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 2: Concerning the Trait of Watchfulness

The idea of Watchfulness is for a person 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 on pitch darkness. This is demanded by one’s intelligence. For considering the fact that people possess the knowledge and the reasoning ability to save themselves and to flee from the destruction of the soul, is it conceivable that they would willingly blind themselves to their 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 or her way of life is good or bad is like a blind person walking along the seashore, who is in very great danger, and whose chances of being lost are far greater than those of being saved. There is no difference between natural blindness and self-inflicted blindness, the shutting of one’s eyes as an act of will and desire.

         The second chapter of Mesillat Yesharim begins to explore the methods by which an individual may begin to do the necessary work to transform him or herself. The inspiration of the first chapter gives way to a program of investigating Yirat HaShem and Avodat HaShem. Following Rabbi Pinchus’ teaching, the first step on the path to holiness is watchfulness. Each of these steps will be investigated under three rubrics. First, Ramchal will define the term, as in this chapter. Second, he will explore “the divisions” of the term, that is, the way in which the term applies to the multifaceted nature of our lives. Third, he will describe the ways in which the trait in question is acquired. In the case of the first two traits, watchfulness and zeal, he will also explore what the pitfalls are that make it difficult to acquire these traits.

        So we begin with a definition of watchfulness. It is essentially, to live in the moment. The person who is aware of what is literally going on in his or her life, or to put it somewhat differently, the person who knows who he or she is, is a person who is practicing watchfulness. This is a necessary pre-requisite to the practice of Mussar. A person’s soul is comprised, if you will, of that person’s feelings, actions and thoughts. The goal of Mussar is to become aware of our F.A.T. To the extent that we can do that after the fact, close to an event, we can then learn to do it closer and closer to the event and then in the event itself, or even before. Such a person has conquered the skill of watchfulness that Ramchal describes here.

        Ramchal uses the application of reason to moral behavior rather than Scripture in order to justify the imperative to watchfulness,. This assumes that the person who wants to be watchful of his or her F.A.T. has already developed a value system that can be used to judge those feelings, actions and thoughts. Thus the second chapter already presumes a high level of moral awareness which in the first chapter is affirmed by recourse to Scripture. Scripture guides the individual to discover that which, on reflection, is self-evidently preferable in terms of that individual’s ability to act in a positive way in those matters that pertain to his or her spiritual well-being. To the extent that Scripture might not be considered a strong enough “proof,” if you will, Ramchal wants to address the skeptic in terms of rationally demonstrable arguments.

        Yet, despite this appeal, it is clear that Ramchal also assumes that his description of the person who lacks the trait of watchfulness will sound familiar to the reader. Despite thinking of ourselves as intelligent, we are aware of the power of moral blindness to affect our behavior. We are aware of just how difficult it is keeping our F.A.T. in mind and how much more difficult it is to change them. At this stage we are not ready to change. We are only learning how to be mindful. We are learning that such mindfulness specifically differentiates us from the beasts of the field.

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 regarding these men:” 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 human beings so as to leave them no leisure to consider and observe the type of life they are leading. For it realizes that if they were to devote even a slight degree of attention to their ways, there is no questions but that they would immediately begin to repent of their deeds and that regret would wax in them until they would leave off sinning altogether. It is this consideration which underlay the counsel of the wicked Pharaoh in his statement: “Intensify the people’s labor…” 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.

         Using a reference from the book of Jeremiah to begin this paragraph and a reference the story of Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites to end it, Ramchal focuses on one of the most pernicious traits of resistance to spiritual change and growth, what we might call “busyness.”  We do not have to explain this resistance. If such a trait was prevalent in Biblical times and still prevalent in the 18th century, how much more prevalent is it at the beginning of the 21st century? We are aware of the psycho-spiritual costs of such a lack of time for reflection, but we seem unable to weaken our resistance. The ability to take stock of one’s soul is obviously dependent on having the time, and the quiet, if you will. Even Ramchal’s characterization of this ability as requiring leisure is misleading. Leisure has come to mean: How one stays busy when the necessary labors of making a living do not fill one’s entire available time. Our culture may be among the first to have to deal with the possibility of widespread time characterized as leisure time. Instead of developing ways in which that time can be used to support the type of reflection with which spiritual growth and change begin, we have invented a myriad of activities and diversions to which we can devote all of the time we have free from labor. Even the possibility of spending more of one’s time devoted to friends and family, formerly precluded by work, is now precluded by pastimes. And if we are temperamentally averse to such pastimes, and find ourselves with “too much time on our hands,” we end up using it to work even harder. The labor and time saving devices of our century have made it possible not to work less, but to never stop working. Our economic system encourages, nay demands, such work “24/7.”  This is a complex subject and not amenable to superficial solution. For certainly the system that forces us to work longer than our grandparents and great grandparents despite the advances in technology is predicated on the kind of greed and concern for superficialities that must be addressed in the course of this work rather than at its beginning.  Such an address can only influence us one at a time and therefore may not suggest a general solution immediately. Yet, despite this, we are forced to address part of the question now. We may not be ready to delve into the deeper reasons for our predicament, but we will not be able to unless we delve into, at least, the surface of the question, that is, making some time for reflection as part of developing the skill of watchfulness.

         The first step is to recognize that our “busyness” is as much a product of our own reluctance to look at ourselves as it is a result of outside forces. This is a crucial realization. For once we’ve made it, we realize that we have in our power the ability to change regardless of those outside powers. Reflection does not always require as much time as we might think. In fact, thinking that it requires a great deal of time is one of the ways we avoid making such time. It may well be true that we do not have an hour a day and certainly not two or three hours a day, for such reflection. But one can focus a surprising amount of reflective energy into fifteen minutes. One can accomplish a remarkable re-orientation of the soul in ten minutes of Torah study followed by ten minutes of Mussar study and ten minutes of personal reflection. Is there anyone who does not have thirty minutes a day for their soul? If there is then either that person must learn to further reduce the time needed, perhaps by half, perhaps by a third. Or that person needs to reflect on the way he or she is using time. Perhaps a rearrangement of priorities is possible. Most importantly, that person must understand that the urge not to find time is part of his or her own defensive moves to ward off the results of such reflection.

This is precisely the device that the evil inclination employs against human beings; for it is a warrior and well versed in deception. 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 Blessed One.” Clearly even if one superintends oneself, it is not within his or her power to find salvation with out the Blessed Holy One. For the evil inclination is extremely tenacious, as Scripture states (Psalms 37:32) “The wicked one looks to the righteous to kill him; God will not leave him…” If one looks to save oneself, The Holy Blessed One helps, and one is saved from the evil inclination. But if one gives no heed to oneself, the Holy Blessed One certainly will not superintend him or her; for if one takes no pity on oneself, who should pity him? This is as our sages have said (Berachot 33a) “It is forbidden to pity anyone who has no understanding,” and (Avot 1:14) “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

         In the language of Mussar tradition, the source of the diversions and rationalizations that hide us from ourselves, so to speak, is the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination for evil. Despite its antiquity, this can be an important and useful term. Our fear of confronting ourselves is certainly inextricable from our sense of ourselves. It is part and parcel of our very constitution. It is the record of every disappointment, rejection, and failure. It is the echo of disappointment, rejection, and failure that reach us from beyond our self enclosure, from the lives of those others who have had a share in bringing us into being itself: This accumulation of pain otherwise than our being is justifiably called the Yetzer HaRa. It is this Yetzer HaRa that pushes us to obscure the view of our soul through the diversions of everyday life.

         The self-awareness required to confront the Yetzer HaRa is the heart of the trait of watchfulness. It is not only extremely difficult in itself but it is also a fundamental element of later, more advanced, Mussar consciousness. It is the precursor of Insomnia, the state of watchfulness which extends from a focus on the self into watchfulness for the good of the other. We are certainly not capable of achieving watchfulness for the good of another if we are not able to perfect a discipline of watchfulness for ourselves.

         But the difficulty of achieving watchfulness stems from the pain which we are only barely able to withstand that must accompany it. Thus the array of Scriptural verses exhorting us to undertake the task despite its difficulty. Ramchal rightly equates the task of watchfulness with the same kind of Insomnia that we will learn under girds the Mussar teleology. Just as Insomnia is in the end only conceivable on a Messianic canvass, so is perfect watchfulness only conceivable on a Messianic canvas. It becomes more clear why so much of Ramchal's effort in the first chapter was spent establishing the Messianic canvas upon which he can now paint.

         More important, however, than the literary/philosophic flourishes of Ramchal is his powerful and comforting conclusion drawn from the very impossibility of the Messianic horizon: that is the need for the Other, the need for God in our search for self awareness.

I owe this formulation to Rabbi Ephraim Becker, Ph.D. of Israel taken from his talk delivered at the JCC of Manhattan on June 22, 2003.


Philadelphia Mussar Institute
Beth Zion Beth Israel
300 South 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
(215) 735-5148