Monday, June 06, 2005

The Relentless Yearning of the Soul (Part 6)

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

-- by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Part 6. Then Back Again to Heaven

After a time, though, it became clear that just being a “mentsch” or even a scholar wasn’t enough. The soul’s tachlis, and the meaning of life was still to be addressed. So, as I indicated above, I compiled a “short list” of the most succinctly put statements about the meaning of life, and of human potential. It became clear upon examination that there was an underlying message in all these sources. And that to arrive at it I’d have to break the original “Torah Code”, if you will.

Doing that I discovered that what’s required of us as Jews, all in all, is something quite breathtaking: the fostering of an utterly vital and devoted relationship to G-d -- sometimes referred to as “loving” Him, “fearing” Him, “serving” Him, “going in His way”, or “clinging” to Him. And to do that by perfecting ourselves -- sometimes referred to as, “removing the veil of foolishness”, “keeping His mitzvot”, “improving your ways”, “becoming righteous”, and “pursuing goodness”.

And it became clear that the way to do just that, as those sources cited [32] put it, was as follows:

As the Torah itself says, “And now, Israel, what does G-d your L-rd ask of you, but to fear G-d your L-rd, go in His ways, and love Him. As well as to serve G-d your L-rd with all your heart, and all your soul.”[33]

King Solomon said, “The point, after everything has been heard (is this): Fear G-d and keep His mitzvot. For that is the whole of man.“[34]

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto said, “We were created to delight in G-d and enjoy the radiance of His Divine presence.“[35] And,

"It is only fitting that all of your inclinations be directed exclusively to the Creator -- that there be no goal in any of your actions, large or small, other than that of getting closer to Him and eradicating the barriers that separate you from Him, which are the matters of this world and what is dependent upon them. This should be done to the point where you are drawn after Him as iron is to a magnet; that you run after, take hold and not let go of all you can determine will be a means to drawing close to Him. And that you run away from whatever you determine will deter you from this as you would from fire." [36]

As well as,

"The principle axiom of all Divine service is this: That a person encounter his Creator all the time. That he know and comprehend that the only reason he was created was to attach himself to his Creator. And that he was only placed in this world to conquer his yetzer harah, subjugate himself to his Creator through his intellect, overturn his material cravings and inclinations, and direct all his actions toward this end without ever being distracted from it." [37]

Bachya Ibn Pakudah said,

"It is ... important to understand that every single obligation and good quality required of us ... is an aspect of and a step up to the love of G–d, which is their aim and purpose." [38]


"The secret of your being is as follows: G–d created you out of the same “nothingness” the spiritual beings were created out of. And He placed you, in His kindness, on the level of His treasured, chosen and elected ones, those closest to the Illumination of His Glory. But you will not be truly worthy of that until three things will have come to pass: first, that you remove the veil of foolishness from yourself, to allow for your enlightenment; second, that you pass a test to determine whether you will serve Him or rebel against Him; and third, that you endure some this-worldly hardship, which will be sent to you to determine whether or not you will bear the burden of serving Him, and to elevate you to the level of those exalted ones who have already undergone that." [39]

Rabbeinu Yonah said,

"The highest spiritual qualities are bestowed upon us when we fulfil Torah imperatives like ... (acting out of) free choice, ...Torah study, ... following G-d’s ways,... (expressing) complete trust, ... reflecting upon G-d’s greatness, ...recalling G-d’s kindness and reflecting upon it, ... (expressing) holiness, ... service, ... fear, ... love, ... and the quality of devotion .... In fact, you were created to realize just these qualities.” [40]


"(A person is to affirm to himself the following:) The Creator breathed a living spirit into my nostrils, with a knowing heart and good sense with which to be conscious of G-d and fear Him, and to reign over my body and all its effects the way it would reign over any other base creature.”[41]

As well as,

"Advance ever upward by fearing and loving G-d, and being abashed in His presence. Strive for innocence, remove any idea of rebellion from your mind, and purify your limbs. For by recalling its Creator (those ways), your soul becomes engaging and comely to Him." [42]

Finally, as Rambam puts it, the ultimate purpose of the universe is that man perfect himself [43]. And, “The world and everything in it was created (to be a forum for) wise and good people” [44]; as well as,

"One should love G-d so very mightily and powerfully that his soul affixes itself to the love of G-d, and he is as absorbed in it and is as love-sick as he would be if he could not stop thinking of a woman he was in love with, regardless of whether he was sitting or standing, eating or drinking. In fact, the love of G-d should be fastened in the hearts of His lovers even more than that, which is to say, all the time." [45]

So, again, it became clear that the point is, that we’re to foster a deep and all-encompassing relationship with G-d, and we come to do that by “perfecting” ourselves and by coming to true spiritual health.

It also became clear that if sure-felt, roaring and robust health is extraordinarily precious, and it calls for a lot of discipline and self-sacrifice, then certainly, sure-felt, roaring and robust spiritual health must be as extraordinarily precious on a far deeper, existential level. And it must therefore require a lot of discipline and self-sacrifice, too -- on a far deeper, existential level, at that [46].

Hence, the need for the study of Mussar, which speaks to all that, and makes it come alive.


[32] See Part 3 above.
[33] Deuteronomy 10:12
[34] Ecclesiates 12:13
[35] “The Path of the Just”, Ch. 1, p. 12.
[36] Ibid., p 20.
[37] “The Way of G-d” 1:4:6
[38] “The Duties of the Heart”, Introduction to the Gate of the Love of G-d, p. 439.
[39] Ibid., The Gate of Divine Service, ch. 9, p.157.
[40] From this writer’s translation of and comments to “The Gates of Repentance”, 3:17.
[41] Ibid. 1:10
[42] Ibid. 2:1
[43] A paraphrase of Rambam’s comments on Pirke Avot 5:1
[44] “Introduction to the Mishna”
[45] Hilchot Tshuvah 10:3.
Of course, each one of these statements is teeming with sum and substance, and is meant to give pause. But an article of this size is not the place for an analysis of them per se. The reader is invited to inspect this writer’s translations and comments to “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” for some elucidation.
[46] The Baalei Musar very often compare spiritual well-being to health. See, “The Gates of Repentance” 4:1, “The Duties of the Heart”, The Gate of Repentance, Ch. 1, p.315 , the very first chapter of Rabbi Yehoshua Heller’s Divrei Yehoshua, and others.

(c) 2005 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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