on how to arrive at the ultimate goal, which is (fulfilling the dictum), 'And you are to cling onto Him' (Deuteronomy 10:20). For the point of all of Torah and mitzvot is just that -- that a Jew cling onto G-d. And observing Torah and mitzvot allows for one to cling onto G-d. But the (quality of one's) clinging depends essentially on (the quality of) his character" (Nesivot Shalom I, p. 79).

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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