That which, in general, brings a person to Watchfulness is Torah study. As Rav Pinchus stated in the beginning of the Baraitha, “Torah brings one to Watchfulness.” That which leads to it in particular, however, is reflection upon the demanding nature of the Divine Service that a person 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.
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.
The assumption with which we begin this chapter is that we are returning to this point in the book after having returned to the beginning and worked our way here via, at least, a second reading. In the course of this second reading we have become slightly more aware of the critical nature of Torah study for Mussar consciousness.
Despite the fact that Ramchal has chosen to begin his consideration of Rav Pinchus’ beraitha with the trait of Watchfulness, he is well aware and now wants to make sure that we fully realize that one comes to the trait of Watchfulness via Torah. We keep in mind also that Torah indicates not only texts and reflection on those texts, but also that the acquisition of Torah requires more than simply study. It requires the prior acceptance of responsibility for the other. The “severity of the judgment” which it involves is precisely the judgment of the other, the putting ourselves in question that the other accomplishes and the responsibility that the self has for the other. One of the great frustrations of Torah study is its inefficacy at transforming us, of lifting us to the heights of spiritual satisfaction that we may seek. However, when it does not take us where we want it to that is because we have not combined our Torah study with the acceptance of this responsibility. And when it does take us into the spiritual heights, there is always reason to be concerned lest the study itself become a source of intoxication by which we blot out this responsibility. These are both ways in which the Yetzer HaRa uses Torah study to confound our true spiritual growth.
Thus, the re-commencement of our reflection that occurs with chapter four presses us to reflect on the slightly understated pre-requisite that Rabbi Pinchus required. We cannot begin the ascent toward Saintliness without the acquisition of Torah and the acquisition of Torah, as we have pointed out, requires the bearing of the burden of the other. On the other hand, once we have engaged in such responsible action, even if we are unable to maintain that level of commitment all the time, then the study of Torah, the words of the tradition, provide significant aide in our journey.
We went back to the beginning in order to attempt to truly reflect on Messillat Yesharim rather than to merely read it. If we have succeeded then we have indeed begun to learn to bear the burden of the other and in that case we are ready to make good spiritual use of the words of the Sages and Scriptures. Those words will appear to us to have a new meaning, a new urgency, in the light of the responsibilities we have undertaken.
People with fullness 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 and removal from perfection. For after that has become clear to them, as well as the fact that the means to this end are virtuous deeds and traits, they will certainly never permit themselves to diminish these means; nor will they ever fail to make use of the full potential of these acts. For it would already become clear to them that if these means were reduced in number or not employed with complete effectiveness, with all the energy that they called for, true perfection would not be attained through them, but would be lost to the extent that sufficient exertion were not applied in relation to them.
It is the knowledge of the centrality of the responsibility to bear the burden of the other that defines, in turn, what Ramchal calls “people with fullness of understanding.” Once more we see that the progress of our spiritual quest depends on the character of our deeds, our moral acts, our bearing of this responsibility. He also establishes here a relationship between “perfection” and the bearing of this responsibility. With the performance of acts of love, by taking on the burden of another, we are brought to insight. Perfection, an abstract and almost philosophical word whose meaning seems at first beyond the ken of normal human discourse, is, in fact, brought into that discourse on the basis of an insight only available through behavior. The conflation, if you will, of our very notion of discourse, is critical. We learn that what we call discourse, what we might call the use of language to achieve understanding, does not require restricting the meaning of language to words. There are other types of discourse besides the language of words. There are other types of languages besides the languages of words. There is the language of deeds, the language of love or the language of responsibility, all of which may be synonyms. This has important theological ramifications beside its immediate application here. It means that when we speak of speech, when we speak specifically of Divine speech, as we are speaking when we speak of Torah, we do not necessarily limit that discourse to words either. If the perfection that we seek, that is the object of our desire, cannot be found in a spoken word that does not mean that it is mute.
In light of this insight, that perfection is approached more and more closely through the multiplication of acts of goodness, “people with fullness of understanding” will certainly not allow themselves to be deterred from continuing to infinitely increase their opportunities for doing such deeds. Therefore Watchfulness for such people consists in watching for opportunities to increase their acts of Hesed. Interestingly, Ramchal will address the middot to two groups of individuals. First, those for whom the middot function on the level of what we might call emphasis of their already achieved insight, and second, below in this chapter, those for whom the middot must function as warning or instruction. Those who have already experienced the acquisition of Torah that comes with bearing the burden of the other, need to be encouraged to be watchful of opportunities to increase this acquisition toward infinity. Those who have not yet reached this level approach watchfulness form a different perspective as we shall see below.
There is no misfortune or 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 be rigid in relation to all of their aspects. They will find no rest or peace from worry that they possibly lack something which might lead them to the perfection they desire. As was said by King Solomon, may peace be upon him, (Proverbs 28:14), “Happy is the man who always fears.” Our sages (Berachot 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 person constantly fear and worry lest he or she be harboring a trace of sin which might keep him or her from the perfection that he or she is obligated to strive for. Concerning this our sages of blessed memory said by way of analogy (Bava Batra 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 people who lack understanding), but rather the fact that he sees himself as lacking a level of achievement toward perfection, a level that he could have attained just as his neighbor had. If he who possesses wholeness of understanding engages in this thought process, he or she will certainly not fall short of being watchful in his or her deeds.
We have already encountered the concept of Yirah at the beginning of Messilat Yesharim. We have already pointed out that describing Yirah as fear leaves much to be desired. In the author’s introduction we spoke of it as a form of wisdom expressed in worship, in a sense an equivalent term to Torah itself. Here Ramchal makes that connection more strongly. Here too, he further deepens the meaning of Yirah which in turn further deepens our understanding of both the terms wisdom and Torah. It is Torah that Ramchal has been discussing in this chapter, an understanding of Torah that includes the larger meaning of acquiring Torah through the bearing of the burden of the other. As he has also hinted earlier at the importance of what we have called Insomnia, here that term or its equivalent becomes fused with Torah and wisdom all included in the larger and larger domain of the word Yirah. We keep in mind that we are talking about those who have already reached a level of wholeness of understanding and that those who have reached this level seek a perfection that has already been defined as an infinite multiplication of acts of Hesed. For such people nothing is more painful than the possibility that they will have missed an opportunity to draw closer to this perfection through their acts. They will be watchful (the middah under discussion, after all) both positively, to do such acts at every opportunity, and negatively, to avoid any moment when such an opportunity might be lost. This is precisely what we have been calling the movement toward Insomnia and precisely what Ramchal here names Yirah! He reminds us through the quote from Proverbs that such fear, or Insomnia, is what constitutes happiness. We are reminded that it is still pleasure, the pursuit of happiness that motivates our quest. The nature of that pleasure is more and more clear and more and more removed from the simple material pleasures with which we each must begin. “Constant fear and worry” will have a negative connotation to those whose experience of it is self-oriented. But constant fear and worry for the other is precisely the source of happiness toward which we are moving. If Yirah on this level is a term which includes both wisdom and Torah within its purview, a term inclusive of all that we have until now described, then our understanding of wisdom and Torah, as we’ve already surmised, must also be conjoined with the fundamental idea that Insomnia expresses. All of Torah and wisdom and fear become a way of being in the world, a way that is ultimately a way of Avodah, or worship. Perfect worship toward which we aspire is perfect Insomnia. A messianic quest taken on infinitely precisely because it can only be pursued, not achieved.
Ramchal heightens our awareness of this last point by reference to a fascinating Talmudic statement to which he gives a rather unique interpretation. The statement is taken from the tractate Baba Bava 75a. We will appreciate it more if we view it in its entirety.
Raba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan said further: The Holy One of Blessing will make seven canopies [huppot] for every righteous person, for it is said: And Adonai will create over the whole habitation of Mount Zion and over her assemblies, a cloud of smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory shall be a canopy. This teaches that the Holy One of Blessing will make for everyone a canopy corresponding to his rank. Why is smoke required in a canopy? Rav Hanina said: Because whoever is niggardly toward the scholars in this world will have his eyes filled with smoke in the world to come. Why is fire required in a canopy? Rav Hanina said this teaches that each one will be burned by reason of [his envy of the superior] canopy of his friend. Alas, for such shame! Alas for such reproach!
The context helps us understand just what the quotation is referring to. The canopy is an element of a messianic vision. At the time of the coming of the Messiah each person, according to Rav Yochanan, will be enclosed within a canopy in what appears to be a hierarchy ascending to the top of
Mount Zion. What is fascinating from our perspective is the admission that those ensconced within these canopies, the righteous after all of whom Ramchal has been speaking, do not feel that they have achieved enough. In the Talmud itself, this seems clearly to be taken as a reproach and shame that they are still afflicted with jealousy even at the height of their messianic achievement. But Ramchal subtly changes the emphasis, leaving off the last phrases of the quote and suggesting that the individual righteous person is not jealous of the rank achieved by his neighbor but rather supremely agitated that he did not achieve a height that his neighbor did by taking more responsibility, by doing more virtuous acts. Ramchal not only reiterates his commitment to an infinite Insomnia, continuing even into the messianic era, but also displays the independence and creativity of his interpretations of traditional sources
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 person of faith that the different situations in the World of Truth, the World to Come, vary in relation to one’s deeds; that only he or she who is greater in deeds than his or her neighbor will be elevated above him, whereas one who is lesser in deeds will occupy a lower level. How then can a person blind his or her eyes to his or her actions or slacken his or her efforts, if afterwards, when what has been made crooked can no longer be straightened, it will bring unquestionable suffering?
The remainder of this chapter is concerned with “those of lesser understanding.” Ramchal will deal in detail with the kinds of spiritual subterfuge that are necessary to address this class of people. It is for such people that the category of reward and punishment and all of its adumbrations is germane. Yet, as we will see, these forays into the workings of the reward and punishment paradigm are punctuated with references to some of the spiritual giants of Jewish literary history. This will serve a dual purpose. On the one hand the role modeling of these giants and their inability to avoid punishment for even the smallest seeming sin is intended to inspire “those of lesser understanding.” On the other hand, this gives Ramchal the opportunity to explore the difficulties of in fact being one “of full understanding.” So difficult that people from Abraham to Hezikiah do not quite achieve it. The remainder of this chapter is particularly complex, functioning as it does on even more levels than usual and we will have to proceed with care.
Ramchal begins by differentiating between those of full understanding and those of lesser understanding. What distinguishes the latter from the former is that instead of seeking to live in the world with Yirah, the latter desire to live in the world with honor. The desire for this honor is literally a physical need for them, an appetite. In order to achieve this honor a person must understand that it is on the basis of his or her deeds in this world that honor is accorded in the world to come. And there is a hierarchy in awarding this honor even in the world to come so that the honor one receives there will differ in relation to the honor one’s associates receive there depending on one’s deeds here. This belief about the world to come is addressed quite specifically by Ramchal to “every person of faith.” It is crucial to our understanding of this chapter to realize that being a “person of faith” is clearly contrasted with being “a person with full understanding.” A person of faith is the equivalent “those of lesser understanding” or why else would Ramchal address himself to them at this juncture? Thus this particular use of the concept of the world to come is the use that is necessary for those of lesser understanding, the people of faith. Such a person can only be brought to contemplate the seriousness of ethical behavior on the basis of their still active selfish appetites.
It is equally important for us to understand that Ramchal is addressing us in this category. One of the pitfalls of studying Messillat Yesharim and understanding it is deciding that one is included among the people of full understanding prematurely. Ramchal spends a good deal of time addressing the people of faith, because even those who believe themselves to have achieved fuller understanding are often operating on an almost unconscious level of self-satisfaction. The strength of the Yetzer HaRa is precisely in convincing us that we do not need these words of instruction because we do not need to believe in such simple notions of reward and punishment. In fact, though we may use different language, we very often do pursue the good because of the reputation it gives us as good people, even when we are only interested in impressing ourselves!
Thus it is we who are the blind people Ramchal refers to. Blind not only to the importance of bearing the burden of the other, but also to being able to bear the burden of the other without regard to our satisfaction in doing so. That is the crookedness that will be unable to be made straight.
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 that are judged in Gehenom? 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
The double nature of Ramchal’s admonition is evident. While it may be that only fools attempt to lighten their burden, all of us are willing to renounce the acquisition of Torah that comes from bearing the burden of the other, an acquisition which we’ve already seen is certainly neither temporal nor spatial. Despite this, Ramchal here quite purposively invokes spatial language. This is for the benefit of the “fools” who are not only those of lesser understanding, but those who are satisfied being people of lesser understanding. For them the spatial image is appropriate because it is on this level that they understand what is at stake in their refusal to fully bear the burden of acquiring Torah. Yet, if this were entirely so, then the argument that Ramchal will use momentarily, below, that such people would surely not want their neighbors to have a better standing in the world to come than they is suspect. If they were indeed people who believed in either Gehenom or Paradise what need would there be for such an argument. Indeed, the so-called people of faith turn out to be people of no faith. And the people who are of full understanding are what we might call people beyond faith. That is, those who have already tasted the fruits of satisfaction that come by bearing the burden of the other have no need of faith, and those who are unable to bear the burden substitute faith in its place.
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 within them? Is there any question that they could not? We witness with our own eyes all of the labors of a person to elevate him or herself above everyone and to establish his or her place among the most honored. This is a person’s jealousy of his or her neighbor. If ones neighbor is elevated above one what one tolerates is what one is forced to tolerate; but within the blood boils. 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 is surface judgment and his being elevated, vanity and falsity, then how could they tolerate seeing Themselves lower than these same persons who are now lower than they?
In the realm of the foolish, Ramchal can only appeal to the foolishness of their natures in order to begin the necessary transformation of behavior which will lead to a transformation of spiritual substance. Those who are foolish invest foolish importance to the relative levels of people in society and are usually motivated to not only maintain their own power and prestige but to diminish that of their neighbor. Ramchal plants, as it were, a seed in the midst of this poisonous soil. By reverting more literally to the language of the temporality of the world to come, he attempts to tempt these foolish people to continue their concern for power and prestige not in this world but in the next. It has never been our intent to suggest that this literal language does not have its place. For those for whom it is unnecessary this chapter may seem demeaning. And so it is. But for those for whom these issues are real, the only antidote may be to engage them at this level. As we have also pointed out, Ramchal challenges us here to look more closely as to which group we really belong. Are we certain that we do not share this concern for power and prestige in this world? If we are not so certain, than can we say with certainty that we do not harbor belief in the temporality of the world to come also, in fact, perhaps depending upon it to justify our faults in this world. It is quite a bit more difficult than it might at first appear to truly rid oneself of the belief in present and future in moral terms. To believe instead that the future is the surprising possibility of transforming the present, that Infinity enters into the finite on the shoulders of our bearing the burden of another cannot be a mere intellectualization. If it is then we are back among the foolish and are well instructed by Messillat Yesharim on these points.
And this in the place of true quality and everlasting worth, which, though they might not consider it now because of their failure to recognize it and its value, they will certainly recognize it 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 Yetzer Ha Ra, with no basis whatsoever in truth. 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, these persuasions will not leave them until such time when it will no longer avail them, when it will no longer be in their hands to rebuild what they have destroyed. As it was said by King Solomon, may peace be upon him: “Whatever your hand finds to do with your strength, do it, for there no deed nor account nor knowledge…” (Ecclesiates 9-10) That is, what a person does not do which he or she still has the power of choice that the Creator has given to employ during his or her lifetime when it is possible to exercise free will and is commanded to do so will not be available for him or her of doing so in the grave and in the pit for at that time he or she will no longer possess the power.
Ramchal elaborates on the root of the foolishness of the foolish. The root of their foolishness is their being persuaded by the Yetzer Ha-Ra to lighten their burden. Conversely, if they could see the truth shorn of the deceptions of the Yetzer Ha-Ra, they would not seek to lighten their burden.
Importantly, in this connection, Ramchal cites a verse from the book of Proverbs that he interprets to mean that it is only in this world that human beings are given the opportunity to do good, to repair the damage they do and, for that matter, to choose between good and evil. In the grave, or as it is described in much of Jewish literature, the pit, there is no volition. Ramchal will continue to use the remaining terms in this verse in order to flesh out what we can call a Mussar practice.
The emphasis on the this-worldly venue of moral action does not necessarily negate the temporal reality of the world to come. To do so while addressing the “foolish” would be counter-productive. However, it is certainly an opening for those of “full wisdom” to be able to recognize the non-temporal nature of the world to come being suggested here.
For one who has not multiplied good deeds in his lifetime will not have the opportunity of performing them afterwards. 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.”
The theme of this worldly action continues and is attached to the idea of Heshbon Ha-Nefesh. Neither the possibility of doing good deeds, nor acquiring wisdom exist in the pit. More importantly, taking an accounting is described as essentially a sine quo non for both doing good deeds and acquiring full wisdom. Heshbon Ha-Nefesh might be seen as the bridge between good deeds and full wisdom. It certainly is more than a mere accounting. It is an accounting that gives rise to insight, on the one hand, and is “re-invested” we might say, back into action via good deeds.
But the general populace will be motivated towards Watchfulness through 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 or her 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, (Yevamot 121b) “’And around Him it storms violently’ (Psalms 50:3). This teaches us that the Holy Blessed One judges saints to the degree of a hair’s breath.
Ramchal keeps his focus on the general populace despite having begun to suggest the deeper knowledge even as he addressed the foolish. The need for a doctrine of reward and punishment is clear for the general populace. Within this truth, they must indeed tremble and shiver at the prospect of a Day of Judgment. And who wouldn’t tremble at having one’s every conversation played back to one at this judgment? With this subtle interpretation Ramchal forces our attention and our fear back into the realm of human relationships. Not accidentally this attention is focused on conversation, on the words we use and on the most common and ongoing conversation we engage in, the conversation between husband and wife. It is here, in the intimacy of conversation, that the concern with the significance of the other begins and here too that the Yetzer Ha-Ra is most active, developing within us the web of rationalization and defensiveness that we will carry out of the home into the world.
The final verse and its interpretation in this section serve as the beginning of a fascinating digression in this chapter. The initiating interpretation is a bit forced and we will explain it. But more importantly, we will introduce this extended discussion on the punishments of saints and explore its purpose.
The verse in psalms reads in the Hebrew: וּסְבִיבָיו, נִשְׂעֲרָה מְאד and the similar orthography of נִשְׂעֲרָה “storm” and שְׂעֲרָה a ”hair” in the verse quoted from the Talmud gives rise to the interpretation that just as God is punctilious in God’s attention to every conversation that a person has, so too, or even more so is God punctilious in God’s judgment of God’s saints in every matter. This assertion will be followed by a series of proof texts intended to display this punctilious judgment.
What is the reason or reasons for making this point so extensively? First, as we will see, each of the “saints” who are presented is presented in the context of having made a verbal mistake. Thus, both the centrality of language and the difficulty of controlling speech are exemplified. Second, by definition, breaches of speech are inter-subjective. Speech occurs between people. Thus, the centrality of relationships as the venue of responsibility is exemplified. The fact that these points are worked out in the lives of biblical heroes also fulfills the function of defining the difficulties facing those who are “of full knowledge.”
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 Blessed One 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 of Blessing said to him: “Upon your life, shall I delay the rejoicing of your children for seven generations.”(Bereshit Rabbah 54:5)
Jacob, because he became angry with Rachel when she said to him “Give me sons,” was told by Adonai, “Is this the way to answer those who are oppressed? Upon your life your son will stand before her son.” (Bereshit 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 (Ibid 80:3) that the Blessed Holy One said to him, because he withheld kindness 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 (Bereshit 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 (Bereshit 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 before the ark, was punished by dying in childbirth with her only child. (II Samuel 6:20)
Hezikiah 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 Babylonia. (II Kings 20:12) There are many more such instances of this nature.
This “honor roll” of saints who sin and are punished amply illustrates the points Ramchal is making. First, that most are concerned with speech (although not all, a fact we will deal with presently.) Perhaps more importantly, Ramchal suggests not only that the higher one’s level of spiritual development the more exacting is the judgment of one’s behavior. Thus both the foolish and the wise are simultaneously instructed. Yet this explanation is not sufficient for us since we have already explained that fear of punishment operates primarily in the realm of the foolish. Therefore we delve more deeply. In each of these cases we notice that while indeed the indiscretion was verbal and that indeed each exhibited a breech in the need to be fully conscious in even the most mundane conversation, each also reveals what would traditionally be called a lack of faith, but what we can more accurately define as an act of self-concern thus defining lack of faith as precisely the substitution of the other by the self rather than the de-centering of the self to make room for the other.
Because Abraham was concerned for a word of proof that would satisfy him regarding God’s promise of the land; because Jacob grew defensive and felt threatened by Rachel’s complaint rather than hearing her anguish; because he wanted to control Dinah’s fate; because Joseph was concerned about his fate rather than that of the Cup Bearer’s; each one for that moment did not ‘fear God,’ that is, blocked out the trembling at the responsibility for the other that was incumbent upon him.
As though in an ascending scale of spiritual concern the actions of David, Michal, and Hezikiah yield us different wisdom.
According to Rabbinic commentary found in the Talmudic tractate Sotah (35a) David treated passages of Torah as songs (thus trivializing them) as attested by the verse in Psalm 119 “Your statutes have been my songs…” Thus David imposed upon Scripture his independent judgment that their literary nature could supplant their obligatory nature. As one ascends in the spiritual life it is necessary to understand Scripture less and less literally. Yet, as one learns to understand the less literal meaning of Scripture, one cannot for a moment understand Scripture as conveying any fewer obligations. The nature and character of obligation may change, but the obligation not only remains, it strengthens.
The proof that indeed the nature of Scripture’s obligations change as one ascends in insight is exemplified by David’s transformation of liturgy in to dance which is not understood by conventional religionists as illustrated by Michal. Her tragic death is allegorized to indicate her misunderstanding of the transformation of liturgy to action by her father.
Finally, Ramchal cites the punishment of Hezikiah. Hezikiah is celebrated in traditional sources as the model of spiritual attainment. According to some Midrashim God wanted him to be the Messiah but the attribute of Justice convinced God that David was more deserving of that role. He is celebrated as the King who cleansed the Temple, rid it of idolatry, centralized Jewish worship, and instituted Torah learning throughout Judea. He was therefore in possession of the “treasures of the house (‘bayit’)” meaning not only the secret of the whereabouts of the Temple’s gold, but also the secrets of mystical spiritual attainment. That he revealed these secrets to the uninitiated and the unprepared was examples of the great responsibility that teachers of spiritual wisdom have to be sure that their teachings do not become debased in the hands of students unready for them. In a sense Ramchal here justifies his own ‘two-tiered” teaching and “two-tiered” understanding of the middot For our purposes the important point is to learn that the higher one’s spiritual level the more one must be awake to the possibility of allowing the ego to induce even a moment of sleep. Hezikiah had almost reached the level of messiah, yet his pride in his own achievements caused him to “show-off” by revealing secrets that should not have been revealed, thus endangering the soul of others.
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 Blessed Holy One 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 a balance just as the weighty are; for the latter will not cause the former to be forgotten, nor will the Judge overlook them, just as God 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 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.” Just as the Holy Blessed One does not allow any good deed, small as it may be, to go unrewarded, so does God not permit any bad deed, however small, to go un-judged and un-passed upon, contrary to the thinking of those who wish to talk it into themselves that the Holy Blessed One will not review the lighter things in God’s judgment and will not call them into account. It is an acknowledged principle (Bava Kama 50a) “Whoever says that that the Blessed Holy One overlooks things will have his life ‘overlooked’” And our sages of blessed memory have also said, (Chagiga 16a) “If the evil inclination says to you ‘Sin and the Holy One will forgive you,’ do not heed it.”
The final line in this section sums up the point of the longer comment. Despite what we might have thought from the Talmudic story about Rabbi Yochanan, God does not judge large and small transgressions the same. However, God does include the small as well as the large transgression without fail. Thus Ramchal reinforces the idea that no moment and no responsibility is too small for us to be concerned with. More importantly, he reminds us that when we tell ourselves that indeed a particular act is too small to worry about we are already being mislead by our Yetzer HaRa into that sort of thinking. At the same time, should we not wonder, given the sufficiency of the verses with which Ramchal supports this view following his quoting the story of Rabbi Yochanan, whether he is not obliquely referring to the fact that on its surface Rabbi Yochanan’s initial fear that he will be punished equally for the smallest of transgression as for the largest is also relevant? If so, what might its relevance be?
We might suggest that the assurance that God does not punish equally small sins as large despite the fact that the smallest of sins is weighed in the total judgment is directed at the “foolish” for whom the more difficult truth that, indeed, at a certain level of spiritual attainment (certainly Rabbi Yochanan’s level!) such is the case. This would be in keeping with the distinction that Ramchal has been making between these levels of spirituality to this point. If so, we must grapple with this difficult truth. The higher we ascend the ladder of responsibility, the more aware we are more of the time of the weight of the other’s burden and our obligation to bear it, the more we will be pained (rather than punished) for missing even the smallest opportunity to do so. Conversely, (in order for us not to be negatively motivated from ascending the spiritual ladder to begin with!) the more exquisite the pleasure (remember that it is after all pleasure that we have been seeking!) we experience when we succeed in bearing even the smallest burden of the other.
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 His ways are just. He is a God of faithfulness, without wrong…” Since the Blessed Holy One desires justice, ignoring the bad would be as much an injustice as ignoring the good. If God desires Justice, then God must deal with each person according to his or her ways and according to the fruits of their acts, with the must minute discrimination, for good or 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 righteousness and just.” has application to the righteous and to the wicked. For this is God’s attribute. God judges everything. God punishes every sin. There is no escaping.
Once again it is with the last phrase that we will begin. Ramchal dramatically emphasizes the notion that we’ve been calling insomnia: There is no escape from our responsibilities. This existential reality is what we call God’s attribute of judgment.
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 blessed Creator; and that there be no correction whatsoever for the sin. For in truth, how can a person 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?
Ramchal introduces here a central tenet of Jewish ethical theology. That is, that the world is sustained by the equal and eternal presence of both judgment and mercy. If we have now defined God’s attribute of judgment as insomnia, that is, the inescapability of our responsibilities for the other, and more importantly the inevitability of the consequences of our “sleep;” then we can also now define mercy as the attribute of God’s love that inhibits the finality of judgment without reducing its presence for a moment. For our purposes we might characterize it as the realization that insomnia is a messianic goal, the final transformation of the Yetzer HaRa into the Yetzer HaTov. But mindful that without the Yetzer HaRa life as we know it would not be possible and therefore the very arena of transformation would cease to exist, mercy can be defined as the Other’s bearing our burden, giving us respite, allowing us the time to close our eyes so that we might better learn to keep them open. This will become clearer as we let Ramchal speak.
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 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 it then 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 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 it afforded, there is now regret ant 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 to repentance to him. Similarly, all of the other operation of lovingkindness, such as “The son benefits the father,” (Sanhedrin 104a) and “Part of a life is like the whole life” (Kohelet 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
At the heart of Ramchal’s analysis of mercy is time. Contrary to our conventional impulse time is not the time of wakefulness but the time of sleep. Wakefulness is precisely no longer time, a transcendence of time. It is Olam Haba. However, in order for this attribute of mercy not to subvert the attribute of justice it is necessary for the very mercy we are afforded to allow justice to have its way. The punishments that Ramchal has been blandishing before the foolish are here transformed in hopes that the foolish have become ready for wisdom. And if they have not, then at least making it clear to those who would claim to be wise the particulars of the matter. Mercy is the acting of the attribute of judgment in this world, Olam Hazeh. Mercy allows us to sleep so that we may live and accomplish what must be accomplished in time. Judgment wakes us up “from time” slowly. Mercy is that slowness. But as we awaken we experience the pain of the consequences of the Yetzer HaRa which characterized our sleep. The experience of this pain is precisely the true punishment, the punishment that occurs at the border between Olam Hazeh and Olam Haba. The Infinite Other bears us in time. Our bearing the burden of the other frees us from time and its suffering. Relying on Rabbinic teaching Ramchal reminds us that this experience of Olam Haba is fragmentary. Moments of Olam Haba are accounted, in their being experienced, as all of Olam Haba, for it is no longer bound by the constraints of time at all.
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’anit 2:1) “He withholds His wrath, but He collects what is His.”
How do we reconcile the seeming contradiction between the assertion that there is no escape from responsibility and Ramchal’s provision of escape through mercy? Precisely in the responsibility placed upon us to “find” mercy. That is, God stretches time before us as the only route of escape from time. If we find within time the escape afforded by God’s mercy in allowing us to bear the burden of the other, time itself is transformed, existence is materially changed, sins are atoned for. However, if we do not find within time the means of escaping its suffering, we are consigned to those sufferings infinitely.
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.
Chapter four ends with an exhortation to us to open our eyes. It is, in the end, the meaning of Watchfulness: awakening to both the mercy afforded us in time and the possibility of transcending time by bearing the burden of the other. Anyone whose eyes are opened to these twinned possibilities can have no excuse for not accepting them. Anyone who can apply any level of sensitivity, who allows himself to go from foolishness to wisdom, will certainly persevere in the acquisition of Watchfulness so defined.