Perfection as a Torah Value – Mesillas Yesharim Continued

I received an email yesterday morning which made me feel so proud to be a member of the Torah Observant community. I had written to R’ Yaakov Feldheim of Feldheim Publishers telling him about Beyond BT and asking for permission to post the English translation of Mesillas Yesharim, as we learn it here together. Yesterday morning R’ Feldheim replied, permitted us to use either the older translation by R’ Shraga Silverstein or the newer one by R’ Yosef Leiber.

We will be using the newer translation by R’ Leiber and I want to thank R’ Feldheim and Feldheim Publishers for joining with us on this learning effort in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops. If you don’t already own a copy of the translation, consider taking the opportunity to purchase one.

Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner zt’l used to tell a story about a student of his who was no longer focused on growing in his Yiddishkeit. His argument was that as a Shomer Shabbos Jew he was already more observant than 90% of the Jewish population. He reasoned: when they catch up, then he’ll work on growing more.

Right in the introduction to Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal makes it clear that “the need for the perfection of Divine service and the necessity of its purity and cleanliness is recognized by every wise person”. This is an axiom, we need to strive for perfection, even though it is a never ending battle. Where we stand in relation to our neighbor is unimportant, we need to strive for our own unique perfection.

But there is a difference between being perfect and striving for perfection. Hashem doesn’t ask us to be perfect, just to strive for perfection. The path is a step by step process, which the Mesillas Yesharim lays out for us, quoting the Torah sources along the way. He also alerts us to the major obstacles on the path to perfection as well as providing thoughts and techniques to help overcome them.

But the first step is to recognize that striving for perfection in the service of Hashem is what life is about. It is only by recognizing this and constanly studing the means and mechanisms to approach this that we have any hope of making significant progess on the path. That is one of the messages the Ramchal is trying to convey in his introduction.

The first half of the introduction as translated by R’ Leiber follows:

Author’s Introduction

The writer says: I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand. For within most of my words you will find general rules that most people know with certainty. However, to the degree that these rules are well-known and their truth self-evident, they are routinely overlooked, or people forget about them altogether.

Therefore, the benefit to be obtained from this work cannot be derived from a single reading; for it is possible that, after just one reading, the reader will find that he has learned little that he did not know before. Rather, its benefit is a function of continuous review. In this manner, one is reminded of those things which, by nature, people are prone to forget, and he will take to heart the duty that he tends to overlook.

Almost everywhere you look in the world today, you find that the majority of the bright and clever people are devoting their thinking and investigations to a profound analysis of worldly knowledge and its subtleties, each according to his intellectual capabilities and natural inclinations. There are some who focus their efforts on the study of the physical world and the laws of nature. Others immerse themselves in astronomy and geometry, and some follow the path of technological applications. And there are also those who have entered the realm of the sacred and are studying the holy Torah; some occupying themselves with the theoretical aspects of the Halachah, others with Midrash, yet others with the practical formulation of legal decisions.

However, there are few from this last group who choose to devote thought and study to the total perfection of the Divine service: to the love of the Eternal, the fear of the Eternal, the cleaving to the Eternal, and to all of the other aspects of piety. It is not as if they consider these aspects of knowledge unessential. For, if questioned, every one of them will maintain that these are of paramount importance, and that one cannot envision a truly wise person who has not comprehended all of these issues. Rather, their failure to devote more attention to the matter stems from its being so clear and so obvious to them that they see no need for investing much time in its study.

Consequently, the study of this subject and the reading of works of this kind have become the province of those whose minds lack subtlety and who are mentally sluggish. These you will see riveted to the study of piety, and this has given rise to the prevalent idea that anyone striving for piety is suspected of being dull-witted.

The result of this attitude, however, is detrimental both for those who possess wisdom and for those who do not, since it leaves both deficient in true piety and makes this quality extremely rare. Those who possess wisdom are deficient in piety due to their limited study of it, while the uneducated find it beyond their grasp. Piety, therefore, is construed by people to consist of the reciting of many psalms, making very long confessions, undertaking difficult fasts and performing ablutions in ice and snow, all of which are incompatible with intellect and reason. In the process, true piety, which we desire and strive for, eludes our understanding. For it is obvious that something which does not occupy a place in a person’s mind becomes of no concern to him. And although the beginnings and foundations of piety are inbred in the heart of every truthful person, if he does not utilize them he will lose the ability to discern their details, and he will pass over them without awareness.

For piety, fear of the Eternal, love of the Eternal, and purity of heart are not that deeply rooted within a person not to necessitate the employment of methods for their acquisition. In this respect they differ from natural states such as sleep and wakefulness, hunger and satiety, and all other natural instincts. Rather, the acquisition of these [qualities] definitely requires various methods and devices. Furthermore, while there are many factors operating to distance piety from man there are many elements that can counter these factors. Could it, then, conceivably, not be necessary to expend a great deal of time upon this study in order to know these truths and the means to acquire and keep them? How will this wisdom enter a person’s heart if he will not seek it?

Since the need for the perfection of Divine service and the necessity of its purity and cleanliness is recognized by every wise person (for without these it [the Divine Service] is certainly totally unacceptable, but rather repulsive and despised; “For the Eternal searches all hearts and understands all the workings of [our] thoughts” (Divrei HaYamim 128:9)), what, then, will we answer on the day of rebuke if we are lax in this study and forsake what we are required to do? This is the very essence of what the Eternal our God asks of us! Is it befitting our intelligence that we exert ourselves and labor in speculations concerning which we have no obligation, in fruitless debates and empty pilpul, and in laws that are not applicable to us, while the great obligation that we owe our Creator we abandon to habit and rote?

If we have neither contemplated nor studied what true fear of Heaven is or what its ramifications are, how will we acquire it, and how will we escape from the vanity of the world that renders our hearts forgetful? Surely it will fade away and be forgotten even though we recognize its necessity. And likewise, love of the Eternal: if we do not make an effort to anchor it within our hearts, with the power of all those means that lead us toward it, how will it exist within us? How will devotion and ardor for the Blessed One and His Torah enter into our souls if we do not direct ourselves toward His greatness and exaltedness, [thereby] internalizing it within our hearts? How will our thoughts be purified if we do not try to cleanse them from the blemishes infused in them by physical nature? Much the same can also be said about all the character traits, which need improvement and adjustment. Who will adjust them and who will correct them, with all the necessary rigor, if not us?

4 comments on “Perfection as a Torah Value – Mesillas Yesharim Continued

  1. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin makes a distinction between striving for perfection and striving for excellence.
    What he says, as I understand it is that there is a difference between aiming high and attempting to dot every i and cross every t. The former encourages growth, the latter is more likely to create a stumbling block.

  2. Mark, is there any way you could use bold or italic to distinguish between the translation and your own personal comments? And, I encourage you to make personal comments!

  3. JT, If we differentiate between being perfect and striving for perfection, we’ll see that the lesson is universally applicable.

    To use a Mirian Adahan metaphor we have to grow where we’re planted, just like the petunia and the zinnia.

    And the goal we are working towards is perfect service of Hashem. It starts with learning Torah – to know what we’re supposed to be doing, and proceeds to be watchful and being enthusiastic.

    G-d willing we’ll be learning about the path here and we’ll see that striving for perfection is within the reach of every Jew who has an obligation to follow the Torah.

  4. An irridescently èrudite and definitely brilliant blackberry read.
    Perfect for morning and evening commute.
    I’m not so sure this striving for perfection thing is a universally applicable wishful thinking thing.
    Are spent blooms and wilted beyond belief flowers supposed to be striving for perfection. Wouldn’t it be clear perfection or even growth is near impossible considering the state of the flower and general muddy patch stifling the growth thing.
    Have you ever tried replanting a snipped petunia or fading zinnia.

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