Friday, September 07, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Fri. Sept. 7th)


Just as a sacrifice is not acceptable on the altar unless it is of the finest flour that has been sifted through thirteen sieves and smelted of all dross (Menachot 76b), so too is it impossible to raise yourself upon the altar of His Will and be amongst the whole and choice servants of G-d without the choicest of actions-- those purified of all sorts of dross. But I am not saying that everything less than this is completely rejected. G-d does not deprive anyone his due reward, and He rewards all according to their deeds. What I am addressing is the sort of perfect service that befits those who truly love G-d and who would not refer to any service as perfect unless it were utterly pure and had no other motive attached to it than being for the sake of G-d. And the further an act is from this level, the more imperfect it is. King David referred to this when he said, "Whom have I in heaven (but You), and when I have You, I desire nothing on this earth" (Psalms 73:25), and when he said, "Your word is thoroughly refined, and Your servant loves it" (Psalms 119:140).

In fact, true service to G-d has to be smelted even more finely than gold or silver. As it is said about Torah, "The sayings of G-d are pure sayings-- silver smelted in the crucible of earth, refined seven times over" (Psalms 12:7). And if you would want to truly serve G-d you could not be satisfied with less than that-- you would not be pleased with silver tainted with dross and alloys: that is, Divine service mixed in with impure motives-- you could only be satisfied with the pure and refined. Only then would you be referred to as one who does a mitzvah "as it is supposed to be done" about whom it is said, "whoever does a mitzvah as it is supposed to be done is never given bad news" (Shabbat 63a). Our sages said, "Do things for the sake of their Maker, but speak of them in their own name" (Nedarim 62a), which is the choice of those wholehearted in their service to G-d.

One who does not cling to G-d with true love will find this process of refining Divine service a great burden. He would say, "Who could withstand this? We are only human. It's impossible for us to reach this level of refinement and purity!". But those who love G-d and want to do His will, will be happy to show faithfulness in their love for Him by intensifying their refinement and purification of it. King David summed it up when he said, "...and Your servant loves it" (Psalm 119:140). This is in fact the criterion by which those who serve G-d are differentiated from each other, for those who especially know how to purify their emotions are closer and dearer to G-d. Such was the case with the first ones to reach this level, who fought and triumphed in this: the Patriarchs and the other Shepherds who purified their emotions before G-d. This was what David warned his son Solomon about when he said, "G-d searches the hearts of all, and understands the inclinations of thoughts" (Chronicles I, 28:9). Our sages said in this vein, "G-d desires the heart" (Sanhedrin 106b), because G-d does not want only our actions to be involved in mitzvot. His main concern is that your heart be pure and set on performing your true duty. The heart is the king and commander of the rest of the body. If it does not bring itself to serve G-d, the service of the rest of the organs is for naught, for they will only go where the spirit of the heart will take them as the Torah tells us when it says, "Give your heart to me, my son" (Proverbs 23:26).


It is easy for the person who has already tried for and obtained the various traits discussed to now to obtain this one. When you consider and reflect upon the petty nature of the pleasures of the world and their supposed benefits, as I have said already, you will come to despise them and consider them to be nothing but the outcome of the bad and defective nature of the dark and coarse state of things. And when the very real defects and bad aspects of them become self-evident to you it will certainly become easy to separate yourself from them and remove them from your heart. And the more deeply and constantly you come to recognize the pettiness of materiality and its delights, the easier it will be for you to purify your thoughts and emotions so that they will no longer be inclined toward the side of the yetzer hara, and you will only be involved in worldly deeds if you absolutely have to.

However, just as purification of thought is divided into two parts (the first being in terms of physical actions, and the second in terms of Divine service) so too is the sort of reflection needed to acquire it divided into two parts. The way to purify your thoughts in relation to bodily actions is to constantly take notice of the pettiness of the world and its delights, as I have said. The way to purify your thoughts in relation to acts of service to G-d is to increase your reflection upon the fallaciousness of honor, and train yourself to flee from it. Then you will be cleansed of all desire for the praise and compliments people will pay you when you serve G-d , and you will be focused on Him, who alone is our praise, our good and our wholeness, as it is written, "He is your praise, and He is your G-d" (Deuteronomy 10:21).

Among the acts that direct a person towards this trait is proper preparation for Torah and mitzvot. You should not suddenly and immediately rush into doing a mitzvah before having had time to reflect upon what you are about to do. Rather, you should ready yourself for it and compose yourself until you are properly focused, then consider what you are about to do and before Whom you are about to do it. As soon as you enter into this process of reflection you will find it easy to rid yourself of all external motivations and to set the proper and desirable intentions in your thoughts instead. The early pious ones would wait a whole hour before they would actually begin praying (Brachot 30b) so that they could direct their heart to G-d. They certainly would not waste the hour. What they would do is ready themselves by focusing their attention upon the prayers they were to pray and they would eliminate any untoward thoughts. Then they would fill themselves with the necessary reverence and love, about which it is said, "If you have readied your heart, and spread your palms out to Him" (Job 11:13).

The detriments to this trait are the lack of reflection upon the foolishness and pettiness of worldly pleasures, running after honor, and insufficient preparation for Divine service. The first two seduce your thoughts and draw it toward extraneous motives like an adultress woman who sleeps with men other than her husband. Untoward thoughts have already been referred to as "licentiousness of the heart" in the Torah which says, "And you may not go after the inclinations of your heart or your eyes which you licentiously follow" (Numbers 15:39). The heart is easily distracted from the wholesome path it should be following and is attracted to ephemeral and false fantasies. Insufficient preparation brings on the natural foolishness that comes from the element of physicality yet un–removed that leaves a foul stench behind in your Divine service.

We will now go on to explain the trait of piety.

© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman