Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 5)

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

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 5. Back to Earth

Dwelling in the world as I had to, I came to see that there were certain secular, worldly, and material gains to be had from being ethical. And that the nearly universally agreed-upon ways to be truly happy in life [29] all seemed to hinge upon the notions of being satisfied with what you had materially, and striving for quality of self and pursuit, wisdom and goodness instead of wealth and the like [30]. It also became clear that while once that was fairly obvious to nearly all, it had somehow or another been forgotten.

At one time, for example, parents feared letting their kids grow "too soft", overindulged, and spoiled. There was a sense that kids should do without "excesses" in order to grow tough, self-sufficient; in order to know how to "make do". And that came out of a realization that too much was harmful, it somehow ate away at self and soul, and it disallowed for success in the “jungle out there” that was the world. There was also the very real and deeply felt sense that we had to be good and generous to each other simply *because* it's a jungle out there.

But that's no longer so. Many of us are what used to be called "spoiled brats" and "whiners", "princes" and "princesses", who would be utterly lost if left to their own devices in "the jungle". Because we've forgotten that despite the widespread reality of climate and environment controlled malls, homes, and even yeshivas, it's still a “jungle” out there. And we've consequently forgotten the attendant need to be kind and good.

As such, we've lost a certain ability-to-bear-discomfort margin we've had for millennia. And that makes life more emotionally painful (since there's so little we can bear), it makes us more dependent (on gadgets, quick solutions, etc.), and it certainly makes us selfish and self-absorbed.

I then discovered that what Mussar teaches us is the means to broaden and toughen ourselves with a more cultivated discomfort margin, so as to manage to get by with less, and thus concentrate more on tachlis, and less on all-consuming peripherals.

I thus found myself unable to disagree with the observations of “The Path of the Just” to the effect that a weak personality lead to a woesome life. As Luzzatto put it [31]:

"Coveting ... confines you to the constraints of this world, makes you prey to the entanglements of toil and labor ... (The person who succumbs to it) exposes himself to many dangers and saps his strength with worry even after he has already earned a lot. (p. 102)"


"The quest for respect tugs at your heart more than any lust or longing in the world. Without it, you would be satisfied eating whatever you could, you would dress just to cover your nakedness, you would live in a house that would merely protect you from the elements, livelihood would come easily to you, and you would not struggle to become wealthy. But just so as to not see yourself as lowly or lesser than your friend you take this thick yoke upon yourself, and there is no end to all of your efforts ...."

"How many people starve or denigrate themselves by taking charity just not to have to work at something that is not prestigious enough in their eyes because they are afraid to diminish their honor? Is there anything more idiotic than this? They would prefer idleness -- which carries melancholy, lewdness, thievery and all sorts of transgressions along with it -- to lowering their status and detracting from the respect they see as coming to them ...."

"The point of the matter is that the desire for glory is one of man's greatest stumbling blocks. (p. 103)"


"(if) you are accustomed to filling yourself with food and drink (and) ... will not be able to do so once, you will be pained and very aware of the lack. You will eventually be forced to subject yourself to the clutches of the drive for livelihood and possessions so that your table could be set the way you would like it to be, which will lead you to wrong doings and thievery, which will themselves lead you to vain oaths and all sorts of transgressions that naturally follow these. (p. 119)"

And ...

"Authority is nothing but a great burden on the back of those who bear it. While you are an individual among many, you are subsumed in the many, and are only responsible for yourself. But when you are put into a position of authority and power, you are in the clutches of everyone under you, for you have to be responsible for them-- to show them the way and to correct their actions. (p. 119)"

As such I came to see that it would serve me -- and my children -- best to be more selfless, good and temperate. That we would live happier, more satisfying lives that way. Albeit on a single, more mundane level than I'd originally envisioned.


[29] Needless to say, the operative term here is “truly”. Because some people seem to themselves and others to be happy when they're actually miserable. The truth, though, seems to catch up in more isolated, existential and telling moments somehow or another, like secret pockets in dark suits filled with sad diary entries.

[30] To be sure, most of that was rooted in either secular humanist thought, or non-Jewish religious thought (all of which were nonetheless certainly prodded and irrigated by Torah ideals that were adapted by others as a so-called “Judeo-Christian” or “Judeo-Christian-Whatever” ethic).

[31] From this writer's translation of and comments to “The Path of the Just”.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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