Question & Answer With Avakesh - The Sefer That Chose Me
A Simple Jew asks:
There is a well-known saying that we do not choose the books we read, rather the books choose us. This seems to be somewhat connected to Likutey Moharan #11, in which Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that when we enunciate words from the sefer before us, they reveal to us the the areas where we need to do teshuva.
Have you ever felt that you did not choose a sefer, but rather the sefer chose you specifically for the purpose of illuminating your path back to Hashem?
I was fourteen when the Mesilas Yeshorim found me.
A polite, diffident, overly brainy, and intense teenager, awakening to the vastness and meaningfulness of the world that the Master of the World has set before me, I was not prepared. Under the surface, mostly hidden from my as of yet immature mind, a spiritual awakening was gathering strength and when Messlas Yeshorim came to me, it struck with the force of a gale and an impact of a hurricane. I put the book inside of my Gemorra and toiled at it for three days, all day long, over and over. Fortunately, my rebbi was wise and did not intervene. The book changed me, radically, decisively and forever. I now know that this reaction is not unique among yeshiva bochurim and I met other sensitive souls who had undergone similar experiences.
What Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto offered was an orderly plan to spiritual perfection, presented with wisdom and authority. I was sure that if I only followed the plan exactly as written, it would take no more than two weeks to achieve its final stages (it did not occur to me to ask why others have not done it as well because at that point it was just me and the book).
It did not take long for me to learn that it might take longer, a few months perhaps. Gradually, I understood that bringing Mesilas Yeshorim to life might require a lifetime. Mussar became my pathway into spirituality. I became friends with and proficient in Shaarei Teshuva, Orchos Tsaddikim, Sefer Hayashar, Chovos Halevovos and the whole breadth and length of mussar literature. I wrote a book about the Mussar movement and still teach and lecture about it. I never did go very high on the ladder of Mesilas Yeshorim, but I learned humility and submission. The most valuable lesson that Mesilas Yeshorim taught me was the one grows more from failure than from success.
I still believe that Mussar is crucial, especially in the early stages of spiritual growth. Rav Elya Kaplan wrote an insightful essay that compared the approach of Mussar and Chassidus. He analyzed several reports of the meetings between Rabbi Yisroel Salanter and the Rebbe Maharash, bringing out and contrasting the differences in approach between them. Chassidus aims to lift a person above the field of the struggle with the evil inclination, through joy, fellowship and striving for spirituality. Mussar wants to reconstruct man’s character. The former is at the danger of self-delusion, thinking that external characteristics of the spiritual lifestyle equate with its accomplishments; the latter risks sinking into exaggerated self-analysis, despondency and fear.
I am much older now. I know now that detours bring one closer to the destination than highways, that failure is a better teacher than success, and the God is often found in all the hidden places. The mystical and the complicated mirror the inner man better than simple schematics, and ladders often lead nowhere. Teshuvah is not merely a means to set right what one has spoilt but the very basis for moving forward in the vast, complicated and wonderful worlds of spirituality. Spiritual advancement comes in spurts and unexpectedly, not always when we want it, but always when Hashem desires it. Our job is to be aware and take advantage of the opportunities that he sends us; it demands deep introspection and cannot be forced. Upon this path, Mussar can only take one so far, even though without mussar the path does not even exist.
I do not know why Ramchal presented spiritual growth as a linear and directed phenomenon. I now know deeply inside that it is not like that. Nevertheless, Mesilas Yeshorim awakened and launched me, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.