Wednesday, December 2, 2020

We're all in the Same Boat

You all know the allegory about the boat for “kol Yisroel areivim zeh l’zeh,” right? We have to worry about what other people are doing for the same reason we have to worry if we’re in a boat and someone is drilling a hole under their seat. If water comes into the boat through their hole, the boat sinks and we all drown. And so too, if another person is doing aveiros, we’ll all suffer.

 During WWI Germany invaded Belgium as part of the Schlieffen Plan, which called for the German army to quickly reach the sea and then swing through France like a closing door. The German government told the Belgians that they had no interest in Belgium itself. All they wanted was to pass through the country. If the Belgians let them pass, they would leave the Belgians unmolested. Belgium refused. Germany crushed the Belgian army in a month, and occupied the country. But Belgian resistance didn’t end. Belgian civilians took potshots at German soldiers as they walked through the streets of towns and cities. The situation was untenable for the Germans, so they imposed harsh measures. For every German soldier who was shot, they would round up ten Belgians at random from that town or neighborhood –men, women, and children - and execute them.

After all, if one Belgian drills a hole under their seat, the boat sinks and they all drown.

The world called the German’s draconian measures “The rape of Belgium,” and it inspired propaganda posters like these.

Were the Germans wrong for subjecting the Belgians to collective punishment for individual's actions? If you think they were - as most people did and do - then so too, God subjecting Klal Yisroel to collective punishment for individual's aveiros.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 6

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



AFTER WATCHFULNESS comes Zeal, Watchfulness pertaining to the negative commandments and Zeal to the positive, in accordance with the idea of "Depart from evil and do good (Psalms 34:15)." "Zeal," as the name implies, signifies alacrity in the pursuit and fulfillment of mitzvoth. As expressed by our Sages of blessed memory (Pesachim 4a), "The zealous advance themselves towards mitzvoth." That is, just as it requires great intelligence and much foresight to save oneself from the snares of the evil inclination and to escape from evil so that it does not come to rule us and intrude itself into our deeds, so does it require great intelligence and foresight to take hold of mitzvoth, to acquire them for ourselves, and not to lose them.

If it’s true that it requires “great intelligence” to avoid aveiros and to do mitzvos, then the vast majority of people, who are, by definition of average intelligence, have no hope of keeping the mitzvos properly. I get that this has a certain elitist appeal, but it doesn’t fit at all with a Torah that was given to the entire Jewish people.

For just as the evil inclination attempts, with the devices at its command, to cast a man into the nets of sin, so does it seek to prevent him from performing mitzvoth, and to leave Him devoid of them. If a man weakens and is lazy and does not strengthen himself to pursue mitzvoth and to hold onto them, he will certainly lack them.

A person's nature exercises a strong downward pull upon him. This is so because the grossness which characterizes the substance of earthiness keeps a man from desiring exertion and labor.

While one can easily find “grossness” in physical existence, one can also find beauty and the sublime. As I’ve noted several times, this disparagement of the physical has a distinctly Christian flavor to it.

One who wishes, therefore, to attain to the service of the Creator, may His Name be blessed, must strengthen himself against his nature and be zealous. If he leaves himself in the hands of his downward-pulling nature, there is no question that he will not succeed. As the Tanna says "Be fierce as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer and strong as a lion to do the will of your Father in heaven." Our Sages of blessed memory have numbered Torah and good deeds among those things which require self-fortification (Berachoth 32b). And Scripture plainly states (Joshua 1:7), "Strengthen yourself and be very courageous to observe to do according to all the Torah which Moses My servant commanded you." One who seeks to transform his nature completely requires great strengthening. Solomon repeatedly exhorts us concerning this, recognizing the evil of laziness and the greatness of the loss that results from it.

Why this assumption that laziness is people’s default state, that we have to struggle against? While people like to relax, most people are not lazy. Just look around. People put effort into things they think are important. Society isn’t crumbling because people can’t be bothered.

He says (Proverbs 6:10), "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep and your poverty is suddenly upon you and your want as an armed man." The lazy man, though not actively evil, produces evil through his very inactivity. We read further (Proverbs 18:9), "Also he who slackens in his work is a brother to the Destroyer." Though he is not the Destroyer who commits the evil with his own hands, let him not think that he is far-removed from him - he is his blood-brother.

A portrayal of a daily occurrence furnishes us with a clear idea of the lazy man's wickedness (Proverbs 24:30.). "I passed by the field of a lazy man and by the vineyard of a man without sense and it was overgrown with thistles; its face was covered with nettles... And I beheld; I put my heart to it; I saw; I took instruction, a little sleep, a little slumber ... and suddenly your poverty is upon you ..."

This is not a “daily occurrence.” It’s a made-up tableau in a polemic against laziness.

Aside from the surface description, whereby we are provided with an unquestionably true account of what happens to the lazy man's field, a very beautiful interpretation has been put forth by our Sages of blessed memory (Yalkut Shimoni Mishlei 961): " `and it was overgrown with thistles' - he seeks the interpretation of a passage and does not find it; ,its face was covered' - because of his not having labored in the Law, he sits in judgment and declares the pure, unclean and the impure, clean, and he breaches the fences of the Scholars. What is this man's punishment? Solomon tells us (Ecclesiastes 10:8) : `One who breaches a fence will be bitten by a snake.' " That is, the evil of the lazy man does not come all at once, but little by little, without his recognizing and sensing it. He is pulled from evil to evil until he finds himself sunk in evil's very depths. He begins by not expending the amount of effort which could be expected of him. This causes him not to study Torah as he should; and because of this, when he later does come to study it, he lacks the requisite understanding. It would be bad enough if his evil were to end here, but it does not. It grows even worse; for in his desire, notwithstanding, to interpret the section or chapter under consideration, he adduces interpretations which are not in accordance with the law, destroys the truth and perverts it, trespasses upon ordinances, and breaches the fences. His end, like that of all who breach fences, is destruction. Solomon continues (Ibid.), "And I beheld; I put my heart to it" - I thought upon this thing and I saw the terrible nature of the evil in it; it is like a poison which continues to spread, little by little, its workings unnoticed, until death results. This is the meaning of "A little sleep ... and suddenly your poverty is upon you as an armed man ..."

We see with our own eyes how often a person neglects his duty in spite of his awareness of it and in spite of his having come to recognize as a truth what is required for the salvation of his soul and what is incumbent upon him in respect to his Creator. This neglect is due not to an inadequate recognition of his duty nor to any other cause but the increasing weight of his laziness upon him;

I think he’s wrong here. Like I said above, people regularly expend effort on things they think are important. I think it’s much more likely that people don’t do what the Ramchal thinks is “required for the salvation of his soul” because they don’t really think that it’s required, don’t think it’s the truth, than because they’re “lazy.” People do what they do because, at least in the moment, it seems like a good idea.

so that he says, "I will eat a little," or "I will sleep a little," or "It is hard for me to leave the house," or "I have taken off my shirt, how can I put it on again?" (Canticles 5:3). "It is very hot outside," "It is very cold," or "It is raining too hard" and all the other excuses and pretenses that the mouth of fools is full of.

Again, these likely aren’t “pretenses.” They just don’t think that whatever it is that the Ramchal thinks they should be doing is more important than their comfort. This is different from laziness, where someone knows that they should do something, but can’t be bothered. And there is a difference between “should” in an idealistic sense and “should” in a practical sense. No one ever thinks to themselves, “I should go do X or I’m going to die, but my bed is too comfy and I can’t be bothered.” If they’re staying in bed, it’s because they don’t believe that not doing X right now is going to kill them.

Either way, the Torah is neglected, Divine service dispensed with, and the Creator abandoned. As Solomon said (Ecclesiastes 10:18), "Through laziness the roof sinks in, and through the hands' remaining low, the house leaks." If his laziness is held up to him, the lazy man will doubtless come back with many quotations culled from the Sages and from Scripture, and with intellectual arguments, all supporting, according to his misguided mind, his leniency with himself (and all allowing him to remain in the repose of his laziness). He fails to see that these arguments and explanations stem not from rational evaluation, but from his laziness, which, when it grows strong within him, inclines his reason and intelligence to them, so that he does not pay heed to what is said by the wise and by those who possess sound judgment. It is in this connection that Solomon cried (Proverbs 26:16), "A lazy man is wiser in his own eyes than seven sages!" Laziness does not even permit one to attend to the words of those who reprove him; he puts them all down for blunderers and fools, reckoning only himself wise.

You’re nogeah b’davar! You’re misled by your taivos! All of your kashas are really teirutzim!
Oh please. This is nothing more than a way to dismiss someone’s arguments out of hand by attributing them to a negative desire. You can’t just wave your hand and make arguments disappear. Even if it were true that the arguments were motivated by laziness, they stand or fall on their merits. You still have to counter the quotations (assuming that, like the Ramchal does, you find such quotations authoritative) and address the argument. They don’t go away just because you ascribe non-intellectual or even nefarious motives to the person presenting them.

A principle that experience has shown to be of central importance to the work of Separation is that whatever tends to lighten one's burden must be examined carefully. For although such alleviation is sometimes justified and reasonable, it is most often a deceitful prescription of the evil inclination, and must, therefore, be subjected to much analysis and investigation. If, after such an examination, it still seems justified, then it is certainly acceptable.

In fine, a man must greatly strengthen himself, and power himself with Zeal to perform the mitzvoth, casting from himself the hindering weight of laziness. The angels were extolled for their Zeal, as is said of them (Psalms 103:20), "Mighty in power, they do His word, to listen to the voice of His word," and (Ezekiel 1:14), "And the living creatures ran and returned, as streaks of lightning." A man is a man and not an angel, and it is therefore impossible for him to attain to the strength of an angel, but he should surely strive to come as close to that level as his nature allows. King David, grateful for his portion of Zeal, said (Psalms 119:60), "I was quick; I did not delay in keeping Your mitzvoth."

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 5

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



THE FACTORS which detract from this trait and withdraw one from it are three: The first is worldly occupation and involvement, the second, laughter and levity, and the third, evil companionship. We will discuss each one individually.

Laughter?!Sigh. Reminds me of the old line, “A fundamentalist is someone who’s scared that someone, somewhere, is having fun.”

We have already discussed worldly occupation and involvement. When a man is involved in worldly affairs, his thoughts are bound by the chains of the burden that weighs upon them and it is impossible for them to become concerned with his deeds. The Sages, may Peace be upon them, said, in their awareness of this fact (Avoth 4.10), "Minimize your occupations and occupy yourself with Torah." A person must occupy himself to a certain extent for the sake of a livelihood, but not to the extent where his Divine service is interfered with. It is in respect to this that we were commanded to set aside times for Torah study. We have already mentioned that it is such study which is the prime requirement for Watchfulness; as stated by R. Pinhas, "Torah brings one to Watchfulness." Without it, Watchfulness will not be attained. As our Sages of blessed memory have stated (Avoth 2.6), "An ignoramus cannot be a saint." This is true because the very Creator, Blessed be His name, who invested man with an evil inclination, created the Torah as an antidote to it (Kiddushin 30b). It is self-evident that if the Creator has fashioned for this affliction only this remedy, it is impossible under any circumstances that a person be cured of it through any other means. One who thinks to save himself without it is mistaken, and will recognize his mistake only in the end, when he dies in sin. For the evil inclination exerts great force against a person, and, without his being aware of it, grows and waxes stronger, and comes to dominate him. A man may resort to all the devices imaginable - if he does not adopt the remedy which was created for him, namely, the Torah, as I have written, he will neither recognize nor feel the intensification of his illness until he dies in sin and his soul is lost.

To what is this analogous? To the case of a sick man, who, consulting doctors and having his sickness correctly diagnosed and prescribed for, nevertheless, possessing no previous knowledge of medicine, abandons their prescription and takes instead whatever medicine he happens to think of. Is there any doubt that he will die?

That sounds like a certain rosh yeshiva from Philadelphia.

The same is true in our case. No one understands the disease of the evil inclination and the potentialities inherent within it but the Creator who fashioned it. And He Himself cautioned us that the only antidote to it is Torah. Who, then, can abandon it and take anything else and expect to live? The darkness of earthiness will advance upon him degree by degree without his sensing it, until he finds himself sunk in evil and so far removed from truth that it will not even occur to him to seek it.

This is demonstrably untrue. There are lots of people who have never learned Torah in their entire lives, and yet have not “sunk in evil.”
If, however, he occupies himself with Torah, then, when he sees its ways, its commandments and its warnings, there will awaken within him responses which will lead him to the ways of good. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7), "Would that they left me and kept my Torah, for the radiance within it would return them to good."

Also included in this category is the setting aside of times for consideration of one's deeds, with an eye towards their correction, as I wrote above. In addition to this, he who is wise will not permit any time that may remain from his affairs to go lost, but he will immediately seize it, and not let it go, in order to employ it towards self-improvement and the betterment of his Divine service.

The deterrent that we have been discussing, though more common than the others, is the easiest to escape, for those who wish to escape it. The second deterrent, however, laughter and levity, is very severe. He who is immersed in it is as one who is immersed in a great ocean, from which it is extremely difficult to escape. For laughter affects a person's heart in such a manner that sense and reason no longer prevail in him, so that he becomes like a drunkard or a simpleton, whom, because they cannot accept direction, it is impossible to advise or direct. As was said by King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Ecclesiastes 2:2), "About laughter I have said, `It is silly,' and about happiness, `What does it do?"'

And the pointlessness of laughter – in a text that points out the pointlessness of everything – is supposed to support the idea that laughter makes one leave reason behind and become a simpleton? That doesn’t follow. It’s like he went looking for any negative statement about laughter he could find, and this is the best he could do.

And our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avoth 3.13), "Laughter and lightheadedness motivate a man towards illicit relations." For even though every reasoning individual recognizes the gravity of this kind of sin and his heart is afraid to approach it because of the vividness of the impression that has stamped itself into his mind, of the truly terrible nature of the offense and the severity of its punishment, still laughter and lightheadedness draw him on little by little and lead him closer and closer to the stage where fear leaves him little by little, degree by degree, until finally he reaches the sin itself and commits it. Why is this so? Just as the essence of Watchfulness involves applying one's heart to things, so the essence of laughter is the turning away of one's heart from just, attentive thinking, so that thoughts of fearing God do not enter one's heart at all.

This also doesn’t say what he wants it to say. Nor is he right that the “essence” of laughter is turning away from attentive thinking – that is, that laughing will lead one to make poor decisions.

Consider the great severity and destructive power of levity. Like a shield smeared with oil, which wards off arrows and causes them to fall to the ground, not permitting them to reach the bearer's body, is levity in the face of reproof and rebuke. For with one bit of levity and with a little laughter a person can cast from himself the great majority of the awakenings and impressions that a man's heart stimulates and effects within itself upon his seeing or hearing things which arouse him to an acconting and an examination of his deeds. The force of levity flings everything to the ground so that no impression whatsoever is made upon Him. This is due not to the weakness of the forces playing upon him, nor to any lack of understanding on his part, but to the power of levity, which obliterates all facets of moral evaluation and fear of God.

In other words, ridiculing the rebuke robs it of its power to make one feel small and guilty. This is probably true, but isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he paints it here. Appeals to others to improve themselves should be reasoned, not based in guilt. One can certainly ridicule a reasoned argument, but if the argument is valid, it’s valid no matter how much it’s ridiculed. Guilt, on the other hand, only works if one takes it seriously.

Touching this the Prophet Isaiah "screamed like a crane," for he saw that it was this which left no place for his exhortations to make an impression and which destroyed all hope for the sinners. As it is stated (Isaiah 28:22), "And now do not engage in levity lest your bonds be strengthened." And our Sages have pronounced (Avodah Zarah 18b) that one who is given to levity brings suffering upon himself. Scripture itself explicity states (Proverbs 19:29), "Judgments are appropriate for the light-headed." Indeed, this is dictated by reason; for one who is influenced by thought and studies does not require bodily punishment, for he will leave off sinning without it by virtue of the thoughts of repentance which will arise in his heart through what he will read or hear of moral judgments and exhortations. But the light-headed, who because of the force of their levity are not influenced by exhortations cannot be corrected except through punitive judgments. For their levity will not be as effective in warding off these as it is in warding off ethical appeals. In accordance with the severity of the sin and its consequences is the True Judge severe in His punishment. As our Sages of blessed memory have taught us (Avodah Zarah 18b), "The punishment for levity is extremely severe; it begins with suffering and ends with destruction, as it is said (Isaiah 28:22), `Lest your bonds be strengthened, for I have heard destruction and cutting off..."

This sounds a lot like bad parenting. Someone who can’t get their child to behave through teaching them proper behavior has to resort to brute force. Worse, the abuse is here blamed on the one who is being punished – it’s made out to be his fault for laughing at the ridiculous, not the fault of the teacher for being ridiculous.

The third deterrent to Watchfulness is evil companionship, that is, the companionship of fools and sinners, as Scripture states (Proverbs 13:20), "And the friend of fools will be broken."

This seems right. Peer pressure and social norms are influential, and the people one associates with do affect his behavior.

Very often we see that even after the truth of a man's responsibility for Divine service and Watchfulness has impressed itself upon a person, he weakens or commits certain trespasses in order not to be mocked by his friends or to be able to mix freely with them. This is the intent of Solomon's warning (Proverbs 24:21), "Do not mix with those who make changes." If someone says to you (Kethuvoth 17a), "A man's mind should always be associated with his fellow men," tell him, "This refers to people who conduct themselves as human beings and not to people who conduct themselves as animals." Solomon again warns (Proverbs 14:7), "Withdraw yourself from a fool." And King David said in this connection (Psalms 1: 1), "Happy is the man who did not walk...... upon which our Sages of blessed memory have commented (Avodah Zarah 18b), "If he walked he will eventually stand, and if he stood, he will eventually sit."

What? He really should have quoted the whole passage, which makes the reasonable case that one who has casual association with sinners may come to be more and more involved with them, until he reaches the point where he too will sin. It’s odd that he cut off the quote before the punchline.

And again (Psalms 26:4), "I have not sat with false men ...I despised the society of the wicked ..." What a person must do, then, is to purify and cleanse himself, and keep his feet from the paths of the crowd who are immersed in the foolishness of the time, and turn them to the precincts of God and His dwelling places. As David himself concludes (Ibid. 6), "I will wash my hands in cleanliness, and I will go round Your altar, O God." If there are among his companions those who subject him to ridicule, he should not take it to heart, but, to the contrary, should ridicule them and shame them.

Do you like flame wars? Because that’s how we get flame wars.

Let him consider whether, if he had the opportunity of acquiring a great deal of money, he would keep from undertaking what such acquisition entailed so as to avoid the ridicule of his companions.

Yes, he probably would. Of course, it depends on how much money and how much ridicule, and we have to factor in that the more money someone has, the less likely others are to ridicule them. Generally, though, people tend to value respect over money. It’s why “Employee of the month” exists.

How much more averse should he be to losing his soul for the sake of sparing himself ridicule. In this connection our Sages of blessed memory exhorted us (Aroth 5.23), "Be fierce as a leopard to do the will of your Father in heaven." And David said (Psalms 119:46), "And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed." Even though most of the kings of his time occupied themselves with, and were wont to converse upon grandiose schemes and pleasures,

Unlike Dovid himself, of course, who never schemed for pleasures. *cough* Batsheva *cough*

and we would, therefore, tend to expect that David, himself a king, would be ashamed, while in their presence, to speak of ethical questions and Torah instead of discussing great feats and the pleasures of men such as they

Sure, because it’s not like kings in antiquity were ever devotees of gods or interested in such things.
We can excuse the Ramchal for not knowing any better in the mid-18th century, but his ignorance of psychology and history that he displays in this chapter should keep anyone from taking the Mesilas Yesharim at face value in the 21st.

- in spite of all this, David was not in the least perturbed, and his heart was not seduced by these vanities, because he had already attained to the truth. He states explicitly (Psalms 119:46), "And I will speak of your testimonies before kings and I will not be ashamed." Isaiah, likewise, said (Isaiah 50:7), "1 therefore made my face like flint and I knew that I would not be ashamed."

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 4

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



THAT WHICH, in general, brings a person to Watchfulness is Torah study. As R. Pinchas stated in the beginning of the Baraitha, "Torah brings one to Watchfulness."

There’s no discussion of any mechanism. Just the assertion that, magically, learning leads to watchfulness.

That which leads to it in particular, however, is reflection upon the demanding nature of the Divine service that a man is responsible for and the severity of the judgment which it involves. This understanding may be gained by analyzing the incidents that are related in the sacred writings and by studying the statements of the Sages of blessed memory which awaken one to it.

This makes more sense, but he says that “in particular” studying these sorts of things make one watchful. That, along with the first two sentences in the chapter, still implies that learning – any learning – magically makes one watchful.

In this process of understanding, there are various levels of ideas, applying respectively to those with wholeness of understanding, those of lesser understanding and the general populace.

Those with wholeness of understanding will be primarily motivated towards Watchfulness by their coming to see clearly that only perfection and nothing else is worthy of their desire and that there is no worse evil than the lack of and removal from perfection.

I guess I’m not a member of this rarified elite, because I don’t think this is at all self-evident, or that it’s true. As the saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” There are lots of worthwhile things in life that aren’t perfect, but are nonetheless good. Nor is a lack of perfection “evil.” Thinking that one needs to seek perfection and that a lack of perfection is evil is a path toinsanity.

For after this has become clear to them, as well as the fact that the means to this end are virtuous deeds and traits,

Not being perfectly virtuous isn’t evil. It’s human. This is awful black-and-white thinking, where one is either perfect or evil.

they will certainly never permit themselves to diminish these means; nor will they ever fail to make use of their [the means'] full potential. For it would already have become clear to them that if these means were reduced in number or not employed with complete effectiveness, with all of the energy that they called for, true perfection would not be attained through them, but would be lacked to the extent that sufficient exertion was lacking in relation to them. There is no misfortune nor any evil that those with wholeness of understanding deem greater than this lack of perfection. They will, therefore, choose to increase the number of these means and to be rigid in relation to all of their aspects.

This is a perfect justification for today’s chumrah-chasing frum culture, which was born out of the ivory-tower yeshivah and the break in mimetic tradition caused by the Holocaust. It’s interesting to see it here already, relatively early. It’s also what allows behaviors that are clearly symptoms of mental disorders to be reframed as signs of piety. For example, a biography of the previous Satmar Rebbe published several years ago recounts that as a child, the rebbe spent inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom making sure his body was clean, going back over and over. This sort of exaggerated concern with cleanliness is a common symptom of OCD, but the biography framed it as a sign of his gadlus even at a young age. As the Ramachal puts it here, they framed it as the rebbe seeking perfection and exerting himself to the greatest extent to achieve it.

They will find no rest or peace from the worry that they possibly lack something which might lead them to the perfection that they desire.

Yeah, this is not healthy.

As was said by King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Proverbs 28:14), "Happy is the man who always fears." Our Sages (Berachoth 60a) interpreted this statement as applying to the realm of Torah. The trait to which this degree of attainment leads is the one which is termed "Fear of Sin," a trait which constitutes one of the highest levels of achievement. Its intent is that a man constantly fear and worry lest he be harboring a trace of sin which might keep him from the perfection that he is dutybound to strive for.

The person who actually lives this way is insane, or very soon will be. A constant “fear and worry” that he might have a “trace of sin” is an anxiety disorder, not a sign of piety.
Relatedly, it does seem that many “inspiring” stories in circulation in the frum world feature people who behave in ways that we would find crazy were they not the heroes of an inspiring story. I’ve written about this phenomenon in the past. [LINK]

Concerning this our Sages of blessed memory said by way of analogy (Bava Bathra 75a), "This teaches us that everyone is burned by his neighbor's canopy." It is not jealousy which is the operative factor here (for jealousy as I will explain further with the help of Heaven, is encountered only among those who lack understanding), but rather the fact that he sees himself as lacking a level of achievement towards perfection, a level that he could have attained just as his neighbor had.

Comparing ourselves to others is never a good idea, even when done in this kind of inspirational, aspirational way. Everyone is different, with different personalities, circumstances, and person strengths and weaknesses. To suppose that you could be just like your neighbor if only you tried hard enough is to ignore that we all live with and are influenced by many things that are beyond our control. Each of us can only do our best, not our neighbor’s best.

If he who possesses wholeness of understanding engages in this thought process, he certainly will not fall short of being watchful in his deeds.

Those of lesser understanding, however, will be motivated towards Watchfulness according to their particular level of discrimination, so that their quest will be for the honor that they desire. It is evident to every man of faith that the different stations in the World of Truth, the World to Come, vary only in relation to one's deeds; that only he who is greater in deeds than his neighbor will be elevated above him, whereas he who is lesser in deeds will occupy a lower level.

How is this “evident” at all? How does he know that there are different stations in Olam HaBoh, or how one achieves a given station is there are?

How, then, can a man blind his eyes to his actions or slacken his efforts, if afterwards, when he can no longer straighten out what he has made crooked, he will unquestionably suffer?


There are some fools who seek only to lighten their burden. They say, "Why weary ourselves with so much Saintliness and Separation? Is it not enough for us that we will not be numbered among the wicked who are judged in Gehinnom? We will not force ourselves to enter all the way into Paradise. If we do not have a large portion, we will have a small one. It will be enough for us. We will not add to our burdens for the sake of greater acquisitions." There is one question that we will ask these people -could they so easily, in this transitory world, tolerate the sight of one of their friends being honored, and elevated above them, and coming to rule over them-or, more so, one of their servants or one of the paupers who are shameful and lowly in their eyes? Could they tolerate this without suffering and without their blood boiling in them? Is there any question that they could not?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but I’ve never been particularly concerned with status. Nor do I share the Ramchal’s feelings that servants and paupers are beneath me. I’m fine with others being honored above me. Getting honored myself would be nice and all, but it genuinely doesn’t bother me in the slightest to see other people honored.

We witness with our own eyes all of the labors of a man to elevate himself above everyone he can and to establish his place among the exalted. This is a man's jealousy of his neighbor.

He seems to be using the base middah of jealousy to motivate people to do mitzvos. I guess that sublimating negative emotions is a good thing, but still, this seems off. What theory of mitzvos makes this a useful approach? Not the one where we do mitzvos because it’s God’s will. An omniscient God would know that you’re only doing mitzvos so you can one-up your neighbor, and it seems like that would significantly reduce the value of the mitzvah. Nor can it be the Rambam’s theory of mitzvos, in which mitzvos are meant to refine the individual. Doing mitzvos motivated by jealously seems to be the opposite of refinement. So we’re left with the magic theory of mitzvos, where mitzvos are spells and magic rituals that “work” regardless of intention. Maybe that really is what mitzvos are, but to me, that seems to cheapen the whole enterprise.

If he sees his neighbor elevated while he remains low, what he tolerates will be what he is forced to tolerate because of his inability to alter the situation: but his heart will brood within him. If it is so difficult, then, for them to abide being on a lower level than others in respect to qualities whose desirability is illusive and deceitful, qualities in relation to which a man's being designated as lowly is but a surface judgment, and his being elevated, vanity and falsity, then how could they tolerate seeing themselves lower than those same persons who are now lower than they? And this in the place of true quality and everlasting worth, which, though they might not give heart to it now because of their failure to recognize it and its value, they will certainly recognize in its time for what it is, to their grief and shame. There is no question that their suffering will be terrible and interminable. This tolerance, then, that they adopt in order to lighten their burden is nothing but a deceitful persuasion of their evil inclination, with no basis whatsoever in truth.

Oy. That’s always what it comes down to. “If you disagree with me, it’s because of your yetzer hara.”

 If they saw the truth, there would be no room for such deception, but because they do not seek it, but walk and stray according to their desires,

It’s always about taivos. This gets tiring. Like so many religious people, he paints anyone who doesn’t think like he does as a menuval.

these persuasions will not leave them until such a time when it will no longer avail them, when it will no longer be in their hands to rebuild what they have destroyed. As was said by King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Ecclesiastes 9:10),

A side point, but Shlomo HaMelech didn’t write Koheles.

 "Whatever your hand finds to do with your strength, do it, for there is no deed, nor account, nor knowledge..." That is, what a man does not do while he still has the power that His Creator has given him (the power of choice that is given to him to employ during his lifetime, when he can exercise free will and is commanded to do so) he will not again have the opportunity of doing in the grave and in the pit, for at that time he will no longer possess this power. For one who has not multiplied good deeds in his lifetime will not have the opportunity of performing them afterwards.

Sort of? That’s not really what Koheles means. Koheles is saying to live your life to fullest, because that’s all that matters. He’s not saying that we should do mitzvos now because we won’t have the opportunity after death. But I can see how someone could take just that pasuk, ignore the larger context, and interpret it the way the Ramchal does.

And one who has not taken an accounting of his deeds will not have time to do so later. And one who has not become wise in this world will not become wise in the grave. This is the intent of (Ibid.) ". .. for there is no deed nor account nor knowledge nor wisdom in the pit to which you are going."

No, that’s not the intent. Sheol, which here is translated as “pit,” was conceptually very different from Olam HaBoh. It wasn’t a place of reward and punishment. It was just a featureless somewhere that  stored dead people. Koheles is saying you should live your life to the fullest, to, in the words of this pasuk and the one before, “Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life … For that alone is what you can get out of life. … Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might.” He is not saying do mitzvos now because you won’t have the opportunity in Olam HaBoh. He’s saying enjoy your life, because that’s the only thing that matters, and there is nothing to look forward to after this life, “no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol.” Just featureless nothingness forever.

But the general populace will be motivated towards Watchfulness through a recognition of the depth of judgment in relation to reward and punishment. In truth, one should continuously tremble and shiver, for who will abide the Day of Judgment, and who will be deemed righteous before his Creator, whose scrutiny dissects all things, small and great. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Chagigah 5b), " `And He relates to a man his conversation' (Amos 4:13). Even a casual conversation between a man and his wife is related to him at the time of judgment." And, similarly, (Yevamoth 121b), " `And around Him it storms violently' (Psalms 50: 3). This teaches us that the Holy One Blessed be He judges His saints to the degree of a hair's-breadth" [an inference derived from the structural relationship between "storms" and "hair" in the Hebrew].

Abraham - the same Abraham who was so beloved by his Possessor that Scripture (Isaiah 41:8) refers to him as "Abraham, my beloved" - Abraham did not escape judgment for a slight indiscretion in his use of words. Because he said, (Genesis 15:8), "With what shall I know," the Holy One Blessed be He said to him, "Upon your life, you shall surely know, for your children will be strangers..." (Vayikra Rabbah 11:5). And because he entered into a covenant with Avimelech without having been commanded by God to do so, the Holy One Blessed be He, said to him, "Upon your life, I shall delay the rejoicing of your sons for seven generations" (Bereshith Rabbah 54:5).

Jacob, because he became angry with Rachel upon her saying to him (Genesis 30:1), "Give me sons," was told by God (as related in the Midrash), "Is this the way to answer those who are oppressed? Upon your life, your sons will stand before her son" (Bereshith Rabbah 71: 10). And because he placed Dinah in a chest so that Esau would not seize her, even though his intentions in doing so were unquestionably worthy ones, we are told in the Midrash (Ibid. 80:3) that the Holy One Blessed be He said to him, because he withheld kindliness from his brother, " `Who keeps kindliness from his neighbor' (Job 6:14) - Because you did not wish to wed her lawfully, she will be wed unlawfully."

Joseph, because he said to the one appointed over the drink (Genesis 40:14), "But remember me in relation to yourself," had two years added to his imprisonment, as we are told by our Sages of blessed memory (Bereshith Rabbah 89:2). Also, because he embalmed his father without God's permission, or, according to a second opinion, because he heard, "Your servant, our father" and kept still, he died before his brothers (Bereshith Rabbah 100:3).

David, because he referred to words of Torah as "songs," was punished by having his joy dampened through Uzzah's indiscretion (Sotah 35a).

Michal, because she admonished David for dancing in public before the ark, was punished by dying in childbirth, having had no other children in her lifetime (II Samuel 6:20 f ).

Hezekiah - because he revealed the treasure house to the officers of the Babylonian king, it was decreed that his sons serve as eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylonia. (II Kings 20:12 ff ).

There are many more instances of this nature.

I think the point is to demonstrate the seriousness of our actions, and to thereby motivate people to be “watchful.” What this really is, though, is a demonstration of how petty and cruel God is. This is the God whose mitzvos we should strive to do? Maybe out of fear of the cruel tyrant, but not out of any sense that doing so is “virtuous,” which is the message the Ramchal is trying to convey.

In the chapter "All are Liable" (Chagiga 5a), our Sages of blessed memory told us, "Rabbi Yochanan cried when he came to the following verse (Malachi 3:5): `And I will draw near to you in judgment, and I will be a quick witness...' Is there any remedy for a servant against whom lesser offenses are weighed, as grave ones are?" It is certainly not the point of this statement that the punishment is identical for both, for the Holy One Blessed be He pays measure for measure. It is rather to be understood that in relation to the weighing of deeds, those which are less weighty are placed upon the balance just as the weightier ones are; for the latter will not cause the former to be forgotten, nor will the Judge overlook them, just as He will not overlook the weighty ones. But He will consider and attend to all of these equally, judging each one of them and meting out punishment for each one according to its nature. As was said by King Solomon, may Peace be upon him (Ecclesiastes 12:14), "For God will bring every deed into judgment."

There are good arguments to be made that this last pasuk of Koheles, along with several that precede it, were later additions to what is otherwise a gloriously nihilistic text. The original text would have ended with pasuk ches, “Utter futility—said Koheleth— All is futile!” The next few pesukim, which begin with, “A further word,” are of a different tone than the rest of the megillah, and were probably added at some point to make it into a properly God-oriented text. Those last pesukim are also probably the reason that Koheles was included in Tanach.

Just as the Holy One Blessed be He does not allow any good deed, small as it may be, to go unrewarded, so does He not permit any bad deed, however small, to go unjudged and unpassed upon, contrary to the thinking of those who wish to talk it into themselves that the Lord Blessed be He, will not review the lighter things in His judgment and will not call them into account. It is an acknowledged principle (Bava Kamma 50a): "Whoever says that the Holy One Blessed be He overlooks things will have his life `overlooked.' " And our Sages of blessed memory have also said (Chagiga lba), "If the evil inclination says to you, `Sin and the Holy One Blessed be He will forgive you,' do not heed it." All this is obvious and clear, for God is a God of truth. It is this idea which is embodied in the statement of Moses our Teacher, may Peace be upon him (Deuteronomy 32:4), "The Rock-His work is whole; for all of His ways are just. He is a God of faithfulness, without wrong. . ." Since the Holy One Blessed be He desires justice, ignoring the bad would be as much of an injustice as ignoring the good. If He desires justice, then, He must deal with each man according to his ways and according to the fruits of his acts, with the most minute discrimination, for good or for bad. This is what underlies the statement of our Sages of blessed memory (Yalkut Ibid.) that the verse "He is a God of faithfulness, without wrong; He is righteous and just" has application to the righteous and to the wicked. For this is His attribute. He judges everything. He punishes every sin. There is no escaping.

To those who might ask at this point, "Seeing that whatever the case may be, everything must be subjected to judgment, what function does the attribute of mercy perform?" the answer is that the attribute of mercy is certainly the mainstay of the world; for the world could not exist at all without it. Nevertheless the attribute of justice is not affected. For on the basis of justice alone it would be dictated that the sinner be punished immediately upon sinning, without the least delay; that the punishment itself be a wrathful one, as befits one who rebels against the word of the Creator, blessed be His Name; and that there be no correction whatsoever for the sin. For in truth, how can a man straighten what has been made crooked after the commission of the sin? If a man killed his neighbor; if he committed adultery-how can he correct this? Can he remove the accomplished fact from actuality?

It is the attribute of mercy which causes the reverse of the three things we have mentioned. That is, it provides that the sinner be given time, and not be wiped out as soon as he sins; that the punishment itself not involve utter destruction; and that the gift of repentance be given to sinners with absolute lovingkindness, so that the rooting out of the will which prompted the deed be considered a rooting out of the deed itself. That is, when he who is repenting recognizes his sin, and admits it, and reflects upon his evil, and repents, and wishes that the sin had never been committed, as he would wish that a certain vow had never been made, in which case there is complete regret, and he desires and yearns that the deed had never been done, and suffers great anguish in his heart because of its already having been done, and departs from it for the future, and flees from itthen the uprooting of the act from his will is accredited to him as the uprooting of a vow, and he gains atonement. As Scripture states (Isaiah 6:7), "Your wrong will depart, and your sin will be forgiven." The wrong actually departs from existence and is uprooted because of his suffering for and regretting now what had taken place in the past. This is certainly a function of lovingkindness and not of justice. In any event, however, it is a type of lovingkindness which does not entirely negate the attribute of justice. It can be seen as according with justice in that in place of the act of will from which the sin arose and the pleasure that it afforded, there is now regret and suffering. So, too, the time extension constitutes not a pardoning of the sin, but rather God's bearing with the sinner for a while to open the door of repentance to him. Similarly, all of the other operations of lovingkindness, such as "The son benefits his father," (Sunhedrin 104x) and "Part of a life is like the whole life" (Kcheleth Rabbah 7:48), mentioned by our Sages, are aspects of lovingkindness wherein small amounts are accounted large. But these considerations do not militate against nor actually negate the attribute of justice, for there is good reason to attach importance to them.

This whole discussion of justice vs mercy, and mercy being an act of chesed, reminds me of the “God is making do” line of argument. Really, Justice would compel God to act one way, but in His Mercy, as an act of chessed, He gives sinners the opportunity to do teshuva.
Nonsense! If God created everything, then He created the concepts of Justice and Mercy, too. He set up the system. He’s not working within the system, holding off Justice out of chessed. If the system would require immediate Justice, it would only be that way because He made it that way. And if He set up the system to allow for teshuva, that’s not chessed. It’s the way He set it up, for inscrutable reasons of His own.

But for sins to be pardoned or ignored would be entirely contrary to the concept of justice, for then there would be no judgment and no true law in relation to things. It is, therefore, impossible for such a situation to obtain. And if the sinner does not find open to him one of the avenues of escape that we have mentioned, it is certain that the attribute of justice will not emerge empty-handed. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yerushalmi Ta'anith 2:1), "He withholds His wrath, but He collects what is His."

We see, then, that the man who wants to open his eyes to the truth can offer himself no possible argument for not exercising the maximum of Watchfulness in his deeds and subjecting them to the most thorough analysis.

All of these are observations which, if one approaches them with sensitivity, will certainly lead him to the acquisition of Watchfulness.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 3

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



ONE WHO WISHES to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. This applies both to times when there is a question of performing a specific action and to times when there is no such question. When there is a question of performing a specific action, he should do nothing before he weighs the action in the scale of the aforementioned understanding. And when there is no such question, the idea should take the form of his bringing before himself the remembrance of his deeds in general and weighing them, likewise, in the scales of this criterion to determine what they contain of evil, so that he may cast it aside, and what of good, so that he may be constant in it and strengthen himself in it. If he finds in them aught that is evil, he should consider and attempt to reason out what device he might use to turn aside from that evil and to cleanse himself of it. Our Sages of blessed memory taught us this in their statement (Eruvin 136), "It would have been better for a man not to have been created... but now that he has been created, let him examine his deeds. Others say, `Let him "feel" his deeds.' " It is to be seen that these two versions constitute two sound beneficial exhortations. For "examination" of one's deeds refers to an investigation of one's deeds in general and a consideration of them to determine whether they might not include certain actions which should not be performed, which are not in accordance with God's mitzvoth and His statutes, any such actions to be completely eradicated. "Feeling," however, implies the investigation even of the good actions themselves to determine whether they involve any leaning which is not good or any bad aspect which it is necessary to remove and to eradicate. This is analogous to a person's feeling a garment to determine whether its material is good and sturdy or weak and rotted. In the same respect he must "feel" his actions by subjecting them to a most exhaustive examination to determine their nature, so that he might remain free of any impurities.

In general, yes, people should be aware of what they are doing and of what is good and what is bad. But this, minutely examining even your good deeds to keep oneself “pure,” seems like a recipe for insanity and depression. One will never be good enough, never stop second-guessing himself.

To summarize, a man should observe all of his actions and watch over all of his ways so as not to leave himself with a bad habit or a bad trait, let alone a sin or a crime. I see a need for a person to carefully examine his ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of the great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. He should set aside definite times and hours for this weighing so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one which is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields rich returns.

Our Sages of blessed memory have explicitly taught us the need for such an evaluation. As they said (Bava Bathra 78b), "Therefore the rulers say, `Let us enter into an accounting' (Numbers 21:27). Therefore the rulers over their evil inclinations say, 'Let us come and compute the world's account, the loss entailed by the performance of a mitzvah, against the gain that one secures through it, and the gain that one acquires through a transgression against the loss that it entails... ' "

Quoting bits of Tanach out of context is an annoying habit of the gemara, but this is particularly egregious. That’s just not what the pasuk says. It’s talking about a city names “Cheshbon.” Yes, the name in Hebrew means “accounting,” but using the pasuk this way is absurd.

This true counsel could not have been given, nor its truth recognized by any except those who had already departed from beneath the hand of their evil inclination and come to dominate it. For if one is still imprisoned by his evil inclination, his eyes cannot see this truth and he cannot recognize it.

How clever. If you disagree with him, it’s because you’re evil.

For the evil inclination literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which his eyes do not see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), " ` You laid down darkness and it was night' (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world which is similar to night." How wondrous is this truthful commentary to him who concentrates upon understanding it. For the darkness of night can cause two types of errors in relation to a man's eye: it may either cover his eye so that he does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. In like manner, the earthiness and materialism of this world is the darkness of night to the mind's eye and causes a man to err in two ways. First it does not permit him to see the stumbling blocks in the ways of the world, so that the fools walk securely, fall, and are lost without having experienced any prior fear. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:19), "The path of the wicked is like pitch darkness; they do not know upon what they stumble," and (Proverbs 22:3), "The wise man sees the evil and hides, and the fools pass on and are punished," and (Proverbs 14:16), "And the fool becomes infuriated and is secure." For their hearts are steadfast and they fall before having any knowledge whatsoever of the existence of the stumbling block. The second error, which is even worse than the first, stems from the distortion of their sight, so that they see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find powerful substantiations and empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas.

Those evil people, with their empirical evidence! How dare reality disagree with the Ramchal!
On the one hand, to be fair, this has a basis in reality. People do find ways to justify what they already believe. On the other, dismissing people who disagree with you out of hand as evil, and adding that they nefariously use reason and evidence to bolster their evil beliefs, is boilerplate response to non-believers. The reasonable response to someone who (politely) disagrees with you and offers reasons for his disagreement is to show him where he’s mistaken – and to be open to the possibility that you’re the one who’s mistaken. Not to vilify the other person and dismiss his arguments and evidence out of hand.

This is the great evil which embraces them and brings them to the pit of destruction. As Scripture states (Isaiah 6:10), "The heart of this nation has become fatted, and its ears have become heavy, and its eyes have turned aside, lest..." All this because of their being under the influence of the darkness and subject to the rule of their evil inclination. But those who have already freed themselves from this bondage see the truth clearly and can advise others in relation to it.

To what is this analogous? To a garden-maze, a type of garden common among the ruling class, which is planted for the sake of amusement. The plants there are arranged in walls between which are found many confusing and interlacing paths, all similar to one another, the purpose of the whole being to challenge one to reach a portico in their midst. Some of the paths are straight ones which lead directly to the portico, but some cause one to stray, and to wander from it. The walker between the paths has no way of seeing or knowing whether he is on the true or the false path; for they are all similar, presenting no difference whatsoever to the observing eye. He will not reach his goal unless he has perfect familiarity and visual acquaintance with the paths through his having traversed them and reached the portico. He who occupies a commanding position in the portico, however, sees all of the paths before him and can discriminate between the true and the false ones. He is in a position to warn those who walk upon them and to tell them, "This is the path; take it!" He who is willing to believe him will reach the designated spot; but he who is not willing to believe him, but would rather trust to his eyes, will certainly remain lost and fail to reach it.

So too in relation to the idea under discussion. He who has not yet achieved dominion over his evil inclination is in the midst of the paths and cannot distinguish between them. But those who rule their evil inclination, those who have reached the portico, who have already left the paths and who clearly see all of the ways before their eyes - they can advise him who is willing to listen, and it is to them that we must trust.

This sounds good, but really it boils down to, “trust authority without any way to verify their trustworthiness.” How are we to know who has conquered their yetzer hara? And, again, this is an argument from analogy. The truth is that there are many different challenges people face in life, and having overcome one’s yetzer hara (if that’s even possible – I don’t think it is) doesn’t automatically give someone insight into someone else’s moral dilemmas.

And what is the advice that they give us'? - 'Let us enter into an accounting.' Let us come and compute the world's account." For they have already experienced, and seen, and learned that this alone is the true path by which a man may reach the good that he seeks, and that there is none beside this.

What emerges from all this is that a man must constantly - at all times, and particularly during a regularly appointed time of solitude - reflect upon the true path (according to the ordinance of the Torah) that a man must walk upon. After engaging in such reflection he will come to consider whether or not his deeds travel along this path. For in doing so it will certainly be easy for him to cleanse himself of all evil and to correct all of his ways. As Scripture states (Proverbs 4:26), "Consider the path of your feet and all of your paths will be established," and (Lamentations 3:40), "Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return to God."

Friday, July 17, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 2

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



THE IDEA OF WATCHFULNESS is for a man to exercise caution in his actions and his undertakings; that is, to deliberate and watch over his actions and his accustomed ways to determine whether or not they are good, so as not to abandon his soul to the danger of destruction, God forbid, and not to walk according to the promptings of habit as a blind man in pitch darkness. This is demanded by one's intelligence. For considering the fact that a man possesses the knowledge and the reasoning ability to save himself and to flee from the destruction of his soul, is it conceivable that he would willingly blind himself to his own salvation? There is certainly no degradation and foolishness worse than this. One who does this is lower than beasts and wild animals, whose nature it is to protect themselves, to flee and to run away from anything that seems to endanger them. One who walks this world without considering whether his way of life is good or bad is like a blind man walking along the seashore, who is in very great danger, and whose chances of being lost are far greater than those of his being saved. For there is no difference between natural blindness and self-inflicted blindness, the shutting of one's eyes as an act of will and desire.

On the one hand, I think the overall point is a fair one: that people should examine why they do what they do. On the other hand, the language is hyperbolic and insulting to those who don’t – and those who don’t are the vast majority of people. Most people just aren’t interested in examining why they do what they do. Most people are just trying to live their lives, to get by as best they can and try to get some joy from the world. If anything, this is even more true of the average religious person, who has ready-made, all-encompassing explanations for everything in the life, and so has less motivation than they might have otherwise to examine their habits.

Jeremiah complains about the evil of the men of his generation, about their being affected with this affliction, the blinding of their eyes to their actions, their failure to analyze them in order to determine whether they should be engaged in or abandoned. He says about these men (Jeremiah 8:6), "No one regrets his wrongdoing, saying... They all turn away in their course as a horse rushing headlong into battle." He alludes here to their running on the impetus of their habits and their ways without leaving themselves time to evaluate their actions and ways,, and, as a result, falling into evil without noticing it. In reality, this is one of the clever devices of the evil inclination - to mount pressure unrelentingly against the hearts of men so as to leave them no leisure to consider and observe the type of life they are leading.

It’s unclear what he means by “pressure,” and what his conception of the yetzer hara is. Does he imagine it to be some sort of demon, orchestrating events so that most people have to spend most of their time on surviving and daily chores, with what little time they have left after that devoted to recreation so that they don’t go crazy from unrelenting work? Or does he mean that the yetzer hara is innate part of the human psyche, the part which inclines us to be lazy, to busy ourselves with various pastimes and not bother thinking about why we do what we do?

For it realizes that if they were to devote even a slight degree of attention to their ways, there is no question but that they would immediately begin to repent of their deeds and that regret would wax in them until they would leave oft sinning altogether.

Maybe, maybe not. People are very good at justifying what they do. The Ramchal couldn’t have known this, of course, but there is now a significant body of research that shows people usually do things first and then come up with reasons for why they did those things later. Cognitive dissonance is also a factor. Holding the ideas, “X is bad” and “I do X” together causes dissonance. The dissonance may be resolved as, “I will no longer do X, and never should have,” but it may also be resolved as, “X isn’t bad after all.” In fact, this is the core of the taivos canard, the accusation that people go OTD because they want to throw off the ol hatorah, and so convince themselves that the Torah is false. I don’t know if the Ramchal repeated the canard, but it is widely accepted as truth in the frum world, and cannot be reconciled with this statement here.

It is this consideration which underlay the counsel of the wicked Pharaoh in his statement (Exodus 5:9), "Intensify the men's labors..." His intention was not merely to deprive them of all leisure so that they would not come to oppose him or plot against him, but he strove to strip their hearts of all thought by means of the enduring, interminable nature of their labor.

That’s a nice vort. Almost certainly not what the story originally meant, but still, a nice vort.

This is precisely the device that the evil inclination employs against man; for it is a warrior and well versed in deception.

Again, I can’t tell if he means this metaphorically or if he thinks the yetzer hara is a devil sitting on our shoulder.

One cannot escape it without great wisdom and a broad outlook. As we are exhorted by the Prophet (Haggai 1:7), "Give heed to your ways." And as Solomon in his wisdom said (Proverbs 6:4), "Give neither sleep to your eyes nor slumber to your eyelids. Rescue yourself as a deer from the hand..." And as our Sages of blessed memory said (Sotah 5b), "All who deliberate upon their paths in this world will be worthy to witness the salvation wrought by the Holy One Blessed be He." Clearly even if one superintends himself, it is not within his power to save himself without the help of the Holy One Blessed be He.

Grace through God alone? Or an iteration of the idea that people are incapable of achieving anything meaningful without God’s intervention? Neither are great.

 For the evil inclination is extremely tenacious, as Scripture states (Psalms 37:32), "The wicked one looks to the righteous and seeks to kill him; God will not leave him..." If a man looks to himself, the Holy One Blessed be He helps him, and he is saved from the evil inclination. But if he gives no heed to himself, the Holy One Blessed be He will certainly not superintend him; for if he does not pity himself, who should pity him? This is as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Berachoth 33a), "It is forbidden to pity anyone who has no understanding,"

After looking at the gemara, I think what’s translated here as “understanding” is really “wisdom” in the sense the word was used in antiquity: as something with its own ontology, something that was often anthropomorphized, that someone could “have.” In any case, the gemara is horrifying. If one doesn’t have wisdom, according to the gemara, one shouldn’t have compassion for them! The gemara isn’t talking about someone who lives an unexamined life and whose yetzer hara distracts him from contemplation, as the Ramchal is using it here. That would be bad enough. The gemara is discussing brachos, and goes off on a tangent about wisdom. According to the gemara, one should not have compassion for someone who doesn’t have wisdom in the abstract. This is not something that will help people who have questions about Yiddishkeit come back to frumkeit, as the Mesilas Yesharim is often used, nor is it something that will refine one’s behavior, as the Mesilas Yesharim was written to be used.

and (Avoth 1:14), "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hashkafa with a Heretic: Mesilas Yesharim, Chapter 1

Translated text of Mesilas Yesharim in this font.
My commentary in this font.



THE FOUNDATION OF SAINTLINESS and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man's coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision and his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life.

Our Sages of blessed memory have taught us that man was created for the sole purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of His Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found.

And we’re just going to take their word for it?

The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it;

Funny then that God never bothered to mention it in the Torah.

but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avorh 4:21), "This world is like a corridor to the World to Come."

The means which lead a man to this goal are the mitzvoth, in relation to which we were commanded by the Lord, may His Name be blessed. The place of the performance of the mitzvoth is this world alone.

How do you know that?

Therefore, man was placed in this world first - so that by these means, which were provided for him here, he would be able to reach the place which had been prepared for him, the World to Come, there to be sated with the goodness which he acquired through them. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), "Today for their [the mitzvoth's] performance and tomorrow for receiving their reward."

When you look further into the matter, you will see that only union with God constitutes true perfection, as King David said (Psalms 73:28), "But as for me, the nearness of God is my good," and (Psalms 27:4), "I asked one thing from God; that will I seek - to dwell in God's house all the days of my life..." For this alone is the true good, and anything besides this which people deem good is nothing but emptiness and deceptive worthlessness.

The prooftext doesn’t say what he wants it to say. It doesn’t follow from that Dovid saw being close to God as good or that it was all he asked of God that everything else is “worthless” or even that being close to God is the greatest good.

For a man to attain this good, it is certainly fitting that he first labor and persevere in his exertions to acquire it. That is, he should persevere so as to unite himself with the Blessed One by means of actions which result in this end. These actions are the mitzvoth.

The Holy One Blessed be He has put man in a place where the factors which draw him further from the Blessed One are many. These are the earthy desires which, if he is pulled after them, cause him to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good.

The assumption here seems to be that there is an obvious dichotomy between “earthly desires” and Godliness. This is both a very Christian concept – as opposed to, say, chassidus, which sees the potential for holiness in everything – and is just not obvious at all. There’s no logical reason that mitzvos and “desires” are mutually exclusive. While mitzvos put some restrictions on desires, one can be a glutton, can spend all his time amassing wealth, even, for a man, can sleep around (as long as he avoids women married to other men), and he hasn’t violated any mitzvos.

It is seen, then, that man is veritably placed in the midst of a raging battle. For all the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials to a man: Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other, as Solomon said (Proverbs 30:9), "Lest I become satiated and deny, saying, `Who is God?' or lest I become impoverished and steal..." Serenity on the one hand and suffering on the other; so that the battle rages against him to the fore and to the rear. If he is valorous, and victorious on all sides, he will be the "Whole Man," who will succeed in uniting himself with his Creator, and he will leave the corridor to enter into the Palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that he has subdued his evil inclination and his desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw him further from the good, and exerted himself to become united with it, to that extent will he attain it and rejoice in it.

If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for man's use. In truth, man is the center of a great balance. For if he is pulled after the world and is drawn further from his Creator, he is damaged, and he damages the world with him. And if he rules over himself and unites himself with his Creator, and uses the world only to aid him in the service of his Creator, he is uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with him. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the "Whole Man," who is sanctified with the holiness of the Blessed One. It is as our Sages of blessed memory have said in relation to the light that the Holy One Blessed be He stored away for the righteous (Chagiga 12a): "When the Holy One Blessed be He saw the light that He had stored away for the righteous, He rejoiced, as it is said (Proverbs 13:9), `The light of the righteous rejoices.' " And in relation to the "stones of the place" that Jacob took and put around his head they said (Chulin 916), "R. Yitzchak said, `This teaches us that they [the stones] gathered themselves into one spot, each one saying, "Let the righteous one lay his head upon me." Our Sages of blessed memory drew our attention to this principle in Midrash Koheleth, where they said (Koheleth Rabbah 7:28) - 'See the work of God...' (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, He took him and caused him to pass before all the trees of the Garden of Eden. He said to him, `See how beautiful and praiseworthy are my works; and all that I have created, I have created for your sake. Take heed that you do not damage and destroy my world.' "

Argument from prooftexts. To be fair to the Ramchal, this was the common way of arguing in his time. But for anyone who doesn’t already accept that the Torah (in the maximalist sense) is authoritative because it’s the Torah, this isn’t convincing. As a book to help someone who already accepts the whole framework to come close to God, the Mesilas Yesharim might work. As a book to give to people who have “questions”… this is not helpful.

To summarize, a man was created not for his station in this world, but for his station in the World to Come. It is only that his station in this world is a means towards his station in the World to Come, which is the ultimate goal. This accounts for numerous statements of our Sages of blessed memory, all in a similar vein, likening this world to the place and time of preparation, and the next world to the place which has been set aside for rest and for the eating of what has already been prepared. This is their intent in saying (Avoth 4:21), "This world is similar to a corridor ...," as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a), "Today for their performance and tomorrow to receive their reward," "He who exerted himself on Friday will eat on the Sabbath" (Avodah Zarah 3a), "This world is like the shore and the World to Come like the sea ..." (Koheleth Rabbah 1:36), and many other statements along the same lines.

And in truth, no reasoning being can believe that the purpose of man's creation relates to his station in this world. For what is a man's life in this world! Who is truly happy and content in this world?
This assumes that 1. There is a purpose, and 2. That the purpose involves being happy and content. Perhaps we’re God’s playthings, and our “purpose” is to live lives of pain and drama, because He finds that entertaining? True, I have no particular reason to think that’s the case, but there’s also no particular reason to think that our “purpose” involves being happy, or to extrapolate from that unsubstantiated premise to the assertion that “no reasoning being” could think that this world is an end in itself.
He should have stuck to prooftexts. His logic here is lousy.

"The days of our life are seventy years, and, if exceedingly vigorous, eighty years, and their persistence is but labor and foolishness" (Psalms 90:10). How many different kinds of suffering, and sicknesses, and pains and burdens! And after all this - death! Not one in a thousand is to be found to whom the world has yielded a superabundance of gratifications and true contentment. And even such a one, though he attain to the age of one hundred years, passes and vanishes from the world. Furthermore, if man had been created solely for the sake of this world, he would have had no need of being inspired with a soul so precious and exalted as to be greater than the angels themselves, especially so in that it derives no satisfaction whatsoever from all of the pleasures of this world.

How do you know that there is such a thing as a soul, and if there is, how do you know its attributes, such as that it derives nothing from this world? And how do you know that it’s not necessary? We could easily come up with a reason we need a soul that has nothing to do with any other world. Perhaps a soul really is the answer to the question of where consciousness comes from, and perhaps God gave us consciousness to make His soap opera – our world – more entertaining. That’s no less plausible than what the Ramchal is suggesting, and has the virtue of not needing to groundlessly speculate about the attributes of a soul we can’t know anything about.

This is what our Sages of blessed memory teach us in Midrash (Koheleth Rabbah), "'And also the soul will not be filled' (Eccelesiastes 6:7) What is this analogous to? To the case of a city dweller who married a princess. If he brought her all that the world possessed, it would mean nothing to her, by virtue of her being a king's daughter. So is it with the soul.

Analogies are popular in frum (and Jewish – the Ramchal predates frumkeit) thought, but they’re terrible as arguments. The things being compared in an analogy are not in fact the same, and so we can’t extrapolate from one side of the analogy to the other. They’re useful to illustrate a concept, but no more.

If it were to be brought all the delights of the world, they would be as nothing to it, in view of its pertaining to the higher elements." And so do our Sages of blessed memory say (Avoth 4:29), "Against your will were you created, and against your will were you born." For the soul has no love at all for this world. To the contrary, it despises it. The Creator, Blessed be His Name, certainly would never have created something for an end which ran contrary to its nature and which it despised.

This argument might have worked in the Ramchal’s time, when people assumed that animals were unconscious automata that only gave the appearance of emotion. Today, when we understand that animals do experience pain, this argument no longer holds. If God created animals, and created them so that some must eat others, then He does create things for an end which it despises.

Man was created, then, for the sake of his station in the World to Come. Therefore, this soul was placed in him. For it befits the soul to serve God; and through it a man may be rewarded in his place and in his time. And rather than the world's being despicable to the soul, it is, to the contrary, to be loved and desired by it. This is self-evident. After recognizing this we will immediately appreciate the greatness of the obligation that the mitzvoth place upon us and the preciousness of the Divine service which lies in our hands. For these are the means which bring us to true perfection, a state which, without them, is unattainable. It is understood, however, that the attainment of a goal results only from a consolidation of all the available means employable towards its attainment, that the nature of a result is determined by the effectiveness and manner of employment of the means utilized towards its achievement, and that the slightest differentiation in the means will very noticeably affect the result to which they give rise upon the fruition of the aforementioned consolidation. This is self-evident.

It is obvious, then, that we must be extremely exacting in relation to the mitzvoth and the service of God, just as the weighers of gold and pearls are exacting because of the preciousness of these commodities. For their fruits result in true perfection and eternal wealth, than which nothing is more precious.

We thus derive that the essence of a man's existence in this world is solely the fulfilling of mitzvoth, the serving of God and the withstanding of trials, and that the world's pleasures should serve only the purpose of aiding and assisting him, by way of providing him with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which devolves upon him. It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire. As it is stated (Psalms 63:9), "My soul clings to You; Your right hand sustains me." For a man enters the world only for this purpose - to achieve this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to it and from all that detracts from it.

After we have recognized the truth of this principle, and it has become clear to us, we must investigate its details according to its stages, from beginning to end, as they were arranged by R. Pinchas ben Yair in the statement which has already been referred to in our introduction. These stages are: Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, and Holiness. And now, with the aid of Heaven, we will explain them one by one.