For some of us, learning Mesillas Yesharim can a be a challenge. The Ramchal is talking about reaching very high levels of Piety and Kedushah, and many of us feel we’re not in a position to reach those levels. We’re focused on consolidating the progress we’ve already made. We might get discouraged and say that learning Mesillas Yesharim is not for us.
But if we take a closer look, we’ll see that the Ramchal is also teaching us how to become better Jews. Almost every person I’ve met, whether observant or not, wants to be a better Jew. The process of becoming a better Jew involves integrating to some degree, the love and performance of Chesed, Torah and Mitzvos into our lives. This integration is not a simple process, and the Ramchal teaches how to make this a reality.
In the beginning chapters of the Mesillas Yesharim, the Ramchal teaches us the structure. We have to focus on outcome, implement the proper actions and processes to reach that outcome, and measure and assess our progress. In recent years both the personal growth and corporate excellence fields have come to the same conclusion, that outcome focusing, process re-engineering, and measurement are the keys to growth. Although the Ramchal gets his ideas straight from Torah, seeing that non-Torah sources come to similiar conclusions may give us a little more motivation to learn, understand, review, and implement the Ramchal’s teachings.
In chapter 2, the opening chapter on the trait of watchfulness, the Ramchal teaches us to be deliberate in our actions. On a day-to-day basis we should strive to live a life by design and not by default. As human beings, we have the intelligence and capability to live a life of doing what’s right and becoming better Jews. It would be foolish not to take advantage of these capabilities to become better people.
Here are a few questions for discussion in the comments.
– Do you think that Mussar is avoided by some/many/most people? Why is that?
– Are the steps to becoming a better Jew included in the path of becoming a pious Jew?
– Do most people want to become better Jews? Is a plan needed to achieve this goal?
– What key message(s) do you take away from Chapter 2?
Below is Chapter 2, Concerning The Trait Of Watchfulness, from the R’ Shraga Silverstein’s translation and posted here through the genrosity of Feldheim Publishers. Our learning is in memory of Sarah Bas Reb Eliezer Kops.
Concerning The Trait Of Watchfulness
The idea Of Watchfulness is for a man to exercise caution in his actions and his undertakings; that is, to deliberate and watch over his actions and his accustomed ways to determine whether or not they are good, so as not to abandon his soul to the danger of destruction, God forbid, and not to walk according to the promptings of habit as a blind man in pitch darkness. This is demanded by one’s intelligence. For considering the fact that a man possesses the knowledge and the reasoning ability to save himself and to flee from the destruction of his soul, is it conceivable that he would willingly blind himself to his own salvation? There is certainly no degradation and foolishness worse than this. One who does this is lower than beasts and wild animals, whose nature it is to protect themselves, to flee and to run away from anything that seems to endanger them. One who walks this world without considering whether his way of life is good or bad is like a blind man walking along the seashore, who is in very great danger, and whose chances of being lost are far greater than those of his being saved. For there is no difference between natural blindness and self-inflicted blindness, the shutting of one’s eyes as an act of will and desire.
Jeremiah complains about the evil of the men of his generation, about their being affected with this affliction, the blinding of their eyes to their actions, their failure to analyze them in order to determine whether they should be engaged in or abandoned. He says about these men (Jeremiah 8:6), “No one regrets his wrongdoing, saying… They all turn away in their course as a horse rushing headlong into battle.” He alludes here to their running on the impetus of their habits and their ways without leaving themselves time to evaluate their actions and ways,, and, as a result, falling into evil without noticing it. In reality, this is one of the clever devices of the evil inclination – to mount pressure unrelentingly against the hearts of men so as to leave them no leisure to consider and observe the type of life they are leading. For it realizes that if they were to devote even a slight degree of attention to their ways, there is no question but that they would immediately begin to repent of their deeds and that regret would wax in them until they would leave oft sinning altogether. It is this consideration which underlay the counsel of the wicked Pharaoh in his statement (Exodus 5:9), “Intensify the men’s labors…” His intention was not merely to deprive them of all leisure so that they would not come to oppose him or plot against him, but he strove to strip their hearts of all thought by means of the enduring, interminable nature of their labor.
This is precisely the device that the evil inclination employs against man; for it is a warrior and well versed in deception. One cannot escape it without great wisdom and a broad outlook. As we are exhorted by the Prophet (Haggai 1:7), “Give heed to your ways.” And as Solomon in his wisdom said (Proverbs 6:4), “Give neither sleep to your eyes nor slumber to your eyelids. Rescue yourself as a deer from the hand…” And as our Sages of blessed memory said (Sotah 5b), “All who deliberate upon their paths in this world will be worthy to witness the salvation wrought by the Holy One Blessed be He.” Clearly even if one superintends himself, it is not within his power to save himself without the help of the Holy One Blessed be He. For the evil inclination is extremely tenacious, as Scripture states (Psalms 37:32), “The wicked one looks to the righteous and seeks to kill him; God will not leave him…” If a man looks to himself, the Holy One Blessed be He helps him, and he is saved from the evil inclination. But if he gives no heed to himself, the Holy One Blessed be He will certainly not superintend him; for if he does not pity himself, who should pity him? This is as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Berachoth 33a), “It is forbidden to pity anyone who has no understanding,” and (Avoth 1:14), “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”