Mussar in the climate of Conservative Judaism and the teaching of Emmanuel Levinas

Mesillat Yesharim
By Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto
With a Contemporary Commentary by Ira F. Stone

Chapter 1: A General Review of the Duty of Human Beings in the World

The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a person’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his or her duty in the world and the ends toward which he or she should direct his or her vision and the aspirations in all the labors of all the days of his or her life.

The Sages of blessed memory have taught us that human beings were created solely for the purpose of rejoicing in God and deriving pleasure from the splendor of God’s Presence; for this is true joy and the greatest pleasure that can be found. The place where this joy may truly be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desire is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avot 4:21) “This world is like a corridor to the world to come.”

         One of the chief insights of Jewish religious life is the recognition that joy is the goal of human life. It is pleasure and our pursuit of pleasure which constitutes the primary impulse of human behavior. That the pursuit of pleasure is one that can be corrupted, that the options available to us in the pursuit of pleasure require some standard by which they can be evaluated, and that there are biases involved in our attempts to make such an evaluation, do not for one minute lesson the commitment that we have to the central idea that human perfection and human joy are synonymous. It is essential and remarkable to note as we begin the process of developing Mussar consciousness, that already in Mesillat Yesharim the recognition of joy as the goal of human life is not only recognized, but is bound up in the inner construction of the notion of Saintliness or  hasidut.

         Finding this joy and defining its nature is the nature of the religious quest. The end of the quest is presented as being beyond the structures of the world we know, “this world.” Instead, the perfection or joy is placed, as it were, beyond,  in the “World to come.” This Messianic gesture is both crucial and somewhat confusing. Confusing for we in the contemporary community have not developed a spiritual vocabulary in which such a phrase can be used meaningfully. We have understood this and phrases like it within the context of a mythic structure that we reject, rather than a philosophy or a meaningful theology. The essential nature of this messianic gesture will become more and more clear as we proceed through Mesillat Yesharim and develop our Mussar consciousness. Yet we cannot ignore it here at the very beginning. For our purposes at this point, we can say that since the possibility of pleasure and the experience of joy are never satisfied but rather always and, we might say, infinitely, stretch before us, the very idea of pleasure and joy would be rendered meaningless without a term for this very endlessness. This is the function of the term “World to come.” What other implications this term engenders will occupy us more later.

The means which lead a person to this goal are the mitzvoth, in relation to which we are commanded by Adonai, may God’s Name be blessed. The place of the performance of the mitzvoth is this world alone.

Therefore, human beings were placed in this world first – so that by these means, which were provided for them here, they would be able to reach the place which has been prepared for them, the World to Come, there to be sated with the goodness which they acquired through them. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a) “Today for their [the mitzvot] performance and tomorrow for receiving their reward.”

         This paragraph accomplishes two very important tasks in establishing the preliminary structure of Mesillat Yesharim. The first is that the goal of achieving joy expresses itself through commandments. The second is that the achieving of the joy we’ve already spoken about, the infinite joy that can only be expressed by the term “the World to Come,” is the functional equivalent of achieving goodness, or the good. Both of these are of crucial importance.

         The idea that joy comes to us in the form of commandment is counter intuitive, especially for us in the post-enlightenment world of the West. We are more used to thinking of joy in terms of spontaneity, in terms of release from obligation, than in terms of taking on obligations and fulfilling them. Yet, if we aspire to encounter an authentic Jewish spirituality, it is precisely in this seemingly counter intuitive mode that we will encounter it. Jewish experience is founded upon the notion of enjoyment, as we’ve seen, and of love, as the topic of this first chapter demonstrates. Hasidut, what we’ve translated as “Saintliness,” cannot be understood apart from the concept of love. A Hasid, then, is a lover and the experience of a lover is an experience of being encumbered. For one who truly loves, it is the commandment-like need to provide goodness for the beloved which turns love from sentiment to substance.

         Goodness and commandment are then intimately connected. We first encounter, as it were, goodness through our actions on behalf of the beloved. Who the beloved is, and what our obligations are, what, if any, are their limits, will all need to be addressed as we continue. However, already in these first two paragraphs we have had introduced to us the important ideas of pleasure and joy, which give rise to the twin concepts of command and goodness. Hovering above all of these is the idea of an excess or infinite context which is necessary such that these ideas make sense in the world that we inhabit. This excess we have termed the World to Come.

When you look further into this 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. For people to attain this good it is certainly fitting that they first labor and persevere in exertions to acquire it. That is, they should persevere so as to unite themselves with the Blessed One by means of actions which result in this end. These actions are mitzvot.

         In a complex paragraph Ramchal further elucidates the subtle connections between the idea of the good, the search for spiritual perfection and the unification of the human and the Divine of mystical lore. We note first that he does not introduce these more mystical ideas until after he has described the human pursuit of pleasure, the quest for the good which presents itself in and through the commandments. The introduction of Infinity in the form of the world to come precedes specific mention of union with the Divine. Unless the infinite has entered our vocabulary, so to speak, then more specific perceptions of the Divine make no sense. It is for this reason we, and Ramchal, have placed such importance on the idea of the world to come from the beginning.

         In this paragraph it is the search for the good which continues to build the structure of this spirituality. It is the good that David sought which the psalm translates into an equivalent Divine Presence. It is the experience of the good and the concomitant experience of the Divine Presence which serves, as it were, as the motivation for laboring in the study of Hasidut.

The Holy One of Blessing has put human beings in a place where the factors which draw them further from the Blessed One are many. These are earthly desires which, if they are pulled after them, cause them to be drawn further from and to depart from the true good. It is seen, then, that humans are 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 for humans: 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 them to the fore and to the rear. If they are valorous, and victorious on all sides, they will be the ‘Whole Human,’ who will succeed in uniting themselves with their Creator, and they will leave the corridor to enter the Palace, to glow in the light of life. To the extent that they have subdued their evil inclination and their desires, and withdrawn from those factors which draw them further from the good, and exerted themselves to become united with it, to that extent will they attain it and rejoice in it.

         The power of desire is the engine of spiritual life. It is the engine of life itself. Yet it is the mark of our humanity that desire can serve us for good or ill. We are, according to Ramchal, "placed" in the world precisely in the midst of the ambiguity of desire. To put it another way, the ambiguity of desire is "this world" and the  "unification" which is accomplished such that "the whole human" is created and which is the "solution" of the problem of desire leads, as the end of the paragraph indicates, to the accomplishment of the ”palace," the world to come. Thus we note at the outset that the idea of the world to come is in some flux. It appears not to be solely a temporal notion.

         The engine of desire constitutes a trial for human beings. Thus, life itself constitutes a trial. Although, as we've said, the pursuit of pleasure and the experience of joy are fundamental to human consciousness, it is still a pursuit, not a given. The experience which makes consciousness possible is the pursuit. The fact that we pursue pleasure suggests a pre-existing experience of pleasure which we desire to recapture. The desire for that which is pleasurable, that which is good, is the fulcrum in which we struggle. We know that we desire the good, but how do we know what it is? For Ramchal, the knowledge of the Good also pre-exists in human consciousness. Good and Wisdom (the ability to choose the Good) are inextricably linked in the structure of consciousness. They are the defining characteristics of our being human. The symbol of this pre-existing structure of consciousness which defines us and which we struggle to recover and re-experience is the light of the Shechinah. This is described in Ramchal’s treatise “The Way of the Tree of Life” in a way that not only explains the concept of “pre-existent Good” but graphically connects our ability to access this goodness through persistent and repetitive study. This study itself locates the breath of God in the breath of a person studying.

         Behold that the Holy One of Blessing has already placed wisdom into the heart of people. However, in order for this wisdom to be actualized it requires that the Supernal Mouth (according to the verse: “For God gives wisdom, from the mouth of knowledge and understanding”) establish it by a breath actualizing the intellectual powers. Then it will really be like a fire also, for when it is blown upon it creates more flames – similarly when the supernal influx comes down from the mouth like a blowing – the flames of wisdom – through the application of learning and persistent reflection they will see the wisdom that is within them but hadn’t yet appeared to them for they thought it was only self-generated knowledge. Each separate piece of knowledge needs to be joined together piece by piece and the unification of knowledge that is the product of all this is not accomplished without the power of a breeze [in the form of motivated persistent study] that the upper mouth blows on him. And it turns out that wisdom is already given and the mouth [presumably the mouth of God and the mouth of the human studying are correlates one to the other] does nothing but establish it. Thus learning and reflection renew that which is already revealed but is only lacking the power of the breeze. Regarding this Elihu said (Job 32:8) “But truly it is the spirit in men, the breath of Shaddai that gives them understanding.” And in similar language: (Isaiah 32:8) “And with the breath [neshama] of the Lord burning like a stream of sulfur.” Neshama is taken from the word for blowing [nishima] not from the word for soul, [neshama] namely the blowing of the mouth is the blowing of the spirit. And this is what is given to us in our pre-existence, not days or years. [i.e. we are born not with a temporal destiny as our “inheritance” but rather with an innate or pre-existent wisdom of the Good.]

         This rather remarkable comment asserts that there is a direct correlation between the human breath engaged in persistent study and the Divine breath. One almost is the other, one is activated by the other. The act of study itself takes on this inter-subjective character. There is, as it were, a transcendent subject found as a trace, a breath, in every act of study. This transcendent subject is both the source and the activation of the Good which pre-exists within us.  We learn by way of Solomon's proverb that it is not affected by our own material status. Rich or poor we continue to struggle to find the good. We begun to identify what the good is, but it is not affected by whether or not we achieve worldly success for ourselves. Rather, rich or poor, finding the good is equally possible and equally necessary.

If you look more deeply into the matter, you will see that the world was created for the use of humanity. In truth, human beings are the center of a great balance. For if they pulled after the world and are drawn further from their Creator, they are damaged, and they damage the world with them. And if they rule over themselves and unite themselves with their Creator, and use the world only to aid themselves in the service of their Creator, they are uplifted and the world itself is uplifted with them. For all creatures are greatly uplifted when they serve the “Whole Person,” 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 stored away for the righteous (Hagiga 12a) “When the Holy One saw the light that had been stored away for the righteous, He rejoiced, as it is said (Proverbs13:9) “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 (Hulin 91b) “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 Kohelet, where they said (Kohelet Rabbah)

“See the work of God…” (Ecclesiastes 7:13) When the Holy One 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.

         “If you look more deeply…” begins to be a refrain. The chapter, and we can assume, the book in its entirety enacts a process of digging more and more deeply into the very matters that Ramchal complained in his introduction most people take for granted and spend no time delving into. This structural “delving into” is an integral part of the goal of the sefer. Very early in this process we discover what is at once a quintessentially Jewish idea, certainly a quintessentially kabalistic principle: That the world was created for the use of humanity. Humanity is at the center of the universe and, more importantly, human action directly affects in a profound way, the universe itself. This, what we may call “mystical humanism,” is a radically empowering way of thinking. Despite the posture of people as servants, as being obedient to commandments, their true stature in the universe, precisely because of their service and their fulfillment of commandments, is greatly increased: Being human matters. We are not merely infinitesimal organisms in a vast sea. We are not powerless against evil.

         Once again the idea of eternity enters into the equation. If human beings act in consonance with the commandment, then they uplift not only themselves but the world. To where is the world uplifted? What does it mean to uplift the world? According to Ramchal, in the uplifted world nature serves the “Whole Person” who in turn carries something of the holiness that is associated with God. This holiness is described as being drawn from the light stored up ­in the world to come for the righteous. Thus, once again, we see the fluidity of this idea. The light of the righteous which is the light God created at the beginning of Creation before the creation of the sun and moon to provide the earthly light, is usually associated with the world to come. Here that light is accessible in and from this world by the uplifting of the world that can be accomplished by the “Whole Person.” Finally, the light stored up for the righteous is another synonym for rejoicing. The sanctity to which the “Whole Person” can bring the world through the acceptance and fulfillment of commandments is a great joy.

         The passage concludes with a sudden weight. Human beings are capable of feeling joy and bringing that joy into the world, but these capabilities carry with them grave responsibilities. The world, in effect, depends on us.

To summarize, people were created not for their station in this world, but for their station in the World to come. It is only that their station in this world is a means towards their 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 eating of what has already been prepared. This is their intent in saying (Avot 4:21) ”This world is similar to a corridor…,” as our Sages of Blessed memory have said (Eruvin 22a) “Today for the performance and tomorrow to receive their reward,” “He who exerted himself on Friday will eat on the Sabbath” (Avoda Zara 3a), “This world is like the shore and the World to come like the sea…”(Kohelet Rabbah 1:36) and many other statements along the same lines.

         Ramchal reiterates, summarizes, specifically, the critical idea of excess, the idea of the infinite, which is one of the points he has made already but which is the only one he chooses to include in this summary. As we have said, without an infinite horizon the idea of pleasure as the culmination of life and the pursuit of pleasure as its engine would not make sense. His, what we might call, over-use of rabbinic sources to make this point is of interest. He attempts to prove a hyperbolic point hyperbolically. More than that, we must assume that he has chosen out of an almost endless supply of comparable statements in rabbinic literature and that his choices are not merely arbitrary. We must examine the contexts of these four statements in order to derive one level of meaning and then re-examine that meaning in light of the juxtaposition of these particular statements.

         The first statement is from Pirke Avot, chapter 4 mishna 21 It is taught in the name of Rabbi Jacob as is its continuation in Mishna 22. Taking both together in order to judge the full context we have:

Rabbi Jacob said: This world is like a vestibule before the World to come. Prepare yourself in the vestibule that you may enter the banquet hall.

He used to say: Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than all the life of the World to come. Better is one hour of serenity in the World to come than all the life of this world.

The complexity and ambiguity of Rabbi Jacob’s teaching is apparent and is reflected in Ramchal’s choice of this statement. That this world is in some sense preparatory to a next world is clearly intended whether we understand “next” in a temporal or spatial sense or not. Yet the paradoxical nature of the second part of Rabbi Jacob’s teaching is equally clear. What does it mean? Rambam, for example, interprets in his commentary on the Mishna: “In the tenth chapter of Sanhedrin we have explained that after death there is neither perfection nor addition, rather, man will achieve perfection and add virtue in this world…However that state in which man departs will remain with him for eternity.” In other words, what we achieve in life determines the state in which we will be upon death and from then on into eternity. Thus, one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world potentially extends infinitely and is, therefore, better than all the life of the world to come without such an hour. However, an eternity which is achieved in this state of repentance and good deeds insures an eternal serenity that is better than all the life of this world, but it flows directly from this world. Again we see, minimally, the fluidity of the “this world” “world to come” language. More importantly, taken in context, Ramchal is directing our attention to the closeness of the nexus between the two worlds, so to speak, and the emphasis that must be placed on repentance and good deeds, acts which can only be accomplished in this world.

         The second selection from rabbinic literature is taken from the Talmud tractate Eruvin22a. It is found in a section of the tractate that might be categorized as a mini-anthology of aggadic material. That is, non-legal material, in this case, generally focused on the issue of the efficacy of study and ethics. The passage reads in full:

And repays them that hate Him to His face, to destroy him (Deut 7:10). Rabbi Joshua ben Levi remarked: Were it not for the written text one could not possibly have said it. Like a man, as it were, who carries a burden on his face and wants to throw it off. He will not be slack to him that hates Him (ibid). Rabbi Illa explained: He will not be slack to those that hate Him, but He will be slack to those who are just in all respects; and this is in line with that which Rabbi Joshua ben Levi stated: What [is the implication of] what was written: Which I command you this day to do them? (ibid 11) This day [you are] to do them, but you cannot postpone doing them for tomorrow [after death], this day [you are in a position] to do them and tomorrow [is reserved] for receiving reward for [doing] them.

         This selection from the Talmud introduces the idea of the face, the face of God. When Rabbi Joshua ben Levi remarks that were this word face not written in scripture we would not possibly have said it he is already indicating to us the obvious conclusion that the idea of the face of God cannot be taken literally. Yet, the Torah is willing to risk blasphemy by invoking an extreme anthropomorphism in order to teach us that righteousness and sin play out, so to speak, in such a way as to involve the face of God. We are invited to consider what the face of God means and why using the term is so important that the risks are worth taking. Clearly God has no face, or to be more accurate from a Biblical point of view, no human being can see the face of God and live. Moses himself is only vouchsafed to see the back of God as God passes. The back of God, as we know, is constituted by the enumeration of God’s compassion, goodness and zeal for justice. But what of the face of God that cannot be seen. It is not at all far fetched to conclude that the reference to God’s face must be to that face which is the icon of God, the only legitimate icon of God, that is, the human face, created in the image of God. We cannot see the face of God and live, but we can see the face of our neighbor which is an image of the face of God in this world. Thus, it is in the visage of the human face that righteousness is enacted. In the case of our passage from the Talmud, human evil becomes a blot on the face of God, a burden which is engraved so to speak, on the face of God. Human beings who betray the icon of God’s face, which is their fellow human being, become instead a blot on the face of God which God wants to throw off. It is the loss of the excess of Infinite joy, or the world to come, which is enacted by God’s throwing off the burden of evildoers.

         This idea is articulated in conjunction with the idea we’ve already explored, that is, that there is neither perfection nor addition after death. One who becomes a blot on the face of God does so only in this world and can rectify that situation only in this world. The world to come or the lack of a world to come is only extensions of behavior in this world, not temporal or geographic descriptions.

         The third selection quoted in this paragraph by Ramchal is from the Talmud tractate Avoda Zara 3a which reads as follows:

 The nations will then plead, ‘Offer us the Torah anew and we shall obey it.’ But the Holy Blessed One will say to them, ‘You foolish ones among peoples, he who took trouble [to prepare] on the eve of the Sabbath can eat on the Sabbath, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath? Nevertheless, I have an easy command which is called Sukkah, go and carry it out. But how can you say so: does not Rabbi Joshua ben Levi say: What is [the meaning of] the verse, The ordinances which I command you this day to do them? It is that  this day only [the present] is the time to do them; they cannot be done tomorrow: this day is the time in which to  do them, but not in which to be rewarded for them. [Why then should they be offered this observance in Messianic time?] Because the Holy Blessed One does not deal impiously with His creatures.

         The context of this selection is a much larger series of aggadot concerned with the disposition of the non-Jewish world at the time of the arrival of the Messiah. In this scenario the nations of the world regret their having refused the Torah at the time it was offered to them and they approach God and request a second opportunity to accept and obey the Torah. God answers that since they did not obey the Torah in this world, they could not expect to reap the rewards of having obeyed the Torah in the world to come. From the perspective of Ramchal’s use of this selection the point is reiteration. This world is compared to the eve of the Sabbath. Since it is prohibited to make any of the necessary preparations for the Sabbath on the Sabbath, one who has not done so earlier has lost the opportunity. The Sabbath here functions as the analogue of the world to come. Yet we note with interest that this Talmudic selection contains within it another rendition of the teaching of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi on the verse: The ordinances which I command you. As we’ve seen, this teaching articulates the fact that one who becomes a blot on the face of God does so only in this world and can rectify that situation only in this world. The world to come or the lack of a world to come is only extensions of behavior in this world, not temporal or geographic descriptions. Thus, in this context, it is the nations of the world who have, as it were, become a blot on the face of the Divine, because they forsook the Torah and its moral law. However, Rabbi Joshua’s statement does not go unchallenged. It is the Holy One who challenges it by precisely affording an opportunity to the nations of the world to “advance” in the world to come through the obedience of an “easy” mitzvah (defined in the sugiya as one without burdensome financial obligations.) As it turns out in the continuation of this sugiya, the nations of the world are unable to meet the obligations and tribulations that accompany their observance of the mitzvah of Sukkot in the world to come anymore than they did in this world. But for our purposes that is not as important as the fact that they received the opportunity. What should we say about that? Does that contradict the image of a world to come which functions as an expression of the Infinite nature of both joy and sin which we have developed? Is the world to come more than just an expression of transcendence?

         The final rabbinic source that Ramchal brings in this paragraph is from Midrash Kohelet Rabbah. The verse in Ecclesiastes which the Midrash comments on is: “That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” The Midrash comments as follows:

In this world he who is crooked can be made straight and he who is wanting can be numbered; but in the Hereafter he that is crooked cannot be made straight and he that is wanting cannot be numbered. There were certain wicked men who were companions one to the other in this world. One of them repented in good time during his life before he died, but the other did not repent before his death. The one who had done this during his lifetime was in reward stationed by the side of the band of righteous, while the other stood by the side of the band of wicked; and beholding his companion he exclaimed, ‘Is there perhaps favoritism in this world. Woe to me! He and I were on earth together and were alike. We stole together, robbed together, and did all the evil deeds in the world together. Why, then, is he with the band of righteous, while I am with the band of the wicked!’ ‘You great fool!’ comes the answer, ‘you were a repulsive object after your death for three days, and people did not put you in a coffin but dragged you to the grave with ropes. The maggot is spread under you, and the worms cover you (Isa. 14:11). Your companion saw your vileness and swore to turn from his wickedness. He repented like a righteous man, and his repentance caused him to receive here, life, honor, and a portion with the righteous. Why has all this [happened to you]? Because you had the opportunity to repent; and if you had done so, it would have been well with you.’ He thereupon cries to them, ‘Let me go and do penance’; but he is answered, ‘You great fool! Do you not know that this world is like the Sabbath and the world from which you came is like the Sabbath-eve? If a man does not make preparation on the Sabbath-eve what will he eat on the Sabbath! And do you not know that the world from which you came is like dry land and this world like the sea? If a man does not make preparation for himself while he is on dry land, what will he eat when at sea! And do you not know that this world is like a wilderness and the world from which you came like inhabited land? If a man does not make preparation for himself from the inhabited territory, what will he eat in the wilderness?’

         Once again the main point of the selection is clear. The work of righteousness must be accomplished in this world. The world to come affords no opportunity to undue what has been done in this world. In the perspective we have adopted this strengthens the idea that the world to come is neither temporal nor geographic. Rather, it is what we might call a folk-code for the intrusion of the infinite into our consciousness.

         However, we also notice that, once again, this selection by Ramchal includes another recension of a rabbinic formulation that he has already used, “If a man does not make preparation on the Sabbath-eve what will he eat on the Sabbath!” taken from another place in the vastness of rabbinic literature. There is at work here a brilliant calculation! First of all, the ability to choose a number of disparate sections, focusing on different aspects of those sections, which, nevertheless, include separate recensions of material already chosen, exhibits a systematic and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinic literature. Ramchal proves, if you will, that one who engages in Mussar study is not merely simple minded. Beyond that he is exhibiting rabbinic literature itself as having one voice on the crucial issue at hand. That is to say, that despite the general polyphony of the literature, especially in the use of the trope of the world to come, there is an underlying unanimity. Since the world to come offers no room for perfection or addition, it is essentially irrelevant as a temporal or geographic idea. Rather, its use is restricted to teaching that both sin and joy are consequences of our pursuit of pleasure and are characterized by their infinite nature.

And in truth, no reasoning being can believe that the purpose of the creation of human beings relates to their station in this world. For what is a person’s life in this world! Who is truly happy and content in this world? “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 this world.

         To begin with, in this paragraph, Ramchal appeals to the authority of reason not as a source of ethics nor, certainly, as a source of commandments, but as the method par excellence that human beings posses of either assenting to proper behavior or not. The proper exercise of reason is an essential element of the freedom of will vouchsafed to humanity by the Divine, central to their being created in the Divine image.

         Ramchal's assertion is that it is unreasonable for a human being to imagine that the purpose of the creation of humanity is limited to the brutish life we are familiar with in the world. He sustains his assertion by reference to both experience and Scripture. He need not work too hard to convince us, even now, that human life is often short and brutish. Nor to convince us that even riches and luxury do not necessarily bring an abundance of contentment. Nor that whatever contentment we do achieve in this world is minimally mixed with its share of sorrow. It is not Ramchal's evidence that strikes us as odd, only the conclusion he draws based on that evidence. Where, for Ramchal, the evidence clearly pointed to the existence of another, more logical world to come, for us the implication might as easily be that life has no meaning at all. Or, that whatever meaning we give life must be given despite the facts of its meaninglessness. Few of us can get by believing that life has no meaning, but equally few can subscribe to the belief that its meaning will only be discovered after death.

         However, the notion that our actions, presumably our morally beneficial actions, give meaning to the world turns out to be, at the least, circular, and perhaps equally dispiriting. For if there is no meaning inherent in the world, on what basis should we have determined the value of our actions?  And if we invoke any form of utilitarianism, how much space would we need to catalogue here the failures of the utilitarian argument? However, if we cannot locate meaning in this world then, if meaning is possible, then it must originate beyond this world even beyond the limits of reason itself. This is the conclusion to which the application of our reason inevitably leads us as it similarly leads Luzzatto. The very possibility of talking about meaning, and the appeal to ethics to supply meaning, reasonably requires the invocation of an Infinite dimension, whether specifically using Ramchal's terms, or in our own terms. We have already begun the process of recognizing the world to come in terms that are neither temporal nor geographic, and we have seen that this possibility was equally evident to the masters of Jewish tradition from the rabbis of classical midrashic tradition, to the medievalist Rambam, to the almost modern Ramchal. It becomes clear that the folk language of time and place to invoke the Infinite functions on a folk level that may no longer be helpful for contemporary readers. However, that the incursion of the Infinite into the finite world, coming at us as a commandment and bringing with it the very possibility of meaning, cannot be as easily dismissed.

         Thus, as we move to the next paragraph in chapter one, the folk terms used to express the experience of the Infinite must be considered closely.

Furthermore, if people had been created solely for the sake of this world, they would have 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. This is what our Sages of blessed memory teach us in Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah) “’And also the soul will not be filled.’ (Ecclesiastes 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. If it were 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: (Avot 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, of Blessed Name, certainly would never have created something for an end which ran contrary to its nature and which it despised.

         The interruption of the Infinite into the world we know as finite has, up to this point, been characterized as “the world to come.” Closely related to this term is the term “soul” (Nishama) which we encounter in this paragraph. Ramchal asserts that the existence of a soul is further evidence that people were not created for the sake of this world since the soul has no interest in this world. It therefore can be deduced logically that since people contain an essential element which has nothing in common with this world and  in fact, in his words, despises this world, it must have as its proper goal something other than this world, that is, the world to come. Following good Aristotelian logic, that the virtue or excellence of every element of creation is the goal of every element of creation and that the Creator could not have created anything whose excellence was contrary to its station or otherwise impossible to achieve, then human perfection lies outside this world. Clearly, the logical nature of Ramchal’s argument is intended to appeal to the skeptics and scholars whom he has otherwise accused of not taking the study of hasidut and its particulars seriously enough. He is exhibiting the extent to which the intelligent reader must be engaged intellectually if this pursuit is going to succeed.

         Of more interest to us is the specific claims he makes regarding the soul. First, that it has nothing in common with this world; that it is more exalted than the angels. The immateriality of the soul may not be strange to us, but while we may not be uncomfortable with the idea of an immaterial soul, Ramchal's coupling of that idea with the idea of angels might strike as minimally antiquated and very possibly fantastic. How do we unpack this difficult passage?

         We begin by focusing on the confluence of infinity and mortality. The very notion of a being created in the image of God, the very intimation of meaning co-existent with the notion of humanity, requires the intersection of these two otherwise contradictory terms. All logic breaks down in the face of creation in the Biblical sense. It is in the interstices of this breakdown that the Good enters and reveals the infinite. This entry is real. That part of the mortal that paradoxically includes the immortal is only concerned with those aspects of mortality that pertain to the infinite, that is, the Good. This soul must despise "this world" except for the good, which is infinite. This is not to say that the human being must despise the world. On the contrary, only a fully immaterial being like the angel could despise the world. Human beings are greater than the angels precisely in that they are not fully immaterial, but rather, must bring the good to bear on the material. This requires an embrace of the material, but also requires the discipline of religious life so that the power of the material does not overwhelm the good.

         Thus, the parable of the city dweller and the princess: the former represents the material world and the latter the soul. It is important to recognize that the former is not judged negatively against the latter. There is nothing wrong with this marriage as long as the material partner does not try to approach the spiritual partner with the gifts of the material world.

Human beings were created, then, for the sake of their station in the world to come. Therefore, this soul was placed in them. For it befits the soul to serve God; and through it a person may be rewarded in his or her place and in his or her 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 mitzvot 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 available means of employment towards its achievement, 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 mitzvot and the service of God, just as those who weigh 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.

         This large paragraph divides itself into three discrete sections. The first of these concludes the analysis of the connection between the teleology of creation, which is the world to come, and the soul, which is the urge for the world to come within the created being. However, the relationship between the soul and the material body is now clarified in what might appear at first as a startling fashion. Contrary to what we might have expected, the perfection of the soul transforms the perspective of the individual or ego toward the material world. The material world is beloved and embraced by the soul in so far as it is precisely the arena in which God may be most exactingly served. The soul has no intrinsic desire for this world as do the non-soul aspects of creation, but the soul loves and embraces this world as the conduit to its eventual goal: the world to come. However, most fascinating is Ramchal's statement that: "through it a person may be rewarded in his or her place and in his or her time." That is, contrary to what we’ve been lead to believe would be his conclusion, the reward for a life lived in desire for the good, is not stored up for distribution in some later temporal sphere, but rather “breaks through” the world that we know and inhabit. Thus, this good, which is the description of the Eternal or Infinite and which has been expressed in our desire for the world to come, transforms the individual in this world. It transforms his or her very materiality such that we recognize that materiality itself is not the problem. Rather, materiality infused with the desire for the good is to be embraced by the soul and experienced, we might say, as the world to come. This eternality, Ramchal emphasizes, is the very definition of value and therefore the object most appropriate for all human desire. We may experience desire at first in its pure materiality and, as such, it can be a source of great evil as he has spent most of this chapter informing us. However, it is this experience of materiality that allows us to desire beyond materiality and then to transform our materiality into a conduit for the desire of the Infinite. Thus, the third section of this paragraph both reminds and ridicules our exacting care when it comes to the perceived precious elements of the material world. Much more precious are the spiritual fruits that accrue to us when we as carefully measure and guard our spiritual wealth. These are the mitzvot. 

We thus derive that the essence of a person’s existence in this world is solely for the fulfilling of mitzvot, 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 her with the contentment and peace of mind requisite for the freeing of his heart for the service which devolves upon her. It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Holy Blessed Creator, and that her every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthly elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until she 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, she should flee as from a fire. As it is stated: (Psalms 63:9) “My soul clings to You; Your right hand sustains me,” – to achieve this closeness by rescuing his soul from all deterrents to it and from all that detracts from it.

         Thus, the mitzvot represent the vehicle through which desire is transformed into joy. They are the tools which transform the pleasures of the world, the stuff of materiality, into the attainment of the pure pleasure that is the goal of Creation. They infuse “this world” with traces of the Infinite, of the “world to come;” traces which we recognize linguistically as the enactment of the Good. The service of the Divine is the enactment of the Good. The transformation of the material impediments of the world into tools for the pursuit of the Good free the individual for this very service. It is this service which is the true understanding of Avodat HaShem, service of God. It is the weight of responsibility for the other person that devolves upon us in this service which defines the true understanding of Yirat HaShem, “fear of God.” As the pursuit of the Good expressed by the performance of mitzvot proceeds it has a crescendo effect. The more the world of materiality is transformed in this world into a world of immateriality, the world to come unbounded by time or space, the clearer is the field before us for accelerating this transformation. The closer we become to God, the stronger the sense of sustenance from God acts upon us until the desire to achieve this closeness under girds our every action.  Under the power of this desire, even the most difficult vicissitudes we face in life, the “trials” we all encounter are more easily withstood. They are themselves transformed into opportunities for deepening our feelings of satisfaction

         It cannot be the intention of Ramchal, nor is it ours, to say that it is sufficient to simply assert such radical notions of the dimensions of human spirituality. We can not read this chapter and be “convinced.” We can meditate on it and be inspired. We can determine that, though we do not yet imagine what it would feel like to experience the kind of closeness to God that Ramchal describes, it is a description that resonates with our deepest longings, and most importantly, it is a description that because it resonates with our deepest longings suggests it to be a labor worth pursuing. His purpose in this chapter is to engage our attention. To iterate the fact that highly intelligent and spiritually sensitive people who spend so much time studying everything other than the ways in which one can draw closer to God should understand that it is the study of Avodat HaShem and Yirat HaShem that after all deserves their most serious attention.

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 Rabbi 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.

         Therefore, once we have realized the serious nature of this study and its importance to the core of what it means to be a human being, the chapter ends by describing the stages through which this study will pass. Ramchal bases his exposition of the life which culminates in holiness on the statement of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair that has already been referred to in the introduction from tractate Avodah Zera 20b. Each of the following chapters will explore one of these traits in detail.


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