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Preface Moses Hayyim Luzzatto 1 have not written this book to teach the reader anything new. Rather is it my aim to direct his attention to certain well known and generally accepted truths, for the very fact that they are well known and generally accepted is the cause of their being overlooked. Hence, this book, if it is to be of any benefit, has to be read more than once. A single reading may give the impression that it does not enlarge one’s stock of ideas. Therefore, to derive any benefit from the book, it should be read and reread time and again. Only then will it lead us to reckon with those truths which we naturally forget, and to take seriously the performance of those duties which we usually try to avoid. This opening paragraph expresses so much, subtly and with few words. The language is suggestive, and the ideas are both profound and critical to our understanding of the longer text before us. I will offer only brief remarks on this first paragraph now, but with the promise of returning to its ideas again and again. It raises three major points: first, that there is nothing new to be learned from this book; second, that the problem the book addresses is forgetfulness; and third, that the book cannot simply be read, but must be studied. Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (also known as the Hebrew acronym, Ramchal) returns to these themes repeatedly , both explicitly and implicitly, throughout Mesillat Yesharim. Why are these themes so important? Readers or students whom Ramchal has in mind already possess what we might call a “preexisting ethic” and are aware of the general outline of Jewish ethics, understood as obligations. This book will demonstrate that this preexisting ethic is both original to the formation of human consciousness as well as the result of the actions of communal socialization. As Ramchal imagines it, human consciousness comprises both a yetzer ha-ra and a yetzer ha-tov, an inclination for evil and an inclination for good. Together, these define the meaning of being created in the image and likeness of God. The human condition exists in the tension between good and evil or, as explained in the introduction, between the tension of acting on behalf of the self or on behalf of another. Every human action is a result of this tension. The obligation to choose the good and serve God by h I h 2 Mesillat Yesharim assuming responsibility for the other precedes our consciousness of ourselves. That is, we literally come into consciousness by making the choice between self and other. We become conscious of ourselves by choosing between serving ourselves and serving others; and as we become conscious of ourselves, we are also conscious of the others preceding us and our indebtedness to them—for the gift of our own consciousness. Ramchal uses the Hebrew term misforsam, “evident,” which is explained by Maimonides in his Treatise on Logic as referring to those ideas that are known to us by virtue of “natural wisdom.” These are truths that we can recognize on the basis of our innate ethical sensibility and that require neither extensive logical argumentation nor, more importantly, revelation. I refer to these types of “truth” as the “constitution” of consciousness as opposed to its content. In support of this idea, Ramchal asserts in his treatise The Way of the Tree of Life that wisdom, the act of choosing the yetzer ha-tov, is already implanted in the human soul in the form of the light of the Shekhinah, the imminent expression or feminine aspect of God. From this light derive all of our intellectual faculties, including imagination and emotional responses. Ramchal adds that persistent study, or what we might call repetitive learning, correlates the mouth of the human being with the mouth of God to actualize our innate or preexistent wisdom. The implied purpose of Mesillat Yesharim is to provide a method of uniting the various “flames” of the Shekhinah’s fire that normally emerge in our various intellectual acts but do not unite. The specific order of Mesillat Yesharim, drawn as we will see from the baraita (Rabbinic teaching not included in the Mishnah but quoted by the later teachers of the Talmud) of Rabbi Phinehas ben Yair, is intended to help unite the Shekhinah’s flames in our soul by applying the middot, or character traits, in an orderly way and internalizing them through persistent, repetitive study. We become aware...


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