I was riding on public transportation a few months ago when a
young person, sporting a ponytail and dressed in jeans and a t-shirt peered
over my shoulder at the 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 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.


the transformation even from a G-d fearing serious minded Jew to the 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.  In this week’s parasha, when Hashem
promised to drive out the nations that lived in Eretz Canaan, it says, “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?


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 chassidus.


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 Laya whose positive middos, personality traits, were
handed down to us as a spiritual legacy (according to the Ari HaKadosh, Likutei
, 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
, 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
, “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


“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 lead
one to self-serving, ego pleasing 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


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. 


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.”


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


way of example, let us assume that someone has attended an inspiring mussar
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.


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. 


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.

All articles appearing on this blog are copyrighted by Rabbi Yehoshua Binyamin Falk. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to share/download/copy this information as long as it is accompanied by the copyright. Separately authored/copyrighted materia

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