Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Shabbos., Sept.15th)


You are duty-bound to follow the mitzvot as strictly as possible, no matter who is watching you as you do, and are to neither be afraid nor embarrassed. This is what the Torah means when it says, "I will speak of Your ordinances (even) before kings and will not be ashamed" (Psalms 119:46), and "Be as strong as a lion..." (Pirke Avot 5:23). But even this requires discrimination and forethought, as it refers to those mitzvot which we are absolutely obligated to do. In regard to them you have to be as hard as flint. But as to those extra flourishes of piety which, when done in front of most people would cause laughter and mocking, and would have them sin and be punished because of the pious person's extra measures-- the pious person should abandon such things, as they are not an absolute obligation upon him. The prophet referred to this when he said, "Walk humbly with your G-d" (Micha 6:8). So many great pious people abandoned their saintly practices while among the common people when such acts would appear to be rooted in pride.

The crux of the matter is that you should do any essential, obligatory mitzvah when its time comes, no matter who may mock you. But you should not do anything which is not essential and which will cause laughter and mockery. We can infer that one who would truly be pious must evaluate all of his actions in light of their results, and according to the concurrent conditions: in light of the company he finds himself to be in, the circumstances, and the physical location. If refraining will result in further sanctification of the name of G-d and satisfy Him more than the performance of the act, you should refrain rather than do. If an act appears to be good but is actually bad in its results or its ramifications; or if another act seems to be bad, but is actually good in its results-- you are to act in consideration of the ultimate effect and outcome, as that is in truth the fruit of all actions.

These words are passed on only to the understanding of heart and the ready of mind, because it is impossible to enunciate the endless particulars. "G-d will give wisdom from His mouth, knowledge and understanding" (Proverbs 2:6). The story of Rabbi Tarphon goes to prove that. Because he was strict and acted in accordance with the decisions of the House of Shammai he was "deserving of corporal punishment, because (he) went against the words of the House of Hillel" (Berachot 10b)-- even though he was more stringent-- because the controversies between the House of Hillel and Shammai were a burden upon Israel, as they were numerous. It was finally decided that the Halacha would always follow the decisions of the House of Hillel. The upkeep of Torah demanded that this decision stay in place ad infinitum and never weaken so that Torah should never, G-d forbid, become divided. Therefore, in the opinion of this Mishnah it would have been the better part of piety to enforce the rulings of the House of Hillel even when that would mean a certain leniency rather than to be stringent and follow the decisions of the House of Shammai. This should indicate to us the path the light of truth actually and faithfully dwells upon so that we might do what is correct in the eyes of G-d.


A lot of introspection and profound reflection especially helps in the acquisition of piety. The more you reflect upon the exalted nature of G-d, the infinite nature of His perfection, and the great and unfathomable difference between His greatness and our lowliness, the more will you be filled with trembling and reverence before Him. When you reflect as well upon the great goodness He has provided us with, His vast love for Israel, the closeness to Him the righteous enjoy, the excellence of Torah, mitzvot and other learned matters-- an intense and powerful love will arise within you, and you will want nothing but to attach yourself to Him. When you will see that He is literally a father to us, and has compassion upon us as a father has compassion upon his children, the desire and longing to reciprocate, as a child would want to do for a father, will constantly be aroused in you. To do this, you have to sequester yourself in your room and collect your thoughts for the introspections and considerations of these truths. What will certainly help in all this is a thorough familiarity with and profound understanding of the Songs of David, and a reflection upon their statements and main points. As they are full of love, reverence and all manner of piety, there cannot help but be aroused in you a great urge to follow in David's footsteps and to go on his path when you reflect upon them. It also helps to read the stories of the pious in the Aggadot they are found in. Obviously, they excite the mind to take note and follow their noble deeds.

What deters from piety are preoccupations and worry. When the mind is preoccupied and is stewing in its worries and external concerns it is impossible for it to reflect. And without reflection you will never obtain piety. Even if you will have already obtained it, preoccupation will compel and confuse your mind, and will not allow you to grow in your reverence, love and the other matters relevant to piety we have mentioned. That is why our sages said, "The Divine Presence doesn't dwell in the midst of sadness" (Shabbat 30b). All the more so is piety deterred by the delights and pleasures that are literally the opposite of piety, which flirt with the heart and draw it after itself rather than anything relevant to abstinence and true knowledge.

The only thing that can stand guard over a person and save him from these deterrents is trust-- casting one's lot upon G-d completely. That comes about with the knowledge that it is utterly impossible to lack what is already determined to be yours. As our sages have put it: "All of one's sustenance is fixed on Rosh HaShannah" (Betzah 16a); and, "One person cannot have as much as a string's-breadth worth of what is of another" (Yoma 38b). It would have been possible for you to simply sit back and do nothing and still be provided for were it not for the fact of the penalty exacted from all people which is enunciated in the Torah by the phrase, "You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow" (Genesis 3:19), because of which man is obligated to attempt one way or another to procure a livelihood. Thus did the Great King decree. It is an unavoidable tax that is incumbent upon all human beings to pay. Our sages put it thusly: "I might think that you could even get by sitting and doing nothing. But the Torah tells us, "...with all the products of your hand which you make" (Deuteronomy 14:29) (Sifre). But it is not so much that the effort will produce results, only that the effort is necessary. By producing the effort you meet the requirement, and there comes to be a place for the blessings of heaven to dwell, so you need not spend your life in diligence and effort. This is what David was referring to when he said, "Growth does not come from the east, from the west, or from the desert; G-d adjudges that this one will be demeaned and another will be advanced" (Psalms 75:7–8). King Solomon said, "Do not toil to grow wealthy; do not try to understand" (Proverbs 23:4). The true path is that taken by the early pious ones who would make their Torah-study primary and their occupations secondary, and were successful at both. Once you work just a little, all you need further do is trust in G-d and you will never be concerned about worldly matters. Then your mind will be free and your heart readied for true piety and complete service to G-d.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman