Friday, August 31, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Shabbos, Sept. 1st)



To this point we have stressed the mitzvot that especially needed innocence (because they were the ones people are likely to stumble in). We will now delve deeply into the common and primary problematic personality traits, which are: arrogance, anger, jealousy and desire. Their harm is universally recognized and do not have to be substantiated. They are intrinsically harmful, harmful in consequence, and are outside the realm of the intellect and wisdom. Each can lead you on to grave sins in its own way. The Torah is explicit in its warnings against arrogance saying, "And you will come to make your hearts haughty and you will forget G-d your L-rd..." (Deuteronomy 8:14). Our sages spoke about anger, saying, "Angry people should be seen as idol-worshipers" (Shabbat 105b). And it is clearly said about jealousy and desire, "Jealousy, desire and glory remove a man from the world" (Pirke Avot 4:21). The profoundest thing that can be said is to flee from them and their offshoots for they are each "a degenerate plant of a strange vine" (Jeremiah 2:21). We will now begin to speak of them one at a time.

Arrogance entails consciously or unconsciously thinking yourself worthy of praise, for various and many reasons. For example a person might think himself very intelligent, or handsome, venerable, great, or wise. The principle is if one attributes to himself any of the good things of the world he is in immediate danger of falling into the trap of arrogance. After a person implants in his mind the notion that he is important or praiseworthy, not just one but many and various things may result-- and while some of them would have been intended for the same end, they may actually be diametrically opposed to each other. It may be that a self-centered person will think himself unique, impressive and worthy of praise and would think it only proper that he conduct himself uniquely, impressively and respectfully in the way he walks, sits, stands, speaks, etc. So he would only walk at a leisurely, studied pace, and would not sit without leaning. He would arise slowly and deliberately like a serpent, and would not speak to just anybody, but only with the eminent-- and even when he would speak with them he would only speak in short, pithy, seer-like phrases. And in all the rest of his deeds-- his movements or actions; his eating, drinking and dressing-- he would conduct himself in a heavy-handed manner, as if his flesh were lead, and his bones were stone or sand. Another egotist would think that since he is so praiseworthy and of such high quality, he should be the very instigator of all things in the world, that everyone should tremble before him, and it is only fitting that no one dare speak to him or ask anything of him. And should they be so presumptuous as to do so he would verbally crush and confound them in all impudence, enraged all along. There is another sort of egotist who believes that he is already so great and important that glory can never depart from him anyway, so he really does not need any more of it. And to prove that point he acts modest to draw attention to his character and to exhibit great humility and endless modesty, while his heart is actually exalted within him and he says to himself: "I am so great and important that I no longer need respect. I can renounce it. I already have a lot of it to begin with." Another egotist can be found who wants to make a great impression with his greatness and to be recognized as being unique. It is not enough for him that everyone praises him for the greatness he believes he exhibits. He would like everyone to further praise him as being the most humble person there is. This type of person is arrogant in his modesty, and wants to honor himself with the very thing he makes himself out to have transcended. This type of arrogant person places himself below people actually much lower than himself and vulgar people, thinking that he might prove utmost humility this way. He does not want to assume any titles of greatness, and refuses all honors, while all along in his heart he says, "There's no sage or modest person like myself in the entire country". Even though these kinds of egocentrics appear to be modest, they do not lack for clues to the contrary. Unbeknownst to them, their arrogance will peek through like flames between pieces of potters' clay. Our sages drew a parallel to the situation when they said that such a person is like a house full of straw that has a lot of holes in it. Everyone discovers the fact that there has been straw in it all along when it starts to fall out (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:13). That is just like our situation. Such a person cannot hide his nature forever. His misguided thoughts will become manifest in his actions, and it will become known that he was dishonestly modest and dishonestly humble. There is another sort of egotist whose pride is buried deep within him and is never made manifest. He believes that he is already a great sage who knows the way of all things, and that no one else quite shares his sagacity. He does not pay attention to anyone else's opinion and reasons that if the matter is difficult for him it could not possibly be easy for anyone else. And he holds that whatever his mind conceives of is so straight-forward and obviously so that he need not even listen to people with other opinions, be they earlier or contemporary scholars. He has no doubts whatsoever about his opinions.

All these things hold sages back and stupefy their minds, and abrogate the hearts of the very wisest. Even novice scholars whose eyes have just started to open often already think they are great sages. The Torah says about all of these, "The haughty are an abomination to G-d" (Proverbs 16:5). One who wants to acquire the trait of innocence must free himself from all of this and come to realize that arrogance is literally blindness as it causes you to overlook your imperfections and to not notice what you lack. If you were able to see and to realize the truth you would certainly flee and escape from these harmful, damaging things. With the help of Heaven we will continue to speak about this when we come to the trait of modesty, which was placed at the end of Rabbi Pinchas' beraitha because it is so difficult to obtain.

Let us discuss anger now. There is the furious type of person, about whom it is said, "one who is angry is likened to one offering to idols" (Shabbat 105b). He is the type of person who gets angry at everything done against his will. He is so filled with fury that he grows heartless, and his sensibilities dull. This sort of person would destroy the world if he could. He is irrational and as utterly unreasonable as a wild beast. It is said of him, "You (who) tear yourself in your anger: Shall the earth be forsaken for you?" (Job 18:4). It is very easy to commit all sorts of transgressions once rage has brought you to this state, as there is nothing but your anger to control you, and you must go where it leads you.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman