On Duty


3 Iyar 5781

Today we look at Mussar, specifically at Chapter One of Mesillas Yesharim. The author, R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, of blessed memory, begins by stating that the foundation of devotion is to clarify and verify one’s duty in the world and that one should make an effort to achieve that in all of one’s labours through one’s lifetime. It is important to note here that R. Luzzatto does not give an endpoint to this. One must strive to know better what is one’s duty in the world but not rest once enough is achieved. The search for one’s duty is constant and does not end. How does one know better and know one’s duty? By studying and learning. This, however, should not be limited to theoretical knowledge. It is known that practising makes one better. Practising also gives experience. Additionally it is to be noted that R. Luzzatto does not use the verb “to try” here. To try would contain in itself the knowledge that one will not achieve one’s goal. Instead one just makes efforts. The perfect goal will not be achieved and yet efforts are made constantly in a harmonious contradiction.

R. Luzzatto then states that man has been created for the purpose of enjoying the splendour of the Divine Presence. I shall not presume as to discuss the purpose of the creation of man. We cannot know for certain the intentions of the Numinous, we can only discern that through reflections. The unfathomable cannot be comprehended. However, our Sages of blessed memory have taught us in many ways the manner of enjoying the glory of the Divine Presence. It can be felt by following the mitzvot. The mitzvot are themselves a reflection of one’s duties, consequently following them is the necessary corollary of enjoying the splendour of the Divine Presence.

This is what R. Luzzatto too deduces in the next paragraph. The path of the mitzvot is the path – a corridor – to the world to come. Here it is important to note that a corridor does not allow for side flow. Either one goes forward or one goes back. Lateral movement is limited. The mitzvot are the lights on the way that allow us to place our next steps and to advance towards the Eternal, may his name be blessed. The lights are to be followed in one direction. R. Luzzatto underlines further, quoting Eruvin 22a, that we do the mitzvot today and see the reward tomorrow: that is, in the world to come. The world to come is also the destination that has been prepared for man. Here it it important to remind oneself that a destination is not reached until one is there. The path may itself go forward, we may feel we are going on the right way, but until it is reached, the mitzvot must be followed.

This goal, by definition, will not be achieved in one’s lifetime, only in the world to come and therefore, logically, the effort is constant and does not cease in one’s life. The effort only ends when the goal is reached – not in our lifetime. Yet, if we stop making the effort, we may get further from it, even if it is not within the grasp in our time in this world to reach it.

Availing myself of the opportunity, I wish you in advance a nice Shabbes and don’t forget to count!

D. Cohen