Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Wed. Aug. 15th)

For a refuah shleimi for Yoseph ben Rivka Rachel Yuta, young man who is due to be married in a couple of weeks who suddenly and inexplicably became terribly ill and is now in intensive care.

Please keep him in your tephillos.


I have not written this text to teach people what they do not already know, but rather to remind them of what they do know and are well aware. For what will be found in the great majority of what I have to say are things that are already known, and about which there is no doubt; but because they are so well- known and the truth of them is so self-evident, they are often hidden or completely forgotten. The advantage to be gotten, therefore, from the reading of this book will not come about with a single reading. It is quite probable that the reader will find little if anything in his first reading of it that he would not have known beforehand. Its advantage comes in the reader's review and meticulousness. That way he will recall what he might have offhandedly forgotten, and place upon his heart an incumbency previously unrevealed.

You will notice, if you reflect upon the state of things as they now are, that the great majority of intelligent, enlightened, aware, and informed people expend a great deal of their energies on reflection upon and examination of the minutia of the various sciences, and upon subtle scholarship, each according to his own inclinations and personal bents. There are those who very much concern themselves with the questions of cosmogony or physical science; others, with astronomy or mathematics; and yet others with art.

Some others especially enter upon the matter of holiness, that is, the learning of the holy Torah. Of those, there are some who involve themselves in the give-and-take of Talmudic argumentation; others, in homiletics; and others, in the deciding of practical law. Yet, there are few of them who would dedicate their research and study to the means of attaining wholeness in Divine service, on love of and reverence for G-d, on the attachment to Him, or on all other matters of piety.

This is not so because these matters are not of the utmost importance to them. For were you to ask, they would each surely say that these were the essentials, and that there could never be found a true sage who would not concentrate upon these matters.

But as a result of their not delving into them (as they are so "obvious" and "simple"), they see no need to reflect upon them at great length. Consequently, the studying of such matters and the reading of the holy books concerning them would be left in the hands of those of a less subtle mind, those tending to be more coarse. It would be this sort of person who would tend to be diligent in these matters, not ever abandoning them.

It has reached the point where when one sees someone attempting to make himself pious, one cannot help but assume that he is of a coarser nature. The results of such assumptions are detrimental to both the sage and the non-sage. It results in neither attempting true piety, which comes to be a rare and precious thing in the world.

True piety is consequently lacking in the wise as a result of their lack of investigation into the matter, and in the unwise as a result of their lack of comprehension of it. It has come to appear to most that piety is dependent merely upon the recitation of many Psalms and long, convoluted confessions; upon difficult fasts; and upon ablutions in ice and snow -- none of which sits well with reason or the intellect.

True, favorable and desired piety is very different from our conception of it. (It is very easy to understand why, for what does not occupy one's mind does not penetrate into it.) Despite the fact that the upright have set the beginnings and foundations of piety into their hearts, they do not busy themselves with it, so they might very well see instances of it and overlook them. It might pass before them and they would not know it.

Matters of piety, G-d-reverence and love, and purity of heart are not so ingrained in your heart that you would not have to find the means of acquiring them. They are not just come upon nonchalantly like natural processes such as sleep and wakefulness, hunger and satiety, and so forth. In truth, you have to foster means and devices to acquire them. And there is no lack for things to keep them back from you (just as there is no lack for ways to hold back the deterrents).

As that is the case, how could it be that you would not have to spend time in the profound study into the truth of these matters to know how they are acquired and maintained? And how should this wisdom ever enter your heart if you do not ask for it?

The need for the perfection of service and its necessary purity and innocence (without which it is not at all desirable, but rather disgusting and reprehensible, for "G-d searches all hearts and understands the inclinations of everyone's thoughts" [Chronicles I, 28:9]) has become self-evident to the wise. How shall we respond on the day of reproach if we will have slacked-off in our study of these matters, and abandoned a thing in our midst so profound as to be the very essence of what G-d asks of us?

Can it be that we would toil and labor in the study of things not at all incumbent upon us to study, such as pilpul which could bear no fruit, or laws which have no practical application in our days-- while our great obligation to our Creator is abandoned to habit or left aside as elements of a religion of rote?

If we neither consider nor investigate the true nature of G-d- reverence and its ramifications, how can we hope to attain it, or to rescue ourselves from the vacuity of things of this world which have us forget it? Will it not be entirely gone and forgotten despite our acknowledgment of a responsibility to it? And if we do not try to set Divine-love in our hearts by the use of all things that would bring it to us, how will it be found within us? How will attachment to G-d and longing for Him and His Torah come to us if we pay no heed to His greatness and exaltedness, which inevitably result in that attachment? How are we to purify our thoughts if we do not attempt to clear away the blemishes that the human condition places upon us? How are our personalities which need so much rectifying and setting-straight going to be rectified and set straight if we do not apply ourselves to the task with a great persistence?

If we would only investigate the matter honestly we would arrive at the truth and we would do ourselves a favor (and others as well, by teaching it to them and improving them too.) Solomon was referring to this when he said, "If you would search for it as you would for silver, and desire it as a hidden treasure, then you would understand G-d-reverence..." (Proverbs 2:4-5). He does not say, "...then you will understand philosophy", "...then you will understand astronomy", "...then you will understand medicine", "...then you will understand law", or "...then you will understand halacha"-- but rather, "...then you will understand G-d- reverence". So you see that in order to attain G-d-reverence you must search for it as you would for silver, and desire it like a hidden treasure. This is from amongst the things that have been taught to us from our ancestors, and what is accepted axiomatically by members of our faith.

Can time be found for the study of all things, but not this? Why can we not set aside some period of time to at least look into the matter, if the rest of our limited time demands of us other studies or considerations? It says in Job 28:28, "Hen (behold) G-d-reverence is itself wisdom." Our sages said, "'Hen' implies one, as we find in the Greek language 'one' is 'hen'. (Shabbat 31B)" So reverence is wisdom-- it alone is wisdom; and what does not involve study cannot be referred to as wisdom. The fact is that profound analysis rather than fantasy and weak logic is called for to arrive at the truth in all of these matters, as is certainly the case in the acquisition and full comprehension of them.

If one would reflect upon the matter he would find that true piety is not dependent upon those things the fools who make themselves out to be pious think it is, but rather upon true wholeness and profound wisdom.

© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman