How does a Jew scale the heights of spiritual perfection?
Rabbi Shmuel Wise
We learned about this on 20b: R’ Pinchas ben Yair lays out a path that one must follow in order to achieve spiritual perfection. This path identifies specific spiritual attributes which only become possible to achieve once the preceding attributes have been mastered – a kind of spiritual ladder. In a mere seven lines of gemara, R’ Pinchas ben Yair gifted us with a roadmap for life that is both practical and inspiring. Mesillas Yesharim by R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato, arguably the most important written work in the realm of mussar, is essentially an elucidation of R’ Pinchas’s teaching.
We will briefly explore R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s spiritual roadmap, using Rashi and Mesillas Yesharim to help us interpret it. But as R’ Luzzato emphasizes in the beginning of his sefer, we can’t begin to build a life of spiritual growth until we are first crystal clear on the purpose of life, on the one ultimate goal that we must strive for everyday: to become connected with G-d, something that only can come to full fruition in the World to Come. It must first be clear to us that developing a true relationship with our Creator is the one thing that is worthwhile after all is said and done. Sure, this life is full of things that feel good. But choosing these temporal pleasures can be likened to a person who spoils his appetite on cheap oily food before a grand banquet. A large part of spiritual growth, then, comes down to mastering the art of delaying gratification. We often need only remind ourselves that things are going to be far more pleasurable in the World of Eternity.
Once it is clear that there’s nothing more valuable than meriting a closeness with G-d in the World to Come (this, by the way, is a concept that is worthwhile to meditate on at least once a day), we can then begin the work of acquiring the necessary attributes that will enable us to lead lives that will earn our place in the Next World. First, we must study the Torah which leads to the acquisition of cautiousness, for learning the Torah leads to the recognition that keeping the mitzvos of the Torah requires great care and discretion. From cautiousness, we are inspired to alacrity, i.e. we realize that we mustn’t sit back and use discretion when needed, rather, we must be proactive to avoid risky situations to begin with. From alacrity, we can move on to cleanliness, which according to Mesillas Yesharim refers to a person who realigns his very desires to be consistent with the expectations of the Torah, thereby eliminating the selfish motives that often guide our actions in the wrong direction.
Then one may ascend to abstinence which is achieved when a person abstains from even permitted indulgences in order to raise his spiritual level further. Following abstinence comes purity wherein the person purifies his very thoughts. Next comes piety, which is achieved when a person strives to go beyond the bare minimum of what the Torah requires. He takes the spirit of the mitzvos and runs with it much further. It is worth noting that our gemara considers piety to be the most supreme attribute of all.
Next is humility in which the person comes to a true realization of his lowliness; in the end we are frail mortal beings that almost invariably fail to live up to our potential. One in possession of humility has a profound understanding of this, and this realization guides everything he does.
Then comes fear of sin. The person with this attribute refrains from sin not merely out of a fear of divine retribution, but out of a profound sense of awe of the One Who commanded him not to sin. At this point a person can reach sanctity. At this level, the person’s value system is so strong that he views everything he does – even mundane activities – as sanctified acts that bring him closer to his Creator.
If a person has mastered all of this, then he can merit some “dividends” of his lofty spiritual status in this world: First, he can merit ruach hakodesh, which means either that the Divine Presence will rest on him (Rashi), or that he will perceive hidden knowledge through divine inspiration (Mesillas Yesharim). In addition, the person who has climbed this spiritual ladder can acquire the ability the revive the dead, a feat accomplished by many sages of the Gemara. Apparently, this last power is no longer accessible in our day.
Of course, ascending R’ Pinchas ben Yair’s ladder takes a lifetime of work. But if we aspire and take practical steps each day to get there, it indeed is in our power to make the ascent; to bring ourselves closer every day to arrive at the eternal pleasure of clinging to the Divine Presence.