Mesilat Yesharim

Author: Esther Ehrman, Heshvan 5773/November 2012

How to serve the Lord according to the Ramchal in Mesilat Yesharim

The 18th century in Europe is generally associated with the Age of Enlightenment, the age of reason. It is not until the 19th century that the cultural/philosophical pendulum swings towards the non rational, the mystic and affective perspective on life. Jewish thought and writing of the time largely echo the current culture, with Moses Mendelssohn seen as the champion of Jewish Enlishtenment and figures like the Baal Shem Tov inspiring the Chassidic mindset. Chaim Moshe Luzzatto (1707-1746) seems to bridge both trends. Living, as he did, in the University city of Padua, Italy, he could not have been oblivious of the influence of the Enlightenment, yet in many of his writings he is a professed Kabbalist. It is fascinating to see the traces of contemporary culture in his work, Mesilat Yesharim, 'The Path of the Just'. The RaMChaL, as he is known, (Rabbi CHaim Moshe Luzzatto), here writes a guide for the Jew who wishes to serve G-d, to become a Tzaddik, a righteous or just person. Whereas Biblical commentators had analysed the Divine commandments as they teach us how society and the individual should conduct themselves, the Ramchal is looking at human behaviour that is required in order to know how to view the mitzvot (commandments) so that we may properly fulfil them. His guide is grounded in the Bible, the Talmud and Midrash, from which he gives many examples of role models and sayings. If we wish to conform to the standard set by these, we need to be aware of our shortcomings and to be willing to work tirelessly to improve ourselves, - a teaching that was later to be given great emphasis in the Mussar movement. An example of a topic discussed in 'Mesilat Yesharim' will illustrate the Ramchal's approach.

In Chapters 6 -9, the subject is zerizut, the zeal or alacrity that is essential in serving G-d. Sometimes, the Ramchal will stress the role of the heart, sometimes he will address the intelligent reader and show how the mind can create control of one's behaviour. The Kabbalistic approach is not articulated, but it is there in the presentation.

Chapter 6 defines zerizut as 'the swiftness of one's approach to a mitzvah and its speeedy consummation' and describes the serious consequences of a lack of zerizut . Man's earthy (literally, i.e. made from dust) nature means the he is lazy and 'not at all enthusiastic about effort and work'...'He needs to overcome his own nature;...'A person needs great strength to transform his nature so completely'. If that is not done, the situation is bound to become damaging. As the Book of Proverbs (24,v.30ff) tells: 'I passed by the field of an indolent person and the vineyard of an unintelligent person and it was overgrown with thorns, its surface was covered with thistles...' The Ramchal points out that the Midrash takes this passage and applies it to Torah learning. ' Because he has not toiled over [the words of the Torah], he sits [in judgment] and declares the pure to be impure and the impure to be pure, thereby undermining the enactments of Torah scholars'. Laziness, thus, can lead to perversion of Torah. It interesting to note that, in Kabbalistic thinking, man's character is related to the four basic elements of air, fire, earth and water. The laziness of man is due to his earthy nature; earth is heavy and pulls one down.

We also need to be aware, the Ramchal continues, how this works in life. The indolent person will rationalise his behaviour, 'it is too hot, too cold, rainy etc., as reasons for not attending to a mitzva, which is accompanied by a certain arrogance in believing that one is all right – and then, again, lacking knowledge, perverting the teaching of the Torah. Moreover, the Bible praises angels and people for their speedy fulfilment of mitzvot. Zerizut is a positive virtue, essential to a Jew.

In Chapter 7, the Ramchal analyses the virtue of zerizut; it has two elements: the speedy fulfilment and completing the mitzva. Here, too, the models are taken from the Biblical narrative:King David tells his officer Benayahu to take Solomon down to the river Gihon to be crowned king( 1 Kings, 1,33); David is showing his concern for immediacy, having told Bath Sheva that he would see to the matter 'this day' (v.30). Likewise, Solomon is praised in the Midrash for his speedy building of the Temple, as is Moses for the same concern in the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Indeed, a saying in Tractate Berakhot (6B) tells us that 'one should always run to perform a mitzvah, even on Shabbat', - the Gemara there contrasts this to leaving the Synagogue on Shabbat, always 'with small steps'. Equally vital is the concern for completing a mitzvah. The Ramchal chooses a highly dramatic great saying from the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, 85,3) to make his point: 'He who commences a mitzvah and does not complete it will bury his wife and children'. One explanation is that if we do not give to the Almighty all that is His due, we, and ours, will also lose part of what we could have had. Another explanation is that a wife and children that G-d gives complete a man. That completeness will be curtailed if we fail to complete what is due. A mitzvah is ascribed to the one who completes it (ibid). This must be done speedily, in case something comes to prevent it. Therefore, says the Ramchal, of the person who wishes to serve his Creator' his movement will be as rapid as fire for he will neither rest nor be silent until the matter is brought to completion'. The association of fire with the speedy action is seen as assuming that the element of fire is the cure for the element of earth - laziness; earth is heavy and pulls down; fire is light and rises.

Most important, as the Ramchal stresses both at the beginning and at the end of the chapter, is that the zerizut comes from the heart and is not the result of wanting to be rid of a burden. However, a person to whom this does not come naturally can work at it; 'the external movement will stimulate the inner one', 'to know G-d, one needs to pursue knowledge'; such a person will then attain simcha penimit, inner joy (Hosea 6,3). The aim of that pursuit is to rouse the heart.

Chapter 8 follows up on the idea that zerizut may need to be deliberately acquired. Motivation is essential. The Ramchal teaches that the best motivation is an awareness and appreciation of the great good that the Lord bestows on us. The thinkers of the Enlightenment had used the wonders of nature as an argument for the existence of G-d, and the counter argument had stated that a person who was in some way disabled might not be capable of such awareness. The Ramchal does not fall into that trap. The rich and healthy appreciate what they have; the poor man appreciates that 'the Eternal, miraculously and wondrously, does not allow him to die of hunger'; the sick person, likewise, appreciates the strength to live that G-d grants him. Our desire to show appreciation will fuel the zerisut. Not every person will be motivated in the same way. The Ramchal believes that there are three categories to be considered:

1. the wise who gain an intellectual awareness of the value and importance of the mitzvot;

2. the less wise, who look to the world to come and consider their merit or lack of merit there;

3. the masses, who are motivated by their concern for reward and punishment in this world.

It is interesting to recall that Maimonides, in the 12th century (Mishne Torah, Bk1, ch.10), had similarly categorised the motivation for learning Torah into those who do so out of love for the Torah and those who have not reached to that stage, who should be taught to heed reward and fear. A teacher may use sweets and punishment when children are young until they have the understanding and ability to appreciate real values.

In Chapter 9, The Ramchal returns to the subject of what may undermine our zerizut anad discusses how to counter this. The Ramchal's approach here is largely intellectual.. Intellectual awareness of our inherent indolence, the need to learn control are essential. We should know that we are here on earth to toil, 'Man is born to labour' (Job 5,7) and we should realise that practise makes things easier. Another impediment is fear. An indolent person will say 'a lion is on the road' (Proverbs 26,13). Fear is associated with sin, but, says the Ramchal, there is stupid, uncalled for fear and there is intelligent fear. G-d gave fear to man to enable him to keep away from harm. We need to have the intelligence (sechel) to distinguish between these fears. 'There is trusting in the Eternal and there is recklessness' and we have an obligation to take care of ourselves. Awareness of the problem and the practice of zerizut will show to the intelligent mind (navon) the truth of the matter.

The Ramchal has clearly crafted his exposition of zerizut so that it convinces a variety of readers. His use of Biblical and related texts is not an embellishment of his arguments, but forms part of the argument and will appeal to the learned person; his stress on the role of the rational mind in the control of behaviour will please philosophical contemporaries; his certainty that the zerizut must come from the heart if it is to have any real value will inspire the religious readers that will dominate much of the century that was to follow.