Monday, September 03, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Mon., Sept. 3rd)


Many have slipped and been lost in this matter. Jeroboam ben Nevat, for example, was driven away from his place in the World to Come because of his thirst for respect. As our sages said, "The Holy One (blessed be He) took hold of Jeroboam by his coat and said to him, 'Repent, and you, I and King David will stroll in the Garden of Eden.' Jeroboam said to God, 'Who'll lead?' God said, 'David will,' to which Jeroboam replied, 'If that's the case, I don't care to'" (Sanhedrin 102a). What was it that caused Korach and his cohorts to be destroyed? The pursuit of respect. As the Torah explicitly states, "Would you also seek the priesthood?" (Numbers 16:10). Our sages told us that this happened because Korach saw Elitzaphan ben Uziel come to be prince, when he wanted to be prince instead (Bamidbar Rabbah 18:2). According to our sages, this is what caused the spies to speak out against the land of Israel, bringing death to them and their generation. It was a result of their fear of diminishing their glory upon entering into the land of Israel where others, not they, were to be princes of the people (Zohar IV 13:3). What was it that instigated Saul to ambush David if not the need for respect? As it is written, "And the women answered one another as they danced and said, 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten-thousands!' And Saul was very angry and the saying displeased him. He said, 'They give David ten-thousands, and me thousands-- and what else can he have now but the kingdom?!' And Saul viewed David with suspicion from that day onward" (I Samuel 18:7-9). And what was it that had Joab kill Amasa? The drive for respect-- because David said to Amasa, "Will you not be my general in Joab's place for all times?" (II Samuel 19:14).

The point is that 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. That is why our sages said, "Jealousy, desire and the quest for respect expunge a man from the world" (Pirke Avot 4:21). They warned us, "Do not ask for greatness, and do not covet respect" (Pirke Avot 6:5). 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. However our sages, who have always instructed and directed us in the ways of truth, suggest you "Love work and detest power" (Pirke Avot 1:10); as well as, "(Just) strip carcasses in the market-place (but) do not say, 'I'm a great man; I'm a priest!'" (Pesachim 113a); and "A man should always do work that is foreign to him rather than have to depend on other people" (Baba Battra 110a). The point of the matter is that the desire for glory is one of man's greatest stumbling blocks. It is impossible for him to be a faithful servant to his Creator as long as he is attached to his own self-respect, because this foolishness will necessitate his giving less honor to God. This is what King David was referring to when he said, "I will become yet more insignificant than this, and be lowly in my own eyes" (Samuel II 6:22). The only true glory is knowledge of Torah. As our sages said, "There is no glory other than Torah, as it is written, '(Torah) sages will inherit glory' (Proverbs 3:35)" (Pirke Avot 6:3). Other kinds of glory are false, self-perceived kinds that are worthless and in vain. The innocent should free and thoroughly purify himself from it. Only then will he succeed.

To this point I have generalized about many of the particulars of innocence. I have thusby presented a basic principle for all the other mitzvot and commendable character traits. "The wise man will hear and will increase learning; and the man of understanding shall obtain devices" (Proverbs 1:5). I cannot deny that there is something of a struggle necessary to go through to obtain this kind of innocence. Nonetheless I must say that it is not as difficult as it appears to be. In fact, the thought of it is more difficult than the act. When you have it in mind and firmly set it in your heart to be one of those people who has this good trait then, with just a little practice, it will come to you with much more ease than you might have imagined. Experience can attest to the truth of this.


The best way to acquire innocence is to constantly study the teachings of our sages in matters of halacha and musar. After the obligations of innocence and its requirements will have become clear to you, and you will have already obtained the states of caution and enthusiasm (by being involved in the things that help you obtain them and keeping away from the things that keep them away from you) there is nothing that can keep you back from obtaining innocence other than the lack of knowledge of the minutia of the mitzvot so that you could be cautious and thorough in them all. Therefore you must know the halachot-- the ramifications of the mitzvot and the extent of them-- thoroughly. Also, you must constantly study the books that explain the particulars of these things so that you can refresh your memory. Forgetfulness is common in such technical matters as these, and by reviewing them you will certainly be encouraged to do them. This is true of matters of your personality as well. You must study the moral teachings of both the earlier and later teachers. Many times, even after a person will have established in his heart that he wants to be exacting in matters of innocence, it is still possible that he can be guilty of some minor transgression simply because he never got to understand it. No one is born a sage, and it is impossible to know everything.

When you study the material you will be shocked to see what you do not know, and you will have an opportunity to reflect upon what you had not originally understood. And because your heart will be attuned to such things you will continue to observe everything from all angles and will even discover for yourself, from the source of truth, things not mentioned in the books themselves. The deterrents to this trait are all the deterrents to the trait of caution. In addition to that must be added the aforementioned lack of expertise in the laws and moral principles. As our sages remarked, "An illiterate person cannot be saintly" (Pirke Avot 2:5). That is so because someone who does not know cannot possibly do. They also said that "scholarship is only great when it brings you to action" (Kiddushin 40b).


Abstinence is the beginning of piety. And whereas all that we have discussed thus far is what you would need to become righteous; from here on we will discuss what you would need to become pious. Abstinence is to piety what caution is to enthusiasm: the former is in the category of "depart from evil" (Psalms 34:15), and the latter is in the category of "do good" (ibid.).

The general principle behind abstinence was expressed by our sages when they said, "Sanctify yourself through what is permitted to you" (Yevamot 20a). This is the very meaning of the word "abstinence": withdrawal from and avoidance of something; that is, disallowing for yourself something the Torah permits so that you do not come in contact with something it forbids. The point is, you should withdraw from anything that is likely to cause you to come to do bad, even though it is not bad itself or currently causing bad.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman