The Torah is a Tree of Life, Aitz Chaim, to those who grasp onto it firmly (Proverbs 3:18). We first encounter the Tree of Life in Genesis 2:9. It is one of two special trees in the Garden of Eden; the other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit of the second tree is forbidden to Adam. Eve eats from the Tree of Good and Evil, and Adam soon follows her example. Consequently, they lose their angelic purity, and become human. They acquire a yetzer tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha ra, an evil inclination.
Our Midrash tells us God intends for Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but not until after they eat from the Tree of Life. In other words, God wants them to first learn the ethical and spiritual message of the Torah, so that they will be able to listen to the yetzer tov and ignore the yetzer ha ra.
– Rabbi Arthur Segal
A year or so ago I began a series on Duties of the Heart, the 11th century classic by R’Bachya Ibn Paquda of Spain. In the first couple of hundred pages R’Paquda lays out his argument in support of the existence of God and our obligations to God. R’Paquda makes a distinction between what he calls “knowledge of the duties of the limbs,” and “knowledge of the duties of the heart.” The duties of the limbs include the rituals which have been passed down by tradition. He argues that the duties of the heart, which “belong to the hidden, private realm” are no less obligatory than the ritual commandments, and in fact must precede them as the foundation of a spiritual life. “Since the very basis for an act, and what it revolves around, depends on the intention and inner life of the heart, the knowledge of the duties of the heart should come before the knowledge of the duties of the limbs.” The physical commandments are intended to serve as reminders to perform the spiritual commandments – ritual performed for its own sake, without kavenah, is empty. Furthermore, the duties of the heart are binding at all times, unlike the duties of the limbs which are schedule-dependent. What are the duties of the heart? For starters, R’Paquda finds five spiritual commandments in the Shema: 1) Hashem exists; 2) He is our God; 3) He is one; 4) we should love Him with all our hearts; 5) we should serve Him wholeheartedly.
In my search for texts on mussar, (Jewish self-improvement) I have found concepts identified but not described, i.e. character traits such as “humility.” What does that mean, exactly? Perhaps I know it when I see it, but how do I take my instincts to the level of intellectual understanding so that I can articulate my experience and check to see if I am living according to those ideals?
The Handbook to Jewish Spiritual Renewal, by Rabbi Arthur Segal, provides a step-by-step guide to creating a spiritual inventory, or chesbon ha nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Rabbi Segal’s recent book, The Path and Wisdom for Living at Peace with Others, A Modern Commentary on Talmud Tractates Derek Eretz Zuta and Rabbah, Volume 1, offers the most precise and accessible working definition of spirituality that I have ever encountered. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we’ve arrived? Derek Eretz was written approximately 1500-2000 years ago. The Sages describe, in great detail, a set of behavioral ideals that can inform and illuminate one’s spiritual quest. Part history lesson, part mussar, Rabbi Segal’s commentary demystifies and explains these ancient texts in relatable, contemporary terms. This book has become my “go to” for clarity and peace of mind.
The Midrash teaches that all Jews are ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim, believers who are descendants of believers, but more important than faith itself are the actions which point to one’s faith. Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810, Poland) said, “Whether a man really loves the Divine can be determined by the love he bears toward his fellow men.”