I was once riding on public transportation when a young person, sporting a ponytail and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt peered over my shoulder at the book (sefer) I was reading. It was a copy of Mesilas Yesharim with an English translation. I imagined that he would not give it a second glance, but to my surprise, his eyes lit up, he smiled broadly and asked me, “Is this the new one that’s just out. I read the first one and it was great.” Before I could absorb his comment and respond, he got off. His reaction aroused my curiosity. I came to learn that the personality improvement (mussar) movement has attracted adherents from unlikely quarters. They are young secular people, who, to their great credit, have apparently become disillusioned with relativistic morality. They appreciate a teaching that says that there is correct and inappropriate behavior. In a spiritually and morally challenged world they apparently have found the teachings of mussar to be comforting and inspiring.
However, the transformation even from a G-d fearing serious minded Jew to the righteous person (tzaddik) portrayed in the closing chapters of Mesilas Yesharim is quite a journey. How much greater is the distance, we may imagine, for that young man and his colleagues. Yet, we have learned that our Torah is accessible to all who sincerely strive to attain it. We do not need to ascend to heaven or cross the seas to find it. Thus, such transformation must be both feasible and practical. We therefore can ask ourselves, How does this journey begin?
An answer to this question can be found as a solution to a puzzling piece of Torah written twice, once in Sefer Shemos – Parshas Mishpatim (23:29-30) when Hashem promised to drive out the nations that lived in Eretz Canaan, it says, “I shall not drive them away from you in a single year, lest the land become desolate and the wildlife of the field multiply against you. Little by little shall I drive them away from you, until you become fruitful and make the land your heritage.” And then a second time saying: “Hashem, your G-d will thrust these nations from before you little by little; you will not be able to annihilate them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase against you”(Devarim 7:22). Wouldn’t it have been better had Hashem driven them out all at once? Wouldn’t it have been easier for Bnei Yisrael to have subdued the occasional wild animal that might have crossed their path rather then do battle with the well armed, well fortified military forces of a number of powerful enemy nations?
These lines of Torah can, perhaps, at one level be understood as a parable – a parable that explains just how we can begin to walk the path carved out by the great and profound teachings of mussar and the elevating thoughts found in chassidus.
Eretz Yisrael may be compared to the body which can either serve as a vessel for holiness or its opposite. The connection between the land and the people can be seen in the word Yisrael, which refers to both and represents the spiritual DNA that makes up our personal and national characteristics. The letters yud, shin, reish, alef and lamed which form the word “Yisrael” are an acronym for the names of the Avos and Imahos, the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people: Yitzchak, Yaakov, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, Avraham and Leah whose positive middos, personality traits, were handed down to us as a spiritual legacy (according to the Ari HaKadosh, Likutei Torah, Kisvei Ari, parashas Vayishlach, d’h, Vayikra es shemo Yisrael).
The powerful “nations of the land” who built fortified cities and established military forces are parallel to various forms of knowledge and information which could be used to construct a thriving beneficial civilization based on truth and justice or a corrupt society. When the seven Canaanite nations who occupied the land chose to use their knowledge to live an immoral existence, those nations came to represent the seven kelipos, unholy husks, the negative counterparts of the seven positive spiritual attributes expressive of Hashem’s goodness and humanity’s true goal (Likutei Torah, Kisvei Ari, Parashas Devarim, d’h, Yesh Ladaas). These are the middos of chessed, loving kindness for the sake of Heaven, gevura, directed holiness through discipline, tiferes, harmony through the Torah, netzach, eternal connection to the Creator’s will, hod, splendor in the service of Hashem, yesod, moral purity in righteousness and malchus, the power of royalty to orchestrate and combine them all. These middos are hinted at in our daily prayer of Vayevareich David when we say, Lecha Hashem, “Onto you Hashem, we ascribe Hagedula (chessed), Vehagevura, Vehatiferes …” Thus, in the hands of the Canaanite nations, wisdom or knowledge became a vehicle for the pursuit of amoral, unprincipled and unethical diversions.
The “beasts of the field” represent the baser emotions which will clamor for the fulfillment of personal desires at the expense of loftier goals unless they are properly channeled. These “beasts of the field” are ruled by the heart and if not controlled lead to egotistic pleasure seeking.
When we enter the Land – meaning when we begin the process of transforming ourselves, we must confront two fierce adversaries which have to be subdued and controlled: One is the powerful, well fortified intellect which navigates through the world using verifiable scientific and sociological data and submits to society’s codes and mores in order to promote its survival.
The other is the seat of equally powerful emotional drives which will urge us to bend or break the rules of society whenever they interfere with the fulfillment of personal pleasure. We can harness the intellect and the emotions and use them to aid us in the acquisition and perfection of the positive attributes that have been handed down to us, in potential, from our Avos and Imahos. Indeed, it is the acquisition of the positive character traits of our Avos and Imahos that earns us the title of Bnei Yisrael. In this process, we are able to affect the soul’s purpose on earth by allowing these lofty goals to guide our intellectual decisions and control our emotional responses so that we can achieve the proper service of Hashem. However, the self willed intellect and the exuberant emotions will not meekly yield to this yoke without a struggle.
It is to this struggle that our portion of Torah addresses itself. It teaches that the intellect set upon pursuing misdirected secular goals – the enemy nation – is not as harmful to us as the unbridled lower emotions – the wild beasts of the field. Importantly, it teaches that the mind, like the land, is never empty – it is either occupied by people or by wild animals – meaning by intellectual pursuits or emotional experiences.
Thus, if in the conquest of our “land” we try to rid ourselves of non-beneficial pursuits before Torah driven values, ideas and activities have had a chance to increase, spread out and occupy our thinking, then the vacuum thus created, could, if we are not exceedingly careful, be filled by the “beasts of the field” – the lower passions and desires. Thus our Torah teaches that “Hashem, your G-d, will thrust these nations from before you little by little; you will not be able to annihilate them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase against you.”
Growth in the service of Hashem is like climbing a ladder. We must be realistic about our present level and not try to pretend to a righteousness that is not yet ours. The transformation from secular ideologies and their corresponding lifestyles cannot occur all at once, but only “little by little.” Just as a person cannot mature from infancy to adulthood in a brief period of time, so too we cannot instantly make drastic changes in our natures. The Torah, therefore, warns that this process of vanquishing inappropriate mindsets and lifestyles needs to take place little by little to give an opportunity for the Torah driven values that we have planted to grow and spread and keep the wild beasts of the field at bay.
By way of example, let us assume that someone has attended an inspiring mussar shiur and makes a decision to forgo reading novels and secular newspapers. For someone who has spent a great many evenings in those pursuits, this is quite a tall order. The person certainly means well, but does not yet have the training, the discipline or the motivation to dedicate those long evening hours exclusively to learning Torah, doing community work or engaging in other constructive activities. That person might feel frustrated or anguished and could, at one extreme, decide that he or she is not capable of keeping to this newfound resolve and may let go even of spiritual levels that had already been achieved.
Therefore the Torah wisely informs us that if such a person sincerely wants to change these aspects of their lifestyle they might choose to begin by looking critically at what they read and by exchanging certain harmful and debased subject matter for that which is less so, all the while increasing slowly but surely their pursuit of a Torah directed lifestyle.
As Torah values are put in place, unnecessary and unhealthy intellectual pursuits can be safely removed or transformed into useful ‘servants’ of the soul. Unrefined emotions will have no foothold because our neshama will have spread out, filling the potential vacuum with the glory of the Divine Radiance that is waiting to shine within all of us. This means that as we mature, develop and apply the attributes that are part of our inheritance from our Avos and the Imahos, then and only then will Hashem totally remove any connection with the lifestyle of the other nations. Eventually through effort and sincerity we can reach the level of living life according to the will of and for the sake of the Creator alone. Hopefully, through this perception and approach to life’s challenges and most importantly with the help of Hashem, we will succeed in returning to our inheritance and living within its borders in peace and holiness soon in our days.
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