Monday, September 3, 2012

Luzzatto's Elevator

At the end of his introduction our author tells us that his book is actually a commentary on a commentary. Here's the story.

The Torah states: 
What does Hashem your lord ask of you? Just to fear Hashem your lord, to go in all His ways and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your lord with all your heart and all your soul, to observe the mitzvos of Hashem and His laws. (Devarim 10:12-13). 
After quoting this verse, Luzzatto writes: "All these values [listed in the above verse] need a lot of explanation. I found that our sages, may their memory be blessed, broke down this set and reorganized it into a more detailed listing - in the order required for properly attaining these [traits]. This is what it says in the tannaic teaching, cited in several places in the Talmud, one of them being in chapter "Lifnei Eideihem" (Avodah Zara 20b):
... From here R. Pinchas ben Yair taught, "Torah leads to carefulness, carefulness leads to alacrity, alacrity leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to Prishus (separation), Prishus leads to purity, purity leads to Hasidus (piety), Hasidus leads to humility, humility leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to sanctity, sanctity leads divine inspiration, divine inspiration leads to resurrecting the dead.
Luzzatto continues, "It was on this tannaic teaching that I decided to write this book, to teach myself and to remind others the conditions needed for the [different] levels of perfected service [of Hashem]. For every one of these [levels] I will describe its issues, its components or details, the way to attain it, the causes of its loss and how to guard against losing it. For then I will read [this book] and whoever else enjoys it so that we will learn to fear Hashem our lord and we won't forget our obligations before Him."

So there we have it: the entire Mesilas Yesharim is an extended commentary on the teaching of R. Pinchas ben Yair, itself a commentary on a biblical verse.

But things are not so simple. Luzzatto's statement that R. Pinchas ben Yair's list is a commentary on the above verse is not stated in the Talmud. It is Luzzatto's own contention. Moreover, the Talmud tells us that R. Pinchas ben Yair was actually motivated by a different tannaic teaching on a different verse: 
The sages taught: "Guard yourself against every evil thing" (Devarim 23:10). A man should not fantasize by day and come to tumah (impurity) by night. From here R. Pinchas ben Yair taught Torah leads to carefulness, carefulness leads to alacrity, etc.
What is the meaning of this? How does R. Pinchas ben Yair derive an entire system of spiritual growth from the simple idea that men shouldn't fantasize? What does one thing have to do with the other? I believe the answer can be found in R. Pinchas ben Yair's careful choice of words.

The sages said a man should not fantasize by day and come to, "VeYavo L'dei," impurity by night. This reality set R. Pinchas thinking. If, when it comes to sin, one thing leads to another in a natural progression - impure thoughts leading to actual impurity - shouldn't the same be true for purity as well? This is what R. Pinchas meant when he said, from here we learn that Torah leads to, "Maivi L'dei," carefulness. Purity is created by Torah thoughts no less naturally than the creation of impurity by impure thoughts. This is the source for Luzzatto's constant refrain throughout the book: these levels can only be attained by contemplating certain truths. מדה טובה מרובה. If it works for impurity, it must work even more powerfully for purity.  מחשבה טובה מצטרפת למעשה - thought evolves into reality.

This idea expresses itself in another Talmudic teaching.
It happened once that Rabbi Tarfon and the elder sages were reclining upstairs in the Nitzeh House in Lod and the question was posed, "Which is greater: study or actions?" R. Tarfon responded, "Actions are greater." R. Akivah responded, "Study is greater." Everyone [else] responded, "Study is greater, for study leads to (Maivi L'dei) actions."  (Kiddushin 40b)  
The story concludes with the consensus of the sages that study is greater because it leads to action. But why does that make study greater? As the Maharal of Prague asks, if one traveled to do a mitzvah, would anyone claim that traveling there was greater than the actual performance of the mitzvah?! The Maharal explains, "The meaning here is not that study is merely that which prepares us for action. Rather, it itself is what brings action into reality... Torah is the starting point and every starting point is what causes the end point to materialize... Just as planting a seed causes a sprout to come into existence, so too when the Torah is planted in man it functions to bring about the end point, and its end point is action... This is what [the Talmud] meant, "study leads to (Maivi L'dei) actions," the study itself functions to complete the action just as a seed functions to produce a tree..." (Maharal, D'rush al HaMitzvos).  

The Maharal could not be more clear. The study of Torah gives birth to actions. It is just as R. Pinchas ben Yair said, Torah leads to carefulness, which leads to alacrity... It makes one wonder if R. Pinchas ben Yair was one of those elder sages in Lod.

This reading of R. Pinchas ben Yair is further supported by Rabbeinu Yona's commentary on Berachos 6b. The Talmud states, "The God of Avraham will assist all who designate a place for Tefillah." R. Yona asks the obvious question. Why would such an extraordinary reward be granted for such a simple thing? Answers R. Yona:
The [sages] did not mean [God will assist you] just because you designated a place [for prayer]. Rather, they are saying that one who is so conscientious about prayer that he is even careful about this - he wants his prayers to be in a special location - such a person who loves prayer so much, must certainly be a humble man... For without humility, he would never be able to pray with intent... And since he has merited [to achieve the trait of] Humility, he will also merit the greater trait of Hasidus (piety), for one causes the other as it says, "Humility leads to Hasidus" ...
The fact that R. Yona's version of the Talmud has Humility prior to Hasidus is beside the point. What is important is that R. Yona understands that each level causes the next. This reading radically alters R. Pinchas ben Yair's central point.

R. Pinchas ben Yair's teaching is not simply a list of levels of righteousness. Nor is it merely a ladder of spiritual growth. It is an engine propelling us from one level to the next. All we need to do is get on the elevator.