Choosing the Good

Mesillas Yesharim: The Path of the Just – Zechirus

Ramchal writes that pertaining to the quality of zechirus, the trait of vigilance along the derech (path) of righteousness, one must first acquire an understanding through contemplation of what is good and evil, in order to make the right choices in life. Once clearly defined, then one can choose the good and avoid the evil. Moreover, it is not enough to have an abstract understanding of good evil; rather, the understanding should lead to application.

Therefore, one needs to scrutinize thoughts, speech and behavior, in order to make an honest assessment of oneself. If good draws us near to H’Shem, and evil will distance ourselves from Him, then this concept may be applied in the following manner: to ask ourselves, when in doubt, whether such and such will bring us closer to H’Shem or result in creating a separation. As is written, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your G-d” (Isaiah 59:2, JPS).

We may familiarize ourselves with the basic components of Jewish belief and practice; yet, the test of whether or not we are actually walking along the path prescribed for us, has to do with how we spend most of our time, what are presuppositions are, and whether or not we are consciously aware of H’Shem’s presence. Otherwise there will be a disconnect in our lives between our beliefs and actions; moreover, what ultimate value will our practice have, if there is a separate area of our lives that is not permeated by our beliefs?

Heshbon hanefesh, literally, an “accounting of the soul” can be used as a means to align our thoughts, speech, and action with G-d’s expectations of us, and rein in any area of our lives that has not yet been subjected to His sovereignty. This endeavor entails much reflection, and a constant dedication to the true good, designed to bring our souls closer to H’Shem.

How to Be a Mensch

The promotion of virtue within a human being is the original idea of changing oneself on the inside, in order to become a better human being. This type of virtue acquisition is ensconced within the tomes of religious libraries, and the shelves of classical antiquity that are becoming more like tombs, in the face of a redefining of virtue. If virtue-signalling continues to replace actual virtue in the minds of this generation, then all virtue will eventually be lost.

Virtue as defined by religion and classical works of antiquity is a moral compass formed by character development that takes place within the human soul. Discernment, courage, self-control, and a sense of fairness are some of the main virtues of classical antiquity. Patience, kindness, humility, and compassion are a few of the virtues found amongst the world’s religions. Doing unto others as you would like to have done to yourself is a key adage meant to foster consideration to others. And, loving your fellow person as yourself exceeds the limitations that are inherent from a sense of egoism.

Yet, the trendy virtue-signalling of more recent years is based upon a set of pseudo-values that lack the countermeasures to put a rein on one’s own negative character traits. In fact, it is entirely possible to fall prey to virtue-signalling, without becoming virtuous at all. If we are considerate, then we should be considerate to all. We should not only be concerned for specific “oppressed” groups within the framework of identity politics; rather, also, for those who are labeled “oppressors.”

By labeling, categorizing, and placing into good groups and bad groups, we are overlooking the uniqueness and individuality of each, and every person categorized. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).

Thus, every individual has a fine line within themselves, wherein both hate and love, compassion and intolerance exist. We should compel ourselves to demonstrate love toward all human being, rather than love some and hate others. Also, in regard to compassion for all, instead of compassion for some, and intolerance for others.

Find Time for Introspection

“Therefore, they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh store-cities, Pithom and Ramses.” – Exodus 1:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

The midrash explains that the location where the slave labor was being done, was upon marshy land. So that the structures being built would continuously sink into the mire to no avail. According to this rendering, the effort being made was of no feasible purpose. The work assigned was for the sole purpose of keeping Bnei Yisrael occupied with useless activity, because Pharaoh thought that this would keep them from any schemes of rebellion.

It is interesting to note that in Rome, the gladiator games and other events at the Colosseum were meant to keep the people’s minds off of politics. Today, in modern society, the same premises may be at play, inasmuch that entertainment is a distraction, busy work lives can wear down a person, leaving little time for anything of lasting value to focus upon outside of one’s job, career or vocation. Yet, the time and the effort must be made. Forasmuch that we let ourselves be robbed of the precious time that we have, we lose out on what can truly benefit the soul.

The Ramchal, in Mesillas Yesharim denotes how the yetzer hara compels one to be preoccupied with burdens, to the extent that no time can be found to contemplate one’s path in life, namely, by examining one’s behavior through introspection. He compares this to the plight of Israel, subjugated to the harsh work that Pharaoh imposed upon them, especially, when he decided to increase their burdens, to prevent them from even thinking about redemption. G-d forbid, that we should fall prey to the same machinations of our yetzer hara (evil inclination).

Furthermore, it is regrettable for those who do not even realize that the Adversary attempts to keep us blinded to our own condition and “enslaved to sin.” The Ramchal advocates deliberately setting aside time for what is called heshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul,” so that we may become aware of the quality of our lives from a moral perspective, if only we would take the time every day to subject ourselves to introspection upon our own initiative. Change can only take place through awareness of our faults, and where we need to make improvement in our lives.

The Full Blessing

Sur meira, v’asei tov.” (Avoid evil, do good).  – Psalm 34:15

Especially when we consider our mitzvoth, avodah, and Yiddishkeit, that may all be flourishing, we can easily overlook areas of our lives, where we fall short of the standard, prescribed for the pious. That is to say, that every area of our life should represent our values. Inasmuch that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were blessed “in everything, through everything, and with everything,” this implies according to the Talmud that in this life they had already received a taste of Olam Haba (the-World-to-Come; Bavra Batra 16b-17a). Thus, they were blessed with heavenly as well as earthly blessings; perhaps, their blessings rested upon their character, inasmuch that the Talmud also asserts that the yetzer hara (evil inclination held no sway over them (ibid.). If so, then all areas of their lives may have been blessed because there was no corruption to be found lurking about in the corners of their personal lives.

Yet, we are not on the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in terms of our challenges in the face of adversity from the yetzer hara (evil inclination). Thus, the TANYA recommends that we need to “turn away from evil” in all areas of our lives, in order to receive the full blessings due to our positive endeavors. In other words, we have the opportunity to bring more blessings into our lives, beyond those we receive from “doing good,” if we sweep out the dust, so to speak, from the places in our lives that need improvement, the faults, and minor sins that have been neglected. These are the aveiros  that most people trample upon, figuratively speaking, because they seem trivial in their eyes. If we search our hearts, we may find that we are also guilty of “trampling upon” these sins. Therefore, let us search our minds and heart, and root out the behaviors that prevent us from receiving the full blessings H’Shem would like to grant to us.

note: based on Likutei Amarim, middle of chapter 30