Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Question & Answer With Avakesh - The Sefer That Chose Me

(Painting by Raphael Eisenberg)

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?

Avakesh answers:

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.


At September 24, 2008 at 11:13:00 AM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

Beautiful post. I also had a powerful "peak experience" when I first read M"Y when I was 19.

At September 24, 2008 at 2:08:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amongost Mussar classics you definitely should mention: Reishis Chochmo, Toymer Dvoyro, Shaarey Kdusho and Kav haYoshor. (These are all based on Chochmas haNistar by the way).

Mesilas Yeshorim is also based on Kabolo (it parallels 10 Sfiroys on each level). Recently an original edition (created in a dialog form) came out, which is how the Ramchal wrote Mesilas Yeshorim in the first place. (Later because of opposition of local misnagdim he was forced to redo it, removing several parts, that's how the commonly known edition came about).

The dialog form thought is surely more interesting and original.

At September 24, 2008 at 2:08:00 PM EDT, Blogger Neil Harris said...

"I do not know why Ramchal presented spiritual growth as a linear and directed phenomenon."

My guess is that, as Derech Hashem (IIRC) was written before M"Y, the way to spirituality seemed as "codified" as the contents of Derech Hashem in the mind of the RAMCHAL.

At September 24, 2008 at 2:12:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do not know why Ramchal presented spiritual growth as a linear and directed phenomenon.

This is simply because it is based on the braysa which defines seemingly linear steps. However they aren't really linear in reality.

At September 25, 2008 at 12:28:00 AM EDT, Blogger Menashe said...

I don't know how fair that is to say that the difference between the two approaches is basically that chassidus takes you above the struggle and mussar takes you to the heart of the struggle.

The Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov had a real machloikis about a very important ikar of emunah, namely tzimtzum. Is the world at its core Elokus or did H' make a vaccum empty of Him to create a world. The entire goal of all chassidus is to live the emes of Elokus is Everything and Everything is Elokus. (This is for me an essential truth that is the basis of my entire Yiddishkeit. I know it is true because the same part of me that knows that Torah is misinai also knows Elokus is Everything. It's for me a crucial part of my emunah.) Now the derachim obviously evolved differently to address the same problems, the one using nistar and the one without. And so they approah the problems differently, but from entirely different foundations!

At September 25, 2008 at 10:23:00 AM EDT, Blogger Moshe David Tokayer said...

I was fourteen when the Mesilas Yeshorim found me.

Bingo! I was also fourteen when Mesilas Yeshorim found me. It was my first experience with spirituality. I remember trying to get my father to learn it with me. He felt it was too "heavy" for him. But for me, it was great.

Thanks for a well written wonderful post!

At September 25, 2008 at 10:19:00 PM EDT, Blogger Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

Wow. You know, I'd never thought about it that way before ... but I think I like that. That a book chooses us. Beautiful post! Todah!


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