3.J.3 Selections from Mesillat Yesharim — The Path of the Righteous, presented by Haviva Pedaya

  • Text

Author’s Introduction
The writer says: I have written this work not to teach men what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them, for you will find in most of my words only things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts. But to the extent that they are well known and their truths revealed to all, so is forgetfulness in relation to them extremely prevalent. It follows, then, that the benefit to be obtained from this work is not derived from a single reading; for it is possible that the reader will find that he has learned little after having read it that he did not know before. Its benefit is to be derived, rather, through review and persistent study, by which one is reminded of those things which, by nature, he is prone to forget and through which hi is caused to take to heart the duty that he tends to overlook.
“Walking in His way” embodies the whole area of cultivation and correction of character traits. As our Sages of blessed memory have explained, “As He is merciful, be also merciful…” The essence of all this is that a person conform all of his traits and all the varieties of his actions to what is just and ethical. Our Sages of blessed memory have thus summarized the idea: “All that is praiseworthy in its doer and brings praise to him from others” (Avot 2.1); that is, all that leads to the end of true good, namely, strengthening of Torah and furthering of brotherIiness.

Chapter 1
The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfection in the service of God lies in a man’s coming to see clearly and to recognize as a truth the nature of his duty in the world and the end towards which he should direct his vision amd his aspiration in all of his labors all the days of his life… When you look further into the matter, you will see that only union with God constitutes true perfection.

Chapter 2
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… [But] 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.

Chapter 3
One who wishes to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. This applies both to times when there is a question of performing a specific action and to times when there is no such question. When there is a question of performing a specific action, he should do nothing before he weighs the action in the scale of the aforementioned understanding. And when there is no such question, the idea should take the form of his bringing before himself the remembrance of his deeds in general and weighing them, likewise, in the scales of this criterion to determine what they contain of evil, so that he may cast it aside, and what of good, so that he may be constant in it and strengthen himself in it. If he finds in them aught that is evil, he should consider and attempt to reason out what device he might use to turn aside from that evil and to cleanse himself of it.
To what is this analogous? To a garden-maze, a type of garden common among the ruling class, which is planted for the sake of amusement. The plants there are arranged in walls between which are found many confusing and interlacing paths, all similar to one another, the purpose of the whole being to challenge one to reach a portico in their midst. Some of the paths are straight ones which lead directly to the portico, but some cause one to stray, and to wader from it. The walker between the paths has no way of seeing or knowing whether he is on the true or the false path; for they are all similar, presenting no difference whatsoever to the observing eye. He will not reach his goal unless he has perfect familiarity and visual acquaintance with the paths through his having traversed them and reached the portico. He who occupies a commanding position in the portico, however, sees all of the paths before him and can discriminate between the true and the false ones. He is in a position to warn those who walk upon them and to tell them, “This is the path; take it!” He who is willing to believe him will reach the designated spot; but he who is not willing to believe him, but would rather trust in his eyes, will certainly remain lost and fail to reach it.
So too in relation to the idea under discussion. He who has not yet achieved dominion over his evil inclination is in the midst of the paths and cannot distinguish between them. But those who rule over their evil inclination, those who have reached the portico, who have already left the paths and who clearly see all of the ways before their eyes—they can advise him who is willing to listen, and it is to them that we must trust.

Chapter 9
In fine, a person should render himself rootless in the world and rooted in Divine service. In relation to all of the things of the world, he should be content with and able to get along with whatever comes his way; he should be far from repose and close to work and labor; his heart should trust securely in God, and he should not fear the future and what it may bring.

Chapter 19
Saintliness of deed in the relationship between man and his neighbor consists in the doing of good in abundance, in one’s always benefiting his fellow creatures and never injuring them. This applies to the body, belongings and soul of one’s neighbor.
Body: One must seek to help all men in any way he can, and lighten their burdens. As we learned, “And bearing a burden with one’s neighbor” (Avot 6.6). If he can prevent some bodily harm from coming to his neighbor or remove that which threatens such harm, he must exert himself to do so.
Belongings: One must assist his neighbor as far as his resources allow and guard his belongings against damage in every way he can. He must especially take precautions to see do it that he himself is in no way responsible for causing such damage, whether to single individuals or to many. And though there may be no immediate cause for concern, still if there is even a possibility that anything belonging to him will cause damage, he must get it out of the way. Our Sages of blessed memory have said, “Your neighbor’s belongings should be as precious to you as your own” (Avot 2.12).
Soul: One must strive to give his neighbor as much pleasure as he can, whether in respect to his honor or to anything else. Anything which he can do what he knows will give his neighbor pleasure, is a mitzvah of saintliness for him to do. It goes without saying that he must not cause his neighbor any pain whatsoever in any manner whatsoever. All of this comes within the framework of lovingkindness, the worth and binding nature of which our Sages of blessed memory were boundless in affirming. Included in this area is the pursuit of peace, the general promotion of good in the relationship between man and his neighbor.

Chapter 26
Holiness is two-fold. Its beginning is labor and its end reward; its beginning, exertion and its end, a gift. That is, it begins with one’s sanctifying himself and ends with his beingsanctified. As our Sages of blessed memory have said. “If one sanctifies himself a little, he is sanctified a great deal; if he sanctifies himself below, he is sanctified from above” (Yoma39a). Exertion in this respect consists in one’s completely separating and removing himself from earthiness and cleaning always, at all periods and times… Even when one is engaged in the physical activities required by his body, his soul must not deviate from its elevated intimacy….
However, because it is behind a person’s ability to place himself in this situation, since. in the last analysis, he is a creature of flesh and blood, I have stated that the end of holiness is a gift. What one can do is to persevere in the pursuit of true understanding and constantly give thought to the sanctification of deeds. In the end, the Holy One blessed be He leaves him upon the path that he desires to follow, causes His holiness to rest upon him, and sanctifies him, thus enabling him to maintain a constant intimacy with him, the Blessed One. Where his nature hinders him, the Blessed One will aid and assist him… “If one sacrifice himself a little,” by what he can acquire through his own exertions. “he is sanctified a great deal,” by the help he receives from the Blessed One.

Chapter 26: Peroration of the Book
It is understood that each individual must guide and direct himself according to his calling and according to the particular activities in which he is engaged. The path of saintliness appropriate to one whose Torah is his calling is unsuited to one who must hire himself out to work for his neighbor, and the path of neither of these is suitable for one who is engaged in business. This holds true for all of the particulars in the affairs of men, each calling for a path of saintliness corresponding to its nature. This is not to say that saintliness varies in nature. It is unquestionably the same for everyone, in that its intent is the doing of that which brings pleasure to the Creator. But in view of the fact that circumstances vary, it follows, of necessity, that the means by which they are to be directed towards the desired goal vary in kind. One who, out of necessity, plies a humble trade, can be a true saint, jest as one from whose mouth learning never departs. It is written. “God created everything for His sake” (Proverbs 16:4) and “In all your ways know Him and He will strengthen your paths” (Ibid., 3:6).
May the Blessed One in His mercy open our eyes to his Torah, teach us His ways, and lead us in His paths; and may we be worthy of honoring His name and bringing pleasure to Him.
Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Just, by Moshe Chayim Luzzatto. English translation by Shraga Silverstein. Jerusalem–New York: Feldheim Publishers, 1974. pp. 3, 11, 17–19, 29, 35, 41–43, 99, 221–223, 327–329, 337–339.


  • Commentary

Remembering Consciousness and the Every day
I have chosen a text which expresses the centrality of consciousness in the life of individuals with a spiritual calling. This text deals with the question of the means and tools needed to preserve a state of continual, stable awareness, a state of awakening the consciousness. In other words, it deals with the question of human existence within a state of remembering conducted within everyday life.
By the distinction between the ecstatic and the everyday, I wish to distinguish between a state of illuminated consciousness and one of remembering consciousness. The person wishes to maintain consciousness and remembrance in everyday life of that which was apprehended in the state of illumination: that is, to make it routine. The remembering consciousness is necessary because a person is tested, not only in the state of ecstatic consciousness, but also, and primarily, in everyday states, which are the true test of his greatness. The person confronts these states as a body involved in the practical world, as tools for both negative and positive emotions, and exposed to the possibility of “sleeping” while still alive and in his everyday life.
This text of remembering consciousness was written in the eighteenth century (1746-1707) by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto, a Jewish mystical genius from the city of Padua in Italy, who in his youth studied at the University of Padua. He work encompasses virtually every genre of writing: poetry, plays, ethics, writings of mystical revelations, and systematic didactic mystical works. He had a circle of mystical disciples. During much of his life he was persecuted because of the power of his ecstatic experiences, including experiences of a Maggid (a mystical mentor who appeared to him in dreams) and automatic writing, which aroused suspicion among some of the Rabbinic community that he was a follower of [the false messiah] Sabbatai Zevi. The text from Luzzatto which I have chosen here is one which was written after various limitations and restrictions were imposed upon him, prohibiting him from writing directly about his mystical revelations.
This text is, to my mind, a masterpiece. It is an instructional text dealing with behavior in everyday, practical life rooted in a remembering consciousness that strives for a state of illuminated consciousness.
As a basic paradigm [or: framework] for this work, entitled Mesillat Yesharim (“The Path of the Righteous”), Luzzatto made use of an ancient Hebrew text, the beraita of Rabbi Pinhas ben Yair, described in the Talmud as one of the “pious men of old”:
It was taught: R. Pinhas ben Yair said: Diligence leads to cleanliness; cleanliness leads to purity; purity leads to holiness; holiness leads to humility; humility leads to fear of sin; fear of sin leads to piety; piety leads to the holy spirit. (b. Avodah Zarah 20b; cf. m Sotah 9.15;Cant. Rab. 1.9).
To summarize this brief introduction: the procedures used in remembering consciousness seek to provide support for everyday life as such, a concept which includes the behavior and ethics of everyday life—first and foremost, the quality of piety towards the world and existence. Piety is understood here as a posture of compassion towards all of existence, as well as being one which demands action, execution, and performance. All these are necessary for the construction of a stable remembering consciousness within life, as well as in the world of activity, leading to an illuminated consciousness.

Mesillat Yesharim by R. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto
As I stated earlier, this text belongs to the genre of ethical literature. It is a brief work, only a few dozen pages long, consisting of some 26 chapters. In a future, more extensive larger project, I propose selecting an essential text from each of its chapters, to serve as a kind of summary of the Mesillat Yesharim. Here I have chosen to summarize it in that spirit, taking passages from what seem to me the seven most important chapters.

1. The introduction emphasizes the concept of remembering consciousness. According to the author, people generally do not disagree as to the basic truths of human purpose and obligation, but they tend to forget them. Making these goals present in the everyday is very difficult; the goal of the spiritual man is to create a second nature that transcends his initial conditioning (first nature), one that cannot be reached without remembering and without creating a state of consciousness of self-remembering.
2. Man’s spiritual perfection is based upon his moral perfection. Moral qualities are learned by means of imitatio dei. The ultimate goal of ethics is “true improvement,” one of whose characteristics is a universal state of goodness and peace: “brotherhood of the states.”

Chapter 1
Devekut, or “clinging to God,” as the definition of wholeness or perfection, is a state of attachment of the consciousness, from which state everyday labor is derived.

Chapter 2
Contemplation and observation of the self. Contemplation refers to the person’s everyday observation of all his acts and behavior and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Otherwise, a person is as if blind.

Chapter 3
Observation of the self is accomplished by means of weighing and balancing the things.The ability to observe oneself needs to be developed both at the time of action and during that time set aside by a person for contemplation, perspective, and observing one’s actions, through which he distinguishes between good and evil in his behavior and develops “ruses,” manipulative devices by which to save himself from mistakes.
At times, within this process of reflection and consideration, one needs to recognize the importance and existence of a spiritual guide. The teacher, in relation to the student, is like one who stands in the tower in the center of the garden with a labyrinth and holds Ariadne’s thread for the disciple, guiding him towards the way out of the prison of ego and self-deception.

Chapter 9
The distinction between the dimensions of present existence and those of a broader existence, be it called eternity, the World to Come, or an objective view. These are rooted in the view that man is a “guest” in his present stage of existence, whereas he is “at home” in a broader world. The realization of his citizenship in a wider form of existence takes place by means through his being a fixed resident only in his work on himself. All else is transient.
Chapter 19
Acts of kindness and the pursuit of peace: “a person should always do good to other people in body and soul.” The existence of the remembering consciousness also focuses man upon a state of action. Action is not simply ethical perfection of his qualities and his behavior as a person unto himself, but is also a posture in relation to the community and society: a posture of performing acts of goodness and kindness and bringing about peace.

Chapter 26
The ultimate goal of the path of the just—mesillat yesharim—as opposed to walking in a labyrinth, is that of arriving at the stage of being a “pious man.” In this highest state, the relation between the everyday practice of remembering consciousness and that of illuminated consciousness are in a state of constant connection.
A person can arrive at this state whether he engages directly in the study of Torah and meditation, or if he is a blacksmith, shoemaker or engages in some other occupation, provided that he strives, parallel to this, to attain these two levels of consciousness. The way is open to every person, because this is the path of being, action and existence.
Upon the realization of this path, a person merits to receive divine grace: “The beginning of the path is effort, and its end is a gift.”