Friday, September 07, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Shabbos, Sept. 8th)


Piety actually requires a lot of explanation. There are many people doing a lot of things in the name of piety which are in fact only pale and irreparably formless, shapeless shadows of the real thing. And that comes as a result of improper understanding and analysis on the part of the people who act this way. They have not bothered to delve deeply, with clarity and determination, into the way of G-d. Instead, they have assumed a false piety, and have simply gone the way they deduced they should, without having weighed and considered all the factors on the scales of wisdom. These sorts of people have left a foul impression of pious acts in the eyes of both the lesser- and the well-educated, who have come to associate piety with foolishness and absurdity, and have come to believe that piety is dependent upon the incessant recital of petitions and confessions, accompanied by weeping, exaggerated prostrations and all sorts of odd flagellations people could kill themselves doing, such as immersion in ice and snow and the like. They do not realize that while some of these practices are required of the penitent and others of them are required of abstenants, piety itself is nonetheless not based upon any of this (though the best of such acts may often accompany piety). But piety is a profound thing in its own right. It is founded upon great wisdom and the ultimate rectification of actions. Such a course of action would be fitting for the wise-of-heart to follow. Only a wise person could obtain it, in fact. As our sages have put it, "An unlearned person can never become pious" (Pirke Avot 2:5).

We will now explain the matter in sequence. The root of piety is illustrated by the statement of our sages which reads, "The man who toils in Torah and brings satisfaction to his Creator is fortunate" (Berachot 17a) . The point is that the mitzvot that have been given to Israel and the extent of their obligations are well known. One who truly loves G-d would not set out to do just what all of Israel is obliged to do. He would act as a loving son would to his father by doing more than his father would ask for. He would do all he possibly could even if his father had only unobtrusively hinted at a desire for something. And if his father asked for that thing just once, and demurely at that, that would be enough for such a son to perceive the extent of his father's unstated true desires. He would deduce that such-and-such-- something beyond what he was told-- would bring satisfaction to his father, and he would not have to wait for an explicit and reiterated request to do it. We see this sort of thing happen all the time between friends, lovers, husbands and wives, fathers and sons. Where there is a strong bond of love between people, you would never find one of them saying, "I haven't been asked to do more than this, and it's all right to do just what I've been asked." Instead, that person would surmise what the other person really wants, based upon what he said, and would try to do all that he could to bring satisfaction to the loved one. One who truly loves G-d will have just this sort of reaction to Him, because that sort of person is a lover as well. The commandments that are so well-known to all of Israel would merely be indicators to him of G-d's actual wishes. He would not say, "It's enough I do what is said" or "I can get away only with what is asked of me." On the contrary, what he would say is, "Since I've already come to see where G-d's intentions lie, I can expand upon it all in the sorts of ways I would imagine He would want me to." This is the kind of person who would be referred to as one who satisfies his Creator.

So the essence of piety involves widening the possibilities of the mitzvot in as many ways possible. You could say that piety is a form of abstention, and where abstention refers to the negative mitzvot, piety refers to the positive ones. But the two are actually one and the same thing: superseding the letter of the law as much as is necessary to bring satisfaction to G-d. That is the true definition of piety. We will now explain its primary subdivisions.



The primary subdivisions of piety are actions themselves, the way they are done, and the motivations behind them . The first subdivision can be divided into two parts as well: actions that are between a person and G-d, and those that are between one person and another. The first aspect of the first subdivision-- actions between a person and G-d-- involves the keeping of the mitzvot with all their minutia as carefully as humanly possible. This is what was referred to by our sages as keeping the "residues" of the mitzvot, about which they said "the residues of the mitzvot are what hold back retribution" (Succah 38a). For while the performance of the mitzvah itself is complete without these "residues" and one can fulfill his obligation without them, that is only true for the general populace. A pious person must supplement his fulfillment, not diminish in it.

The second aspect-- actions between one person and another-- involves the great betterment you can bring about in the world by constantly improving people's lot rather than worsening it. And this can be accomplished in three ways: corporeally, monetarily and psychologically.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman