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

Author’s Introduction

The writer says: I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them, for you will find in most of my words only things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts. But to the extent that they are well known and their truths revealed to all, so is forgetfulness in relation to them extremely prevalent. It follows, then, that the benefit to be obtained from this work is not derived from a single reading; for it is possible that the reader will find that he or she has learned little after having read it that he or she did not know before. Its benefit is to be derived, rather, through review and persistent study, by which one is reminded of those things which by nature one is prone to forget and through which one is caused to take to heart the duty that we tend to overlook.

                So much contained in so few words, so subtly expressed, so suggestive, profound and critical to the unfolding of the complex text before us. For fear of never leaving this introduction or even moving on from this first paragraph, our remarks will be brief. But rest assured we will have occasion to return more than once to these opening words in the course of our learning this book together.

                We begin by focusing on three points raised in this paragraph. First, that there is nothing new to be learned from this book, second, that, rather, the problem that the book addresses is forgetfulness and third, that, therefore, the book cannot be read. It must be studied. Ramchal will return to these themes, explicitly and implicitly, over and over during the course of Mesillat Yesharim. Why are they so important?

                The first issue we can call "pre-existing ethics." That is, that the reader or student that Ramchal has in mind must recognize that he or she already contains within the structure of his or her consciousness the general outline of Jewish ethics understood as obligations. From where does this pre-existent ethic originate? As will become clear in the course of his book, this pre-existent ethic derives both constitutionally in the formation of human consciousness and through the action of communal socialization. All human beings are formed of a Yetzer Hara and a Yetzer Hatov, an inclination for evil and an inclination for good. These abide in and as the structure of human consciousness and substantially define the meaning of creation in the image and likeness of God. Thus, the human condition is by definition a condition that exists in the tension between good and evil. This condition and the concomitant obligation to act out of this tension is precisely the meaning not only of our existence but of existence itself in so far as our existence is an “image” of existence itself. The obligation to choose the good, and thereby to assume responsibility for the other as service of God, precedes our consciousness of ourselves and, in fact, "gives" us our consciousness as a weighty gift.

                Ramchal uses the Hebrew term oxrpn, “evident,” which is explained by Maimonides in his Treatise on Logic, as referring to those ideas which are “known” to us by virtue of what we can call “natural wisdom.” That is, they are truths that we can recognize on the basis of our innate ethical sensibility. They neither require extensive logical argumentation nor, more importantly, Revelation. This type of “truth” we are referring to as the “constitution of consciousness” as opposed to the content of consciousness. On the other hand, in his treatise “The Way of the Tree of Life” Ramchal asserts that wisdom, that is, the act of choosing the Yetzer HaTov, is already implanted in the human soul in the form of the light of the Shechinah from which all of our intellectual faculties (which includes imagination and emotional responses) are derived. In addition, says Ramchal, persistent study, repetitive learning, about which he will say more below, correlates the mouth of the human being with the mouth of God in actualizing the innate or pre-existent wisdom. The implied purpose of Mesillat Yesharim is to provide a method of uniting the various “flames” of the Shechinah’s fire which normally emerge in our various intellectual acts but do not unite. The specific order of Mesillat Yesharim, drawn as we will see from the beraitha of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, is intended to facilitate the unification of the Shechinah’s flames in our soul by the orderly application of middot or character traits, internalized by persistent, repetitive study.

                We "know" about this gift of our consciousness primarily through the processes of socialization. That is, our interactions with others who expose us to ourselves through their care for us, and the more formal exposure that we receive to the accumulated traditions of wisdom which inscribe the evidence of this gift. In this context we mean education and specifically education in Torah. Torah will play a complex and central place in Mesillat Yesharim and this is not the place to explore it in detail. For our purposes at this point we would only point out that, first, Torah represents not only the inscription of the knowledge of the gift of our own consciousness as the accumulation of an historical record, but also the inscription of the radical claim of creation itself. Creation presupposes that the world is not fully explicable by recourse to resources contained within creation, a central claim of this text that we will shortly return to. And second, that Torah is the unfolding of our consciousness of ourselves and, simultaneously the debt our consciousness owes to another not contained by our consciousness.

                Thus, the second problem that Ramchal must address as a consequence of our intrinsic and socialized knowledge is what he calls our forgetfulness of this knowledge. In this opening paragraph he does not explain the source of this forgetfulness. He, and therefore, we, will deal with this later. However, he hints at, at least, part of the problem as he segues to the third and final problem he deals with in this paragraph. Since it is because of forgetfulness that he suggests that the student not view this as a book to read, but rather a book to study, and since merely reading the book, in fact, brings to mind a remembrance of its basic content such that the student might feel that he or she has not learned anything new, then we must conclude that forgetfulness is not remedied by recalling facts to mind. Rather, forgetfulness has something to do with what we might call a stance in the world and the avoidance of that stance. Knowledge as information will not impact forgetfulness. “Remembering” in the sense that Ramchal wants to achieve has to do more with breaking through the very structures of intellect which (as he will point out in great detail below) the Yetzer HaRa uses to deflect the true obligations of consciousness. This cannot be achieved by the passivity of reading. It must be achieved through an active process he will call study. Much of the book and much of the concern of the Mussar Movement that followed is to describe and implement this process.

A consideration of the general state of affairs will reveal that the majority of people of quick intelligence and keen mentality devote most of their thought and speculation to the subtleties of wisdom and the profundities of analysis, each according to the inclination of his or her intelligence and natural bent. There are some who expend a great deal of effort in studying creation and nature. Others devote all of their thought to astronomy and mathematics, and others to the arts. There are those who go more deeply into sacred studies, into the study of the holy Torah, some occupying themselves with Halachic discussions, others with Midrash and others with legal decisions. There are few, however, who devote thought and study to perfection of Divine service – to love, fear, communion and all of the other aspects of saintliness. It is not that they consider this knowledge unessential; if questioned each one will maintain that it is of paramount importance and that one who is not clearly versed in it cannot be deemed truly wise. Their failure to devote more attention to it stems rather from its being so manifest and so obvious to them that they see no need for spending much time upon it. Consequently, this study and the reading of works of this kind have been left to those of a not too sensitive, almost dull intelligence. These you will see immersed in the study of saintliness, not stirring from it. It has reached the state of affairs that when one sees another engaging in saintly conduct, one cannot help but suspect that person of dull-wittedness. This state of affairs results in evil consequences both for those who possess wisdom and for those who do not, causing both classes to lack true saintliness: The wise lack saintliness because of their limited consideration of it and the unwise because of their limited grasp. The result is that saintliness is construed by most to consist in the recitation of many Psalms, very long confessions, difficult fasts and ablutions in ice and snow – all of which are incompatible with intellect and which reason cannot accept.

                Ramchal elaborates on the general state of affairs vis-à-vis the study and practice of saintliness. In keeping with his understanding of the structure of consciousness itself inhabiting the tension between the Yetzer HaTov and the Yetzer HaRa and the intrinsic as well as socialized knowledge of this to be found in each of his intended audience, it makes sense that when the subject of saintliness, or what we can comfortably call the ethical structure of consciousness, is broached each will assent to its centrality. That is part of the problem for not only is this considered central, but it is also considered obvious and the obvious seems hardly worth studying. That which is not obvious, natural science, aesthetics, theology and logic, are all far more challenging in so far as they are first, unlimited in scope and therefore seemingly more appropriate to the unlimited reach of human reason, and, second, they are intrinsically theoretical. It is far more satisfying on a superficial level to excel in theoretical knowledge than in practical wisdom. The latter, of course, demands the engagement of the full human being and can challenge the very being of that person to justify itself in the light of the true structure of its consciousness. Implicit in Ramchal's critique is a fact that will be developed below. That is, that the power of the Yetzer HaRa is precisely its ability to distort our judgment such that what we call good is really its opposite.

                In his essay “The Dialogue between the Scholar and Mystic,” Ramchal attributes the power of the Yetzer HaRa in this regard to the suffering of Israel and the characteristic of suffering drives a wedge between the individual and the sacred light planted in his own soul. Ramchal characterizes this “wedge” as “Galut” or Exile and suggests that the condition of exile, presumably both the physical suffering of the exile and the spiritual impoverishments of existential exile, as a kind of sleep. The twinned concept of sleep-insomnia is the key to understanding what we describe as contemporary Mussar consciousness. Here Ramchal introduces the very concept, about which he writes:

And the particular sleep draws with it the rule of the powers of Gehenom which stops-up souls and do not allow them to experience the flames of the upper lights (Shechinah) as they are intended – for souls were created for no other purpose than to be empowered by the upper lights.

                Since the true appreciation of the responsibility implicit in the constitution of our cognizance of being is accessible to us through the application of reason, it is the raison d'etre of reason itself, Ramchal suggests a tragic bifurcation at work. Those who have the ability to use reason successfully use it inappropriately. Their use of reason is applied to the theoretical and the unlimited when it should be applied to the practical, life as it really is, and it should be limited by the ethical consciousness it serves. On the other hand, those for whom the use of reason is limited by ability apply it to ethical practice in ways that are entirely inappropriate. This not only leaves the ethical in disrepute, it results in the disappearance of the good from the world of reason.

Truthful, desirable saintliness is far from being conceptualized by us, for it is obvious that a person does not concern him or herself with what does not occupy a place in his or her mind. And though the beginnings and foundations of saintliness are implanted in every person’s heart, if that person does not occupy him or herself with them they will witness details of saintliness without recognizing them and will trespass upon them without feeling or perceiving that they are doing so. For sentiments of saintliness, fear and love of God and purity of heart are not so deeply rooted within a person as to obviate the necessity of that person’s employing certain devices in order to acquire them. In this respect they differ from natural states such as sleep and wakefulness, hunger, satiety, and all other reactions which are stamped on one’s nature, in that various methods and devices are perforce required for their acquisition. There is also no lack of deterrents which keep saintliness at a distance from a person, but then there is no lack of devices by which these deterrents may be held afar. How, then, is it conceivable that it is not necessary to expend a great deal of time upon this study in order to know these truths and the manner in which they may be acquired and fulfilled? How will this wisdom enter a person’s heart if that person will not seek it? And since every person of wisdom recognizes the need for perfection of Divine service and the necessity for its purity and cleanliness, without which it is certainly completely unacceptable, but repulsive and despised – “For God searches all hearts and understands the inclination of all thoughts” (I Chronicles 28:9) – what will we answer in the day of reproof if we weaken in this study and forsake that which is so incumbent on us as to be the very essence of what Adonai our God asks of us? Is it fitting that our intelligence exert itself and labor in speculations which are not binding upon us, in fruitless argumentation, in laws which have no application to us, while we leave to habit and abandon to mechanical observance our great debt to our Creator?

                The very fact that saintliness defines the structure of our consciousness accounts for the difficulty we have in recognizing its importance. It is as though we cannot separate out the fact that we are seeing from the content of what we see. We are always aware of what we see but rarely stop to reflect on the very fact of our seeing. The structure of our consciousness is the responsibility to strengthen the Yetzer HaTov over the Yetzer HaRa but the content of our consciousness, the things "out there" that fill it can obscure this. This is primarily because we do not recognize the material correlate of consciousness. The structures of material life, hunger, thirst, libido etc. are fulfilled directly by the accomplishment of the material things toward which they are driven. However, consciousness is driven by the freedom to choose between two alternatives. Therefore the choice itself is initially satisfying. Whether it is the right choice requires reflection and reflection requires study, the application of reason in its truest sense. If we do not use our intelligence to reflect on our choices it is as though consciousness becomes invisible. We mistake our making any choice for our making the correct choice. However, despite the difficulty in recognizing it, the material correlate of consciousness is the other person, our neighbor. It is not choice itself which satisfies the need for freedom of our consciousness but the choice to obey the obligations for another’s good. This is the choice for the Yetzer HaTov that requires reflection and significant effort.

                It is, therefore, in the very nature of ethical consciousness to be difficult, to require much attention. This must be so by virtue of the nature of consciousness to reside in freedom, that is, in the choice we make between two alternatives rather than its being given in the way our physical needs are given. However, despite the implicit difficulty, or perhaps because of it, we have access to a pre-existent structure of consciousness which informs our own. This consciousness is other than our own, is responsible for our own and, in turn, engenders the debt that our own experiences as it begins to make the choices it must make in order to live. It is to become aware of this informing consciousness of another that requires our attention, reflection and study. Certainly this is a course of study of more value and therefore has priority over one concerned either with laws that have no application to our life or endless speculation about that which we cannot know. And certainly it requires our full attention unmarred by self delusion or false pride.

If we do not look into and analyze the question of what constitutes true fear of God and what its ramifications are, how will we acquire it and how will we escape worldly vanity which renders our hearts forgetful of it? Will it not be forgotten and go lost even though we recognize its necessity? Love of God, too – if we do not make an effort to implant it in our hearts, utilizing all of the means which direct us towards it, how will it exist within us? Whence will enter our soul’s intimacy with ardor towards the Blessed One and towards Torah if we do not give heart to? God’s greatness and majesty which engender this intimacy in our hearts? How will our thoughts be purified if we do not strive to rescue them from imperfections infused in them by physical nature? And all of the character traits, which are in such great need of correction and cultivation –  who will cultivate and correct them if we do not give heart to them and subject them to exacting scrutiny? If we analyzed the matter honestly would we not extract the truth and thereby benefit ourselves, and also be of benefit to others by instructing them in it? As stated by Solomon (Proverbs 2:4) “If you seek it as silver and search for it as treasure, then you will understand the fear of God.” He does not say, “Then you shall understand philosophy; then you will understand medicine; then you will understand legal judgments and decisions.” We see, then, that for fear of God to be understood, it must be sought as silver and searched as treasure. All this is part of our heritage and accepted in substance by every devout individual.

                The two terms that will form the points around which all of Mesillat Yesharim will revolve are introduced in this important paragraph. We approach the heart of the introduction and its task of providing working definitions of the terms we will need to facilitate the Mussar journey. The most general of these definitions, the most far-reaching terms, over-arching concepts engendered by the fact  that consciousness is constituted on the tension between Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa, are Yirat HaShem (fear of God) and Ahavat HaShem (love of God.) These terms are not precisely defined here, for to define them is the motivation of the whole book; however Ramchal describes, as it were, these two terms and their relation to lived experience.

                Therefore, we take note of the terms of his description. We note that both Yirat HaShem and Ahavat HaShem come to us from outside ourselves in so far as we have to “take them into our hearts.” They are quintessentially inter-subjective: they involve us with another. Also, they must be sought; they are susceptible to forgetfulness and, most importantly, from them derive the character traits. It is by working on the character traits, our living out the good toward another that is the expressions of the ethical structure of our experience of the world, that these two more basic states can be approached. It is this relation that justifies and motivates our concern with character: it leads us to a more accurate experience of ourselves, as it were. The rhetorical flourishes of Ramchal’s language create a cascade of questioning where that questioning is entirely directed at the experience of the consciousness constituted of Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa. The force of his questions is directed at the experience of Good and Evil as they provide for our emergence as individuals into the world. We do not find ourselves questioning either our way of knowing, or our way of thinking, but rather how we extend into the world of the other on the basis of Good and Evil. We do not question why we exist or how we know it, but rather how we should “take into our hearts” the intimacy offered us by another in goodness. Similarly, we question how we can protect ourselves from the forgetfulness of this intimacy if we allow ourselves to be ruled by the appearances of life in the natural world. In other words, Ramchal substitutes a series of question designed to uncover the ethical structure of our consciousness in opposition to the questions of classical philosophy and the natural sciences.

                Rather remarkably, Ramchal is explicit about the necessity to engage in this ethical/existential questioning rather than in scientific or philosophical questioning. He quotes the verse from Proverbs which posits the need to search for Yirat HaShem. He underscores the point: it is for Yirat HaShem, and by extension Ahavat HaShem, that we are required to search, that is to apply our reason and the dialectic of questioning, not for the branches of natural science and philosophy. While these pursuits may have their place, it is not the primary place.

Again, is it conceivable that we should find time for all other branches of study and none for this study? Why should a person not at least set aside certain times for this speculation if he or she is obliged in the remainder of their time to turn to other studies or undertakings? Scripture states (Job 28:28) “Hen fear of God – this is wisdom” Our sages of blessed memory comment (Sanhedrin 31b), “’Hen means ‘one,’ for in Greek ‘one’ is designated as ‘Hen’” “We see, then, that fear, and only fear, is accounted wisdom. And there is no doubt that what entails no analysis is not considered wisdom. The truth of the matter is that all of these things require great analysis if they are to be known in truth and not through imagination and deceitful supposition; how much more so if they are to be acquired and attained. One who thinks into these matters will see that saintliness does not hinge upon those things which are put at a premium by the foolishly “saintly,” but upon true perfection and great wisdom. This is what Moses our teacher, may peace be upon him, teaches us in saying (Deut. 10:12) “And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God ask of you, but that you fear Adonai your God to walk in all God’s ways, to love God and serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul, to observe the mitzvoth of Adonai and God’s statutes…” Herein have been included all of the features of perfection of Divine service that are appropriate in relation to the Holy One of Blessing. They are fear of God, walking in God’s ways, love, wholeheartedness, and observance of all of the mitzvoth.

                Yirat HaShem is the working definition of wisdom. We have already seen that both Yirat HaShem and Ahavat HaShem stand in relation to the Yetzer HaRa and Yetzer HaTov. We have tried to describe the tension between these latter two as the constitution of human consciousness. Our consciousness of our consciousness, our consciousness of our relation to the Yetzer HaTov  and Yetzer HaRa is facilitated by Yirat HaShem and Ahavat HaShem. And as we’ve said, these terms describe something which is called into existence in our consciousness from outside, giving us the gift of our own consciousness. This is the function of wisdom in the classical sense. Wisdom is understood as independent of our existence. It is not of being, but otherwise than being. Here, wisdom is understood as the faculty we possess as a gift through which we implement the choices we make between the Yetzer HaRa and the Yetzer HaTov. As the choice between good and evil, that is the ethical, describes the constitution of our consciousness, so the tools with which we make that choice describe our primary stand in the world. This stand is taken as wisdom and the nature of wisdom is described in terms of worship. Worship, far from being restricted to matters of rite, is precisely our effecting of wisdom in the world. As wisdom and worship Yirat HaShem will occupy the bulk of Ramchal’s attention. The importance of Yirat HaShem in our relationship with God and our fulfilling our own nature, our coming into our own humanity, one might say, requires that we spend much energy on its analysis. This is, of course, precisely the case Ramchal is trying to build in the introduction: That these matters require and deserve substantive reflection and analysis. The proof text for this position is particularly interesting in this case. Ramchal quotes the book of Job translating the word hen, which in context means “see” or “behold” following the Rabbis in Sanhedrin who translate it as though it were a Greek word meaning “one” rather than a Hebrew word. That the verse in Job clearly equates Yirat HaShem with wisdom is obvious. For the midrash the question is: “what does the exclamation hen add to the verse?”  It answers by recourse to the fact that hen exists in Greek meaning “one,” which indicates that the one thing and only one thing that is wisdom is Yirat HaShem. It is an ingenious midrash and certainly an appropriate one for Ramchal’s purposes. Yet the invocation of Greek seems calculated to suggest to the reader a reiteration of what Ramchal wrote in the preceding paragraph vis-à-vis the obligation to study Yirat HaShem as opposed to either philosophy or natural science. Moreover, he suggests that Greek wisdom itself realizes that all but Yirat HaShem are secondary pursuits of wisdom. So that Ramchal’s readers who might certainly be attracted by the study of philosophy and natural science are admonished that the pursuit of Yirat HaShem has priority.

                It should by now be clear that the term Yirat HaShem can not simply be translated as “fear of God.”  Rather, Yirat HaShem is wisdom as expressed in worship, a description equally apropos to Torah. The term cannot simply be described as a “fear” in the sense that a slave is afraid of his master. Nor is it any better understood simply as awe, a tactic often taken among contemporary speaker’s of English. Instead, it describes our choices implementing the Yetzer HaTov and therefore our primordial humanity. It makes this commitment to ethics the primary subject of our reflection without disallowing either other subjects of religious life and law or philosophy or natural science.

“Fear of God” denotes fear of the majesty of the Blessed One, fearing God as one would a great and mighty king, and being ashamed at one’s every movement in consequence of God’s greatness, especially speaking before God in prayer or engaging in the study of Torah

                Yet yirah must be interpreted as fear despite what we’ve just said. The element of fear that is legitimate is a fear engendered not by power, arbitrary or not, but by "majesty." What does God's majesty mean? It means God's infinity or what we can call transcendence. It means that relative to God we are powerfully aware of our mortality and its accompanying dependence on satisfying our needs. God's majesty is a reminder of the limited nature of our needs when compared to God's unlimited nature. God's call upon us is unlimited and our desire to do good for our unlimited or infinite beloved causes us to feel ashamed in God's presence when we consider our obsessions with our own needs. The physical sensation is not unlike the fear the slave experiences, but the content of the sensation is entirely different. In particular, when we are engaged in prayer or study, the very acts of worship intended to articulate our obligations to another, and we recognize the extent to which they are concerned with ourselves, we are particularly ashamed.

                “Walking in God’s ways” embodies the whole area of cultivation and correction of character traits. As our Sages of blessed memory have explained, “As God is merciful, be also merciful…” The essence of all this is that a person conform all of his or her traits and all the varieties of his or her actions to what is just and ethical. Our Sages of blessed memory have thus summarized the idea (Avot 2:1) “All that is praiseworthy in its doer and brings praise to him from others;” that is, all that leads to the end of true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and furthering human fraternity.

                Exploring the character traits, understanding them, becoming aware of the impediments to their implementation and implementing them will take up the bulk of Mesillat  Yesharim. Here, in exquisite brief, Ramchal supplies us with their particulars of meaning. We have already said that the character traits are important because they are derivative of Yirat HaShem. Ramchal now examines the inner structure of these traits more closely and in the process defines more clearly for us not only the importance of the traits but the meaning of Yirat HaShem. That definition, if you will, is contained in the phrase “Walking in Gods ways.” This phrase, a classical expression of imatatio dei, suggests the deeply held Jewish idea that our relationship to God is a living relationship rather than what we might call a thinking relationship. It is not speculation on the being of God, or even speculation of how we can speculate about God that claims the attention of Jewish intellectual effort. Rather, it is living in the mode of God as we have experienced in our history, both personal and communal, the mode of God’s living. “Just as God is merciful, be also merciful…” is an expression of our historical consciousness of God’s beneficence in and through nature as well as in and through history. It is also an expression of our own experience of the love and concern of others whose love and concern has brought us to the brink of thought. We think because others have loved us, thus our thinking is beholden to that love. The debt we owe to that love is to be paid in kind: by loving others. Thus: “The essence of all this is that a person conform all of his or her traits and all the varieties of his or her actions to what is just and ethical.”  The very essence that constitutes a person is this conformity to ethics and justice. ‘“That is, all that leads to the end of true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and furthering human fraternity.”’ Here the true good, which is the ethical and the just, becomes almost synonymous with Torah and humanity combined! As we will continue to see, the definition of Torah is not only crucial but highly complex. The implication here is that Torah and the human community are predicated on the implementation of the good, that is, ethical conformity to God’s acts, that is, “walking in God’s ways.”  Ethics precedes Torah, precedes human community, precedes philosophic speculation.

“Love” – that there be implanted in a person’s heart a love for the Blessed One which will arouse his or her soul to do what is pleasing before God, just as his or her heart is aroused to give pleasure to their father and mother. One will be grieved at the lack of this in him or herself or others; they will be jealous for it and rejoice greatly in fulfilling it in any way.

                The second of the two foci of our ethical consciousness is Ahavat HaShem, love of God. Both Ahava and yirah describe the necessary inter-subjectivity of our conscious nesses. Love is, initially, the experience of something outside of us, the love that we receive from those who are mysteriously commanded to care and nurture us, imbues us with the desire to reciprocate this love. We are first the objects of love and then we become the subjects of love, the lovers. As lovers, our love focuses on those closest to us, our parents. However, we discover that our love is only increased by directing it to our parents. It extends to others, our lovers, and is still not satisfied. In fact, we discover that our desire to love is an infinite desire and it can only be directed in the final analysis, toward an infinite beloved, to God. The infinite love for the infinite beloved “commands” us to do that which is pleasing to our beloved. In the case of God, that which is pleasing is the choice of the Yetzer Hatov. Love is the source of commandment. God is only the “commander” in so far as the bond between us and God is enacted via love. First and foremost the mitzvoth are engendered by love.

“Whole-heartedness” – that service before the Blessed One be characterized by purity of motive, that its end be God’s service alone and nothing else. Included in this is that one’s heart be complete in Divine Service, that one interests not be divided, or one’s observance mechanical, but that one’ whole heart be devoted to it.

                Appropriately, this love constitutes “whole-heartedness” in human beings. It enacts the full unity of mind and spirit, or material and immaterial. It is the culmination of consciousness. It is the condition of human perfection and therefore of human joy.

“Observance of all the mitzvoth,” as the words imply, is observance of the whole body of mitzvoth with all of their fine points and conditions.

                It is on the basis of this whole-hearted love that we perceive the importance of the observance of the mitzvoth. Like lover’s who are never satisfied by the exercise of our efforts on behalf of our beloved. We are never satisfied that we have accomplished all that is commanded of us by our infinite love for the Infinite beloved. We are constantly motivated to do more; to do it with greater intensity; to further obligate ourselves; to never be satisfied with the extent of our obligation or our fulfillment of those obligations.

                However, in the debate between the sage and the saint that forms the scaffold for Mesillat Yesharim Aleph, Ramchal has the saint say:

We see from Moses our teacher, may he rest in peace, in what he taught us regarding knowledge and truth – what our obligations are and what is good for us when he said: “What does the Lord your God ask of you? To walk in his ways etc…to observe…etc Behold the principle of observing all the commandments which is all of the laws and every halachic decision that they busy themselves with is only one of the ways mentioned in this verse, however. There are [a total of] four matters mentioned and [the others] are Yirah, Walking in His ways, and Service of the heart…And regarding Walking in His ways our sages explained: “Just as he is compassionate, so you should be compassionate, etc. in that all the middot that are needed to affix in the soul that they really be “in God’s ways.” Which means the ways that he conducts himself with his fellow creatures and there he closes the matter (Moses) to serve “with all his heart and all his soul” this teaches us on the matters of the temptations of the heart the Torah speaks and only afterward mentions the active mitzvot, teaching that the ordering of the obligations of the heart are pre-requisite to the mitzvoth.

                Ramchal clearly distinguishes among the obligations which are required of us on the basis of Torah. Mitzvot constitutes one class of obligations. However, Yirah constitutes another, “walking in His ways” another, etc. The mistake of many among traditional Jews is to concentrate solely on mitzvoth and thereby ignore Yirah and derech HaShem, “walking in God’s path. This narrowing of vision is precisely what Luzzatto and Mussar come to oppose.

All of these principles require extensive interpretation. I have found that our Sages of blessed memory have categorized these elements in a different, more detailed formulation, in which they are arranged according to the order necessary for their proper acquisition. Their words are contained in a beraitha mentioned in different places in the Talmud, one of them, the chapter “Before their festivals” (Avodah Zara 20b): “From this R. Pinchus ben Yair adduced: Torah leads to Watchfulness; Watchfulness leads to Zeal; Zeal leads to Cleanliness; Cleanliness leads to Separation; Separation leads to Purity; Purity leads to Saintliness; Saintliness leads to Humility; Humility leads to Fear of Sin; Fear of Sin leads to Holiness; Holiness leads to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit leads to the Resurrection of the Dead.” It is on the basis of this Beraitha that I have undertaken to write this work, in order to teach myself and remind others of the conditions for perfect Divine service according to their gradations. In relation to each one, I shall explain its nature, its divisions or details, the manner of acquiring it and its deterrents and the manner of guarding against them, so that I and all those who are pleased to do so may read therein in order to learn to fear Adonai our God and not to forget our duty before God. That which earthiness of nature seeks to remove from our hearts, reading and contemplation will summon to our consciousness, and will awaken us to what is incumbent upon us.

May God be with our aspiration and keep our feet from stumbling and may there be fulfilled in us the supplication of the Psalmist, beloved of God (Psalms 86:11) “Teach me, O God, Your ways; I shall walk in Your truth. Make one my heart to fear Your Name.” Amen, so may it be God’s will.

                On this note of near ecstatic love expressing our unremitting sense of obligation for our Infinite lover, Ramchal brings his introduction to a close. He has more than sufficiently impressed upon us the importance of his work and the reasons why we should embrace it with him. He has shown us that it requires the highest application of all our faculties, rational as well as emotional and spiritual. He has cautioned us about how difficult the task is because there is an element in the very constitution of our consciousness which attempts to dissuade us from the task in the form of the Yetzer HaRa, and he has given us a glimpse of the pure joy that awaits us upon the impossible conclusion of our quest, a conclusion that overflows the boundaries of creation and enters into another dimension not bounded by space or time. He has quoted Scripture and Rabbinic sources sufficiently to connect the task he is embarked on to the very core of traditional Jewish learning. He concludes by specifically locating one of what he readily admits are several outlines within the tradition for walking this path of uprightness. That is in the beraitha of Rabbi Pinchus ben Yair found in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zara. Ramchal will use the order of Rabbi Pinchus’ steps along this journey to formulate his understanding of the journey in much more detail than he has so far provided. The real learning, the work of Mussar, is yet to begin. Along with Ramchal we pray that we will be kept from stumbling as we begin the journey with him.

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