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Introduction to Messilat Yesharim Print E-mail

Mesilat YesharimTranscribed and prepared by Slavie Friedman: I would like to review some of the things we have talked about. In the first paragraph, he states the basic concept which is that he is not here to teach people things they don’t know but things they already know. That’s point number one. I believe the reason that he wrote that is because he really felt that he had a mission. The mission was that in the general Jewish community, the emphasis was on learning, learning, learning and observing everything that it was you were learning. You measured someone on how much the person knew and how well the person was able to learn.

But you had small groups of people who were called at that time Chassidim. This was a little earlier than the Baal Shem Tov’s time. They were people who would spend their time studying philosophy, studying the mitzvot, and spending more time in tefilla then in learning. They were spending less time learning halacha and gemara and teshuvos etc, and spending more time discussing and learning how to improve their character. It was a major debate in the Jewish community because there were those that said that these Chassidim were wasting their time. They said, “What are you going to tell us that’s new? It’s all stuff that we know and it’s all stuff that you have in the gemara anyway because if you’re going to quote sources for your hashkafa, it’s all going to be from the Talmud or Midrash. This is all information that we are studying. So what are you accomplishing by emphasizing this?”

There’s one possuk in which Moshe summarizes what Hashem demands from us and he said, “Now, the Jewish people, what is it that God asks from you.” It’s clear that what Moshe is doing is summarizing the basic demands that God has of the Jewish people. He begins by saying, “Accept to be in awe of Him, to love God, to attach ourselves to Him and to guard His ways.” Luzzatto says guarding His ways, if you notice in that possuk, is number four. There are certain things that have to happen first. You have to have awe, love, copying the ways of God and then you have learning torah. He said, 'There are certain prerequisites that are necessary for the study of torah. That’s really what we, who you are calling the chassidim or whatever name you want to give us, that’s what we are doing. We are emphasizing the three stages that are necessary before studying the torah, not the exclusion of studying the torah.’ So what he is doing here is saying, ‘Of course I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know. Of course you know that it’s important to observe the mitzvot and to fear God and love God and copy His ways. But how do you do it?’ And that’s what the point of this book is. That’s number one.

Number two is, he is going to describe certain basic ideas in the book that when you hear them, they are clear, logical and unequivocal. For example, and we’ll get to this when we get to the second chapter, Zehirut, watchfulness. If you have the worlds greatest doctor who would say to you that all you have to do is XYZ and if you do them, nothing bad will happen to you. If you say forget it- you would be an idiot. If you are a sight person, a person who can see, and you are about to walk near a cliff, and you say, ‘you know what, I would like to wear a blindfold here,‘ you would be an idiot. In fact, Luzzatto compares such a person to less than an animal, because an animal at least possesses the common sense to protect itself from anything that will cause it danger. If the torah tells you watch yourself on something and if you don’t watch yourself on it, you are going to self destruct, you are going to destroy yourself spiritually. It will be walking off a spiritual cliff if you do these things or if you don’t do these things. How could you not do them? How could you not listen to what it says? Even if you don’t understand all the implications, but understand there’s a certain basic truth, how could you not do it?

What do you have to do? He’s saying that he set out a program for you. Every single action, before you do it, think about what you are going to do. Does it fit into the torah’s definition of good or not good? If it does, do it and if it doesn’t, don’t. Simple, isn’t it? How many of us are capable of doing it? What you do is that you have a book here that presents itself as a system that develops in a logical order. This watchfulness leads to zealousness. Zealousness leads to this. Here you are in the second chapter of watchfulness and you are telling me that this is what I have to do,  then I might as well close the book and not go on because there is no way I’m ever going to reach zealousness because there is no way I could ever keep watchfulness. I would think that anyone who could achieve this level of watchfulness would be the world’s greatest tzaddik, the most incredible human being, but it’s certainly not me. I might as well not read.

What he wants to do is say, Listen. There is no area in torah in which that doesn’t happen. Whether you look at it in terms of  your personal growth or whether you look at it in terms of doing a mitzva. You read about the Chofetz Chaim. You realized that the Chofetz Chaim probably never spoke a word of lashon hara. So you say, Okay, I’m know I’m  not supposed to speak lashon hara, it makes sense, there are so many mitzvot tied into with every word that I speak. I just shouldn’t speak lashon hara. I know that I’m bound to slip up once in awhile. So forget it. It’s going to happen with any mitzva. For example,  I davened with Shlomo Carlbach so I know what it’s like to daven. Today it felt like it. But I suspect that in the next day or two, I’m not going to feel like davening with the same intensity that I’m davening right now. It’s possible that it will happen, right? We look at it, we get frustrated and then we don’t demand anything from ourselves because we don’t like that feeling of frustration.

Luzzatto says in the hakdama that this isn’t a book that you read once and forget about it, or that you can take everything you need from it by reading it once. Derech Hashem you can. If you study Derech Hashem once, you’ll have the basic framework to understand all of Jewish philosophy. If you hear any concept, you will know where to plug it in, if the concept is true. That is absolutely true of Derech Hashem. I think anyone who went through from beginning to end, will find that that’s true. It’s consistent, it’s broad, and it’s thorough. Mesilat Yesharim, if you learn it once, forget it. The whole point of Mesilat Yesharim is that you read it once and you practice a little bit. Then you do it again and slowly but surely, you work on yourself to grow in the things that are there. It is possible for a 1% watchfulness to lead to a 1% zealousness. You don’t have to be at 100% watchfulness to reach 100% of zealousness. The idea of this book is if you study it once, and you see that it’s true, and you see that it makes sense, you see that it’s effective and you feel that it’s speaking to your heart, and you hear what it’s saying to you, then you should take it and read it over and over. It will inevitably have an impact on your behavior. That’s the first paragraph.

Then he points out the foolishness of the way we live on how little time we spend thinking about our service of God. We think about, well, should I do this on shabbos or not, do I have to make this bracha or that bracha. It’s astonishing when we reflect on what level we are serving Hashem. The purpose of this book is to make sure that we are spending the appropriate amount of time on the matter which is most important. Therefore chassidut is something that has to be achieved. It has to come from torah and it has to come from the chachamim. That really is what the chachamim are teaching us.

Basically, the system that he is going to follow in the book, is from Rav Pinchas ben Yair, who said that the study of torah brings to zehirut, watchfulness. He’ll make this very clear of why you have to study torah in order to have zehirut. It’s impossible without it. It’s astonishing to think about why that is.  I can design an incredible self help system not based on torah. If I would tell anyone here, ‘Before you do something, think about whether it’s productive or not’, won’t it change a person’s life if he would practice that? ‘Think about every word you are going to say before you say it.’ It would have a fantastic effect. The person would change. He’s really going to have to convince me that in order to achieve zehirut, I’m going to need torah. Remember, there is only one chapter before the chapter of zehirut, and that chapter is ‘A person’s obligation in his world’. What is he telling you what torah is? It’s your obligation in your world.

He sets the format for the  book that he’s going to follow the pattern of Rav Pinchas ben Yair. Torah leads to Watchfulness, Watchfulness will lead to Zeal, Zeal to Cleanliness, Cleanliness to Separation, Separation to Purity, Purity to Saintliness, Saintliness to Humility, Humility to Fear of Sin, Fear of Sin to Holiness, Holiness to Ruach Hakodesh, Ruach Hakodesh lead to Resurrection of the Dead.  That was the hakdama. The main point of the hakdama is telling us that the purpose of the book is not the study of torah. The purpose of the book is to learn how to serve God. It’s called ‘Yesharim’ because it’s a very direct path. Yashar- straight. You’ll be clearly focused on what you have to accomplish.

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