Becoming a Better Jew

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?”

18 comments on “Becoming a Better Jew

  1. Mark
    Thanx for the Absolut Focus flavored answers, Absolut Erudite flavored reasonings, and Absolut iridescent flavored insights.Spiritual intoxication is quite the strong hardcore stuff.Now I understand how easy it is to get drunk on Judaism if you mix the right stuff and flavors.

  2. JT

    I’m not sure how Chazal would apply their statement to the homeless beyond despair people you describe. I think the point that the Mesillas Yesharim is making is that we are responsible for our growth and if we don’t show that we assume that responsibility, then growth will not occur.

    As far as each individuals challenges, we don’t know how our unique mitigating circumstances will affect G-d’s judgment. But I think we are obligated to make our best efforts to grow spiritually. What those best efforts are vary from individual to individual, from day to day and year to year. But I think everyone of us has the potential to grow from where we are currently holding. The Mesillas Yesharim can help us actualize that potential.

  3. Regarding that distinctly disconcerting directive “it is forbidden to pity those with no understanding ” it seems like they are goin on the presumptious premise that “understanding” is an equal opportunity emotion that doesn’t discriminate against incoherent individuals sleeping in concrete alcoves ànd slime lined alleyways , autism , and or those that have nicked théir neuronal circuitry systems and or snapped significantly and subsequently spend théir days wandering around in wayward routes conversing with no one in. particular.
    I’m hyperfocusing on that sort of side point cuz I’ve
    noticed a distinct change in the destitute and desperate street corner and alleyway population.which leads mé to believe that its not that difficult to end up there.
    I’m not so sure that self understanding and teshuva would alleviate théir suffering
    Some are beyond incorporating understanding into their daily emotional scheduling. But definitely not beyond pity care and concern.
    In society there’s not much room for error and a plethora of rickety cracks to fall into. And mussar really doesn’t break or soften those falls into crackdom. If mussar and neuroscience had a better relationship, there would be less individuals self “understanding” less, penniless, ànd religion less, and ór àimless , falling swiftly and noiselessly between the cracks towards apathy, atheism , whoredom, banalism ,nomadic notions and pathetic potions for purpose pruning and fabricating.

    And there are so many learning disabilities that make many of the messilas yesharims directives difficult or is someone with sequential thought processing issues goin to plan measure structure and do other future related activities and reasonings? The first step will trip them up.

    How is someone with poor impulse control issues goin to think before sleepin around , before talking , before anything ? So the few times the person manages to overcome his shortcomings that’s what gd is looking for? So he created the shortcomings so that the person should work hard overcoming them which he mostly can’t if they are chemical imbalances. Ór did he create medicine and neuroscience to medicate the shortcomings away.I don’t think I will ever understand the difference between cheating on shortcoming fixing and using what Gd created to fix them.why would he want àdderall fixing a charachter trait over the individual working hard to fix it.if we could tweak the way our brain functions , thinks,feels, trusts, believes and loves that kind of stuff gets tricky on a predestination versus free will level. And many other levels including why work hard with mussar techniques when stuff could be fixed manually.
    Does gd want mussar musing ór medicine.

  4. Since we’re talking here about continuous improvement, let me correct the above; I remember now that it was a framed certificate, not a plaque.

  5. This reminds me of my own adventures in becoming a Six Sigma “green belt” at my former company. My project was to find the most effective, profitable way to get alloy scrap from our manufacturing processes off our hands.

    Although our project team went through all the formal “DMAIC” steps, we could find hardly any numerical statistics to analyze! We did show the plan could make money.

    Practically, it worked out well, as we secured a solid nationwide contract with a recycling company that picked up, assayed, and paid for scrap from our division’s plants. Many skids of scrap in drums hoarded in our main warehouse finally went bye-bye.

    They gave me a plaque to mark my becoming a “green belt”. This was not exactly a quality plaque, as one word in the company’s own name was misspelled. I called this to their resident quality guru’s attention, but he did nothing about it! Oh, well.

  6. Bob,

    Six Sigma is being applied to many fields including software development. The focus is on measurement: what can be measured, how can we measure it, how accurate are the measurements.

    Not all the measurements being used in Six Sigma implementations are objective.

    The Ramchal stresses the extreme importance of measurement. It is in this focus on measurement where I find the analogy to Six Sigma.

  7. Mark,

    Six Sigma emphasizes statistical analysis and interpretation of quantitative data relating to product quality and efforts to improve it.

    In the measurement part of Ramchal’s program, do you see any analogue to this stress on objectively measurable statistics?

  8. JT,

    Neurochemical attention issues are definitely more acute, but the entire population suffers from lack of concentration and focusing ability. The halacha explicitly recognizes this, specifically in relation to the required kavannas during davening.

    Nonetheless to whatever degree we can focus, we will benefit. It’s not an all or nothing deal.

    The Mesillas Yesharim is teaching us three fundamental lessons:
    1) Focus on outcome
    2) Make a concerted effort to reach that outcome
    3) Measure your progress and success

    David Allen, author of Getting Things Done mentions the first two steps as part of the natural planning model (he doesn’t quote the Ramchal).

    The Ramchal emphasizes step 3 – measurement, as we will see in the next chapter.

    The corporate productivity world has greatly emphasized measurement in the past 10 years through initiatives like Six Sigma, Corporate Scorecards and other Business Intelligence initiatives.

    It’s interesting to note that the personal growth field (Steven Covey, David Allen, etc) does not emphasize measurement, but I think that will change in the next few years.

    As in many things in Torah thought, the Ramchal elucidated the structure necessary to bring about positive change – a goal I think we’re all looking for. We have to keep on working on it and realize that changing habits and becoming better focused is a process that takes time.

  9. 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?”

    This teaching in the Gemora is learned from Isaih 27:11 where it says, “For it is not a people of understanding; therefore its Maker shall not have compassion on it”

    The Radak there explains that when the Jewish People don’t take steps towards Teshuva to alleviate there suffering, G-d won’t remove it, because the sole purpose of the suffering is to motivate Teshuva.

    Similarly, one should not have compassion on someone who denies that his suffering is meant to stir him towards Teshuva.

    The Margaliyos HaYam explains that the intent of “It is forbidden to pity anyone who has no understanding,” is that one must not submit to the entreaties of a fool who does not realize that what he seeks is detrimental to him.

    Many thanks to the Art Scroll elucidation of the Gemora for making the above explanations so accessible.

  10. This blog article describes a good book that relates to this “daily self-examination” in detail, and is also fun to read:

    A well-known Rabbi once told me he was drawn to Breslov by its combination of Chassidus and Mussar.

  11. Why would it be “forbidden to pity someone that has no understanding”. Ever notice how those people begging in the streets nowadays especially in NYC are not your typical vagrants and vagabonds. Sometimes even basic daily existence , forget about spiritual long term planning revolves around a piece of concrete and a cup. Yeah sometimes that elusive “understanding” is not a universally applicable or obtainable emotion.
    Not sure why pity is not allowed.

    And the inability to do the watchfulness thing or poor impulse control is sometimes or many times a simple chemical imbalance.Many emotional shortcomings are directly related to different parts of the brain, chemical activity and or a lack thereof. Do mussar and neuroscience ever collaborate on stuff.
    That would definitely be a mutually beneficial partnership.
    Sometimes learning mussar every day will not fix stuff.
    It may frame the day differently but the picture stays the same.

  12. “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.”

    This is a battle I (and probably many others) am very familiar with—a feeling of chaos and unrelenting demands that prevent depth of thought. At this point in my life I can’t even imagine how to break out of this cycle and force regular daily self-examination, although it is one of my long-term goals.
    B”H, our calendar cycle provides ready-made times for introspection, such as fast days, Elul, and the Aseres Y’mai Teshuva.

  13. Thanks for the comments Neil. I agree with your assessment that people don’t like to be told what they’re doing is wrong.

    Your point about steps is also well taken, and it’s interesting that the Ramchal is actually laying out the path in steps. The problem is that some/many/most of us find ourselves struggling to make progress on the lower steps.

  14. Mark: I understand completely what you meant about ‘all Jews’.

    – Do you think that Mussar is avoided by some/many/most people? I think it’s avoided by many.

    -Why is that? I know that I have trouble being told that what I’m doing is wrong. Also there is a feeling that it’s “all or nothing” at times in Torah Judaism and people need to do things in steps.

    – Are the steps to becoming a better Jew included in the path of becoming a pious Jew? By pious, I’m guessing you mean more observant. I would hope that there is some personal grown that goes with taking on a higher level of observance. That is not always the case, though.

    – Do most people want to become better Jews? Yes. For those not-yet-observant, I say they are into social justice and charity.

    -Is a plan needed to achieve this goal? Sure, just read “If You Were God” by R Aryeh Kaplan

    — What key message(s) do you take away from Chapter 2? I’d say watch what you do, what you think, and what you say. R Berl Wein use to say (so I’ve heard on tapes) that one must ask, “Is this what Hashem wants from me right now?”

  15. Although Bob graciously let me off the hook, I was including the non-observant in my statement that most people I’ve met want to become better Jews. Of course they may have a more selective definition of what it means to be a better Jew (e.g. a primary focus on mitzvos between man and his fellow, with less emphasis on those between man and G-d).

    In any case, the point I was trying to make in the original post was, that if you want to become a better Jew, the Mesillas Yesharim gives you the understanding, techniques and potential pitfalls when pursuing this path.

    As an aside, Rabbi Schwartz in his mp3 shmooze on the sefer said he preferred the translation of Path of the Straight rather than the usual translation of Path of the Just.

  16. Mark said , “Do you think most Jews don’t want to become better Jews?”

    Statistics seem to show that many more Jews are rapidly or slowly assimilating out than are becoming BT’s. This may say nothing about the inner wants of their neshamos but says a lot about their conscious choices.

    FFB’s, for now, are a minority, although a sizeable one. One can assume that most FFB’s want to improve, despite what some evil bloggers have been saying.

  17. Bob, good question. Based on my personal experience, most people either explicitly or implicitly have shown a desire to be better Jews. People can express their thoughts in more ways then explicit verbal declarations.

    Do you think most Jews don’t want to become better Jews?

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