A while back, someone my husband respects very much encouraged him to read this book:
The first time I read Rabbi Shafier’s book, Stop Surviving, Start Living, I just didn’t get it. Not the content of the book — the content was clear as day, written lucidly by Rabbi Shafier, with nice anecdotes and everything. What I didn’t get was that it was based on a book my husband had already read. This one: Mesillas Yesharim, known in English as The Path of the Just, one of the most foundational texts in the Mussar world.
Why, I asked my husband, write a book based on another one, a book that you actually want people to read (because you’re such a fan yourself)?
My husband pointed out to me that when a person reads Mesillas Yesharim, the author (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, known as the RAMCHAL) has assumed that they have already learned the entire Torah and have a good understanding of its laws. With this in mind, the RAMCHAL proceeds to prescribe a ladder of spiritual growth based on Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair’s most famous baraisa.
You can’t even step on the ladder unless you are learning halacha (Jewish law), because you can’t stand on the lowest two rungs of the ladder (Watchfulness and Enthusiastic Diligence) without it. In addition, you can’t truly ascend to subsequent levels until you have mastered the preceding ones. And the highest rungs on the ladder are so challenging, that most likely no one has mastered them in generations.
If a reader has a confident handle on Torah, Halacha, and Jewish thought, Mesillas Yesharim is inspirational. For someone new to Yiddishkeit, the experience of Mesillas Yesharim is pretty terrifying. The first time I tried to read it, I panicked and didn’t try again for years. I just wasn’t ready.
It wasn’t until a couple summers back that Rabbi Nachum and Rebbitzen Emunah Braverman gave a class on the first few levels of Mesillas Yesharim that I was able to really benefit from the RAMCHAL’s masterpiece.
Then my husband pointed out the following…
The very first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim does not cause the same fear and trembling (and performance anxiety, and inferiority complexes…) that can be triggered by the rest of the book. In fact, it can benefit almost any Jew and arouse them to a commitment to conscious and conscientious living. Yet most newcomers to Judaism won’t attempt Mesillas Yesharim because it’s long and intimidating, and packaged in an old-fashioned way (despite its timeless content).
And so, Rabbi Shafier wrote his shmuess based on just the beginning of the RAMCHAL’s book, in easy-to-access language and format. It just came out when I was past that stage.
And then, to make things more complicated…
Even if you are capable of reading Mesillas Yesharim on your own, many contemporary readers need a guide to maximize our understanding of the text. Many people take classes with a rabbi or partner with a more experienced student when learning complex books such as Mesillas Yesharim. Others listen to audio of such courses. Or we can read another book. One I particularly like is this one:
In Lights Along the Way, the remarkable Rabbi Dr. Twerski elucidates the ladder of Mesillas Yesharim with real-life examples and a masterful understanding of human behavior. He takes the RAMCHAL’s words and makes them actionable (as my applied anthropology professor liked to say). Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s book is most useful for those who have read Mesillas Yesharim, but even someone who hasn’t read it could benefit.
Simchas Torah is around the bend.
That holiday marks the end of our reading of the Torah the previous year. How do we celebrate? By starting to read it all over again. Miraculously, we seem to find something new in it every year.
There are Jews who collect haggadahs, Jews who collect volumes of Pirkei Avos, and Jews who collect Mussar books. They open each one with anticipation, looking for fresh insights in a beloved subject.
People collect secular books, too. How many diet books are out there? Or books about the Civil War?Or cookbooks? And what about the panoply of novels about vampires? Some people define themselves based on what kind of books they collect.
Reading a book like Mesillas Yesharim isn’t something we do and then walk away. It’s something we read again and again, and come back to as a touchstone in our lives. And so I have to reconsider my initial puzzlement at Stop Surviving, Start Living. If you’re going to collect books, or read multiple books on the same subject, why not collect ones based on Mesillas Yesharim? I think I’d rather be that kind of person than the kind of person who collects books about shoes or hairstyles or werewolves.
And Rabbi Shafier’s Stop Surviving, Start Living might just be a good place to start.