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 3: Concerning the Divisions of Watchfulness

One who wishes to watch over him or herself must take two things into consideration. First he or she must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he or she should flee from; and second, one must consider one’s actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. This applies 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, one should do nothing before weighing the action in the scale of the aforementioned understanding. And when there is no such question, the idea should take the form of one’s bringing before oneself the remembrance of one’s deed in general and weighing them, likewise, in the scales of this criterion to determine what they contain of evil, so that one may cast it aside, and what of good, so that one may be constant in it and strengthen it. If one finds in them any evil, one should consider and attempt to reason out what device might be used to turn aside from evil and to be cleansed of it. Our sages of blessed memory taught us this in their statement (Eruvin 13b), “It would be better for a man not to have been created…but now that he has been created, let him examine his deed. 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 God’s 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 one must “feel” one’s actions by subjecting them to a most exhaustive examination to determine their nature, so that one might remain free of any impurities

               In an extraordinarily comprehensive analysis of the act of watchfulness Ramchal “informs” the time we have set aside for reflection with value. That is, once we have accustomed ourselves to pause and reflect, we need to have“content” by which to measure the behavior we are reflecting upon. This content is drawn from Torah and explains the centrality of Talmud Torah to Mussar consciousness. While Torah is not static and, as we’ve learned, is not only a text but is, rather, the acquisition of a soul bound up in our acceptance of responsibility for another, yet the text itself plays a vital role both as witness to this responsibility and the discourse which identifies and refines the specific details of our responsibility. Thus after we learn to pause and reflect Torah provides us with the discourse by which to evaluate ourselves and also the tool by which we can expand the trait of watchfulness towards the horizon of infinity.

                The second piece of learning to profit spiritually from the trait of watchfulness requires that we learn to bring our now value laden reflection on ourselves to bear on our actions. As we have suggested earlier, this requires an ability to reflect on our deeds. That reflection, through Torah, is now an evaluative reflection. Typically such reflection is most easily performed after the fact. However, the goal is to eventually, through more and more diligent reflection, to be able to reflect on our deeds as we perform them and ultimately to reach a stage where we are able to reflect on our deeds before we act.

                The final stage of watchfulness as described in this paragraph by Ramchal goes beyond what might so far be construed as merely intellectual process. Basing himself on a talmudic word play that equates examining one’s deeds with “feeling” one’s deeds, Ramchal enters into the world of emotion and intuition. His example of the reach of these non-intellectual factors is particularly instructive. While it is natural to assume that our spiritual assessment focus on those deeds that are patently in need of improvement, and such an analysis satisfies our intellect, true growth occurs when we can look at the deeds that our intellect would assure us are good and proper.

               It is in regard to these that we begin to discern how deceptive our intellect can be, how much a tool of the Yetzer HaRa it can be. For in most of our best moments our actions are an admixture of emotional drives, of the need for recognition, false self-satisfaction and greed, not to mention anger, jealousy and lust. When we can look into our good deeds and discern these emotions at work behind them, when we can focus attention on rectifying these, then the trait of watchfulness has truly been internalized.

To summarize, a person should observe all of his or her actions and watch over all of his or her ways so as not to leave 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 or her ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. One 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 Batra 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…”

                In this summary, Ramchal introduces the specific technique that will allow an individual to effectuate the trait of watchfulness in his or her life. It is a technique that will become central to the evolution of Mussar consciousness and Mussar pedagogy over a century later in the program of Rabbi Israel Salanter. As we have already seen, critical for Ramchal is the habituation of a time for reflection and evaluation of one’s deeds. Here he suggests that in order to be effective such a time must be set aside every day. In effect he is adding to the regular practice of traditional Judaism. He defends this addition on the basis of both what we might call common sense or worldly wisdom and upon the words of the sages.

                From the perspective of common sense, Ramchal simply appeals to the ordinary course of events for anyone involved in an important business venture. Such a person must constantly be taking stock. Each day the merchant must determine the available stock. Each night he or she must determine what remains in order to know the extent of the day’s sales and to prepare for the next day. Moreover, most merchants are so enamored of their goods (that we call what we sell “goods” raises fascinating possibility for digression that we will not follow here. Yet on the notion that the pursuit of the good is the engine that powers the development of human consciousness it is striking that both the notion of providing good for others and benefiting from providing such goods is built into our language in the mercantile sense.) If our business activities require such attention daily, then Ramchal assumes we will conclude that the health of our souls requires no less.

                He goes further. Based on the Talmudic passage in which the verse from the book of Numbers is interpreted, he comes very close to adding a mitzvah, making the act of daily Heshbon HaNefesh into a commandment. Central to Mussar practice is the process of Heshbon HaNefesh, literally “An Accounting of the Soul.” Mussar practice presupposes an individual who is willing to set aside a regular time to pause and reflect upon his or her life.

                Heshbon HaNefesh begins with solitude. In order to look into our soul clearly we must avoid the distractions, which often divert our attention from ourselves. Simply practicing being in a room alone, of being aware of all the distractions that our own imaginations furnish seemingly unbidden, is an important exercise preliminary to Heshbon HaNefesh. In truth, these diversions are not unbidden. They come at our inner request in order to “protect” our soul from scrutiny. In the language of Mussar tradition, the source of these diversions is the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination for evil. We reiterate, 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 from 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. Solitude strips away those diversions forcing the Yetzer HaRa to generate diversions out of our own consciousness, which are, in turn, overcome by virtue of being exposed to the light of our reflection. Once these diversions have been dissipated we can focus on the particular character traits that stand in the way of our bearing the burden of another and of thus experiencing the penetration of the Infinite into our finite lives. The remedy for whichever particular traits are under scrutiny that will be offered in more detail below by Ramchal is Talmud Torah. That is to say, that while the acquisition of Torah via bearing the burden of another rightly precedes learning Torah, never the less when we have cleared away the guile and pretense by which we normally view our behavior, study of specific verses and texts of the tradition whose content addresses the traits in question can penetrate deeply within us and cause a change in our behavior. Thus, acquisition of Torah and learning Torah are inextricably bound together in such away that each is the cause of the other.

This is 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 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. If one is still imprisoned by one’s evil inclination, they cannot see this truth and they cannot recognize it. For the evil inclination literally blinds their eyes and they become as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before them which their 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 person’s eye: it may either cover the eye so that it does not see what is there at all, or it may deceive a person so that a pillar appears to him as a person, or a person as a man. In like manner, the earthiness and materialism of this world is the darkness of night to the mind’s eye and causes people to err in two ways. First it does not permit one 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 fear… Second, even worse than the first error, 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.

                The spiritual effort that is described by the trait of watchfulness turns out, upon reflection, to be anything but elementary. That is to say, it is not the person controlled by his or her evil impulse who benefits in the first place from watchfulness, but rather the person who has already made strides in distancing him or herself from this impulse. This is surprising, perhaps, it is somewhat disheartening, but it highlights the psycho-spiritual acumen of Ramchal and, at the same time, strikes us as sobering but true.  Sobering because we have so far to go, but true because we have, perhaps, already begun to sense that the depth of effort involved in watchfulness requires a commitment that is not commensurate with our merely having read Mesillat Yesharim to this point. We will return to the import of this sobering truth below. For the moment we turn to consider, if you will, its source, the psycho-spiritual acumen of the author.

                At the very moment that Ramchal moves from what we might call the theoretical to the practical, the very moment that we know that we must stop reading and start living, the moment when we are brought to the point of following with assent the steps that he is describing, Ramchal chooses to "refuse" our progress on the grounds that it has been too intellectual, in the first place, and by definition superficial. If we have been merely reading his book, despite his warning in the introduction that this is not a book meant to be read, but a book meant to be studied, then any further forward progress through the text will be futile. We are not ready for the rigors of watchfulness, let alone cleanliness, purity, zeal or the like. What's worse, not being ready will not only preclude further understanding, but will retard whatever progress we may have made. We will turn against the book, turn away from it and feel justified in clinging to the self-satisfaction of our present behavior. This is because we have not really internalized the lessons of the very first words of the book, neither the Introduction nor the first chapter. They are not, we realize meant to be introductory in the conventional literary sense. They are the first steps in a spiritual-ethical transformation. The trait of watchfulness, let alone the later traits, is built upon the foundation that we have already blithely read and in all likelihood, forgotten!

                What are we to do? The simple but complex answer is: go back to the beginning! This time not to read but  to study. To say each line of text aloud, to chant it, to have it chanted to us by a companion, to open our heart as well as are mind so that we truly accept our mission to seek the happiness implicit in our creation through our pursuit of the good. We must return to King David's psalm and seek to experience the song and service of God's goodness in the only sure way that we can in this world: by serving the living expression of God in the world, our neighbor. We must bear the yoke of our neighbor before we can aspire to live in the house of the Lord. Or, we must understand that this world in which we live can be styled the house of the Lord by virtue of our service. Before we can begin the more arduous exercises aimed at spiritual-ethical perfection we must already have given ourselves over to the simple mandate of acquiring Torah that we've mentioned before, bearing the burden of the other.

                The language that Ramchal chooses to describe this necessary first crisis in our spiritual growth is also of great interest and sensitivity. He talks about this crisis in terms of darkness and defines the two pitfalls of darkness that we must become aware of even, perhaps especially, at this early stage in the process. The obvious pitfall of darkness is not being able to see. Despite its being obvious it is no less important for that and we shall explore its implications. But more critical and more full of insight is the distortions that occur in the dark. Worse than not seeing anything is seeing one thing and by reason of the distortion of the darkness calling it something that it isn't. Calling what is evil good and acting upon it is worse than merely doing what is evil. Such is the crisis we have brought ourselves to while trying to learn the path to perfection by mere intellectual means and thinking it could be easily done.

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. 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 the evil inclination. But those who have already freed themselves from this bondage see the truth clearly and can advise others in relation to it.

                Thus we must return to the beginning to overcome our reticence at confronting the evil inclination, for it is the power of this inclination to convince us that what we see as evil is actually good. It is the power of self-deception that is entwined with every rationalization which most stands in the way of spiritual progress. It is especially so in that the evil inclination makes use of our most natural desire. Thus it makes especial sense to return to the beginning of Mesillat Yesharim for it is there that we first encountered the basic building block of Jewish spirituality, the desire for the good, which is also the desire for pleasure. It is the distinction between the two and their necessary overlap which we must explore and evaluate in the shadow of the persistence of evil. Ramchal uses scripture to describe this as having a "fatted heart" which should not be understood only in terms of an excess of material possessions, as we learned earlier, since both the poor and the rich are susceptible to spiritual blindness, but rather refers to the inability to distinguish between different types of desire.

                Rather, we need to understand the image of the "fatted heart” as a spiritual/philosophical term. Or better still as a perceptional term, for it has to do with how we see, in the deepest meaning of seeing. The characteristics that comprise the "fatted heart" have to do with the way we see ourselves in the world, or how we create a world of meaning through our vision of ourselves in the world. When we create a world in which our individual needs constitute the whole of the meaning of that world then the world that we create will be "fatted" or filled with our own neediness. However, when the world we create is a world engendered from the soul rather than from the ego, that is, out of our desire to serve the needs of our desired, our beloved, then it will be a world in which the good of the other and our true good will be eminently "visible."

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 on 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 or she is on the true or false path; for they are all similar, presenting no difference whatsoever to the observing eye. One does not reach the goal unless they have perfect familiarity and visual acquaintance with the paths through their having traversed them and reached the portico. One who occupies a commanding position in the portico, however, sees all of the paths and can discriminate between the true and the false ones. Such a one is in a position to warn those who walk upon them and tell them, “This is the path; take it!” One who is willing to believe this will reach the designated spot; but one who is not willing to believe this, but would rather trust in their eyes, will certainly remain lost and fail to reach it. So too, in relation to the idea under discussion. One who has not yet achieved dominion over the Yetzer HaRa is in the midst of the paths and cannot distinguish between them. But those who rule over their Yetzer HaRa, 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 those who are willing to listen, and it is to them that we must trust.

                The analogy that Ramchal uses to exemplify this state of spiritual “fat-heartedness” is that of the garden maze. It is precisely an example of the fact that seeing the visible is not sufficient for spiritual growth. Regardless of how good one’s visual acuity is in the maze the true path cannot be discerned. Not because vision is misleading but because despite its being accurate it is not enough. Rather, knowledge derived from a source other than experience is necessary. Knowledge is more important, more accurate, than vision. But not just any knowledge will do. The knowledge that is needed is the knowledge of how little one knows! The important knowledge is the knowledge that leads to seeking a teacher who has already achieved the vantage from the portico, conquered the Yetzer HaRa. Presumably Ramchal is explaining precisely his role in our progress.

And what is the advice that they give us? “’Let us enter into an accounting.’ Let us compute the world’s account.” For they have already experienced, and seen, and learned that this alone is the true path by which a person may reach the good that they seek, and that there is none beside this.

                What we can expect to learn from Ramchal, or any true spiritual teacher, is not the answer but the method of finding our own answer. That method is Heshbon HaNefesh, the reflective accounting of our actions which is at the heart of Mussar. Through the application of Heshbon HaNefesh the teacher has already learned how to control and transform the Yetzer HaRa and is therefore “in the portico.”

What emerges from all this is that a person 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 person must walk upon. After engaging in such reflection one will come to consider whether or not their deeds travel along this path. For in doing so it will be certainly be easy to cleanse oneself of all evil and to correct one’s ways. As Scripture states: (Lamentations 3:40) “Let us seek out our ways and examine them, and we will return to God.

                Ramchal uses the end of this chapter to surprise us with the fact that the trait of watchfulness is not only crucial, not only foundational for what is to come, but already requires a significant spiritual turn. This turn has already been described in the preceding chapters. In the actual flow of Mussar instruction we would, in fact return to the beginning. We would review more intensely our commitment to the goals and obligations that were laid out in chapter one and the centrality of the commands outlined in chapter two. However, we will continue on to the next chapter in the expectation that such spiritual effort has been expended.


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