Mesillat Yesharim & Wasting Your Life

For a little over a year, a group of us on Manhattan’s Upper West Side have been learning what is considered by many to be the finest work of mussar ever written, R. Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto’s (Ramhal, 1707-1746) Mesillat Yesharim. So revered is the work that none other than the great Vilna Gaon was said to have declared of it that “there is not a single extraneous word.”

Recently, we had occasion to discuss the fourth chapter of this remarkable work, “on the ways of acquiring vigilance (=zehirut),” and an idea mentioned by Ramhal there. Deep, existential calls to repentance and mending our ways are not unprecedented in Jewish sources. Our Sages teach that if we sense the battle with our baser instincts is being lost, the “nuclear option” is to dwell upon the impeding day of death, the fleeting nature of our lives 1. A well-known didactic poem written in the wake of the 1306 banishment of Jews from France known as Behinat Olam, written by R. Yediah b. Abraham Bedersi ha-Penini (1270-1340), has been described as an extended denigration (=havhala) of this world and its myriad evils. It is this very mechanism which serves as a call to repentance and an inward, introspective turn to spirituality and God. This small book alone has undergone countless printings over the centuries and has merited many commentaries by rabbinic luminaries, testifying to the lasting impact of this theme.

In the fourth chapter, Ramhal explains that the path to achieving this holy vigilance, and thus further ascending the ladder, is to push forward in life toward being complete — a “whole individual” (=sheleimut ha-da’at). This entails recognizing those character traits and areas of (Torah) knowledge in which one is currently lacking and constantly striving to fill up those gaps:

…it is certain that once they discover the means and strategies available to achieve this wholeness, they will not want to do anything at all to limit the efficacy of these means or to slouch off in employing them… for they know that if they do not, they will not achieve the wholeness they seek… which will be a source of tremendous pain and suffering.

[Upon these individuals] we declare: “praiseworthy is he who is always afraid” (Proverbs 28:14).

R. Yechezkel Sarna (1890-1969) explains in his iyunim on Mesillat Yesharim2 that Ramhal is gesturing here to the need to lead a deeply considered life, what we might call a “spiritual anxiety” regarding the lack of “wholeness,” and the imperative for the individual to constantly examine himself, locate the lack, and seek to repair it. No event or personal action is too small to merit attention in the quest for authenticity and wholeness. In light of the aforementioned precedents set for engaging our more existential sides when seeking to spiritually improve, we are thus not surprised by Ramhal’s following words, still quite jarring to the reader:

And yet, here are the fools, who constantly seek to find the path of least resistance; they’ll say: “why struggle and exert ourselves to piety and holiness, isn’t is enough that we wont be amongst the [real] wicked in hell? We won’t really push ourselves to make it to the Garden of Eden’s inner circles, a small portion is good enough, and why overburden ourselves to attain that goal anyway?”

[This attitude] that they choose for themselves is nothing more than a smokescreen, a false seduction of their desire for ease and spiritual lethargy, a lie that would immediately dissipate were they to fully grasp the weight and truth of the matter… and unfortunately, they will not realize this truth until it is too late and nothing more can be done.

Many commentaries on Mesillat Yesharim take pains to highlight Ramhal’s insistence upon this trope; unless we act now, we will look back with regret and longing at a life that could have been better lived. Ramhal is warning us again and again to act with prescience, recognizing that our torpor and spiritual laziness will amount to nothing, and that even not striving to move forward positively is essentially a life led backsliding. I have heard from the well-known darshan R. Ephraim Wachsman that this is the true understanding of the verse “the fool wraps his arms around, and eats himself alive” (Ecc. 4:5).

Lying In A Hammock

This particular section reminds me of a certain poem, the meaning of which has sparked considerable debate in the literary world:

James Wright

“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

It is that famous last line in particular which has raised so much controversy. Writing in The Atlantic (9/23/2015), novelist and two-time Man Booker finalist David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks) — who keeps the poem framed over his workspace — described it as “one of the most beautiful things I have ever read,” pointing to how “every single word earns its place” (qua Vilna Gaon, l’havdil). For his part, he writes [emphasis mine]:

What to make of this famous last line, “I have wasted my life”? I hear him exhale it with a wry laugh: I’ve wasted my life! He’s kind of smiling. I’ve done it again, all this wasted time, he thinks — but at least I know it. Though he hasn’t really wasted all of his life — he knows that, too. You have to enter the hammock, put the world on hold, to really see things clearly the way the poem does. He’s been to this hammock before, and he’s had moments like this before, and it’s mostly positive. It’s self-deflating, but not depressing. It’s sad, and longing, and nostalgic, and wry — the ironic half-bark of a laugh.

Others offer different takes, ranging from wide-eyed praise to a dismissive hand-wave. The literary critic Thom Gunn, writing in The Yale Review (1964): “The final line is perhaps exciting because we are surprised to encounter something so different from the rest of the poem, but it is certainly meaningless. The more one searches for an explicit meaning in it, the vaguer it becomes.” In a short essay on the poem in The Paris Review (7/23/15), Dan Piepenbring cites Wright’s friend and fellow poet Robert Bly: “It is clear Gunn does not understand the poem, or rather, it is not the poem he doesn’t understand but the emotion.” Bly seems to argue what I would term the “Mussar-ist” reading of Wright’s poem, that is to say, the “I have wasted my life” is a realization akin to Ramhal’s excoriation of those who laze through life, seeking the path of least resistance — not evil, to be sure, but not particularly good, either.

It is this reading which colored ours of Ramhal’s warning not to let life pass us by as we laze in a hammock, observing the birds above as “evening darkens and comes on.” Our vigilance must be that after a full and healthy life, we do not look back at most of it “asleep on the black trunk,” as rootless and pareve as a leaf blowing in the green shadow. Some, taking after Mitchell’s reading, will try to temper the pointedness of Ramhal, blunting the jarring words by arguing they are meant to be taken with the understanding of our own spiritual and personal limitations — they are not much more than a “longing,” as we wryly turn to the next step on the mesillah, or path, and on and on until one day we realize, “I have wasted my life.”

1. See TB Berakhot 5b and the profound comments of R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook in his Ein Ayah gloss

2. Haskel ed., Jerusalem, 1957

Actually Giving Thanks

A Scattered Nation Thinks Not