Through a Mussar Lens: Multiple Aspects to Will
Almost 800 years ago, a Jewish sage living in Rome published a book called Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot (Book of the Choicest Virtues). This work contains Rabbi Yechiel ben Yekutiel’s 13th century insight into 24 inner traits, including the positive and negative possibilities inherent in each.
His is one of several books of its kind in the Mussar library in which the entire purpose of the book is to explore the positive and negative aspect of every human emotional and intellectual quality—the grain and the husk of every trait, as another of these books (Orchot Tzaddikim) puts it. Each chapter listed in the table of contents of these books delves into another familiar human experience, revealing the deep commitment our ancestors had to understanding the inner life.
In one way, that focus is not at all surprising because these spiritual teachers were seeking the practical path by which one could reach the aspirational goal the Torah sets for human life, which is to be holy. That path was surely going to be internal, not external, and so for centuries, our sages explored the nuances of human inner experience to discover and illuminate the ideals a human being should strive to embody in his or her life.
What is surprising about these compendia of wisdom on the inner life is that most of us who grew up in the Jewish world in the last half-century knew nothing about them. The inner life was of little concern in most of the Jewish world, and the insights our ancestors compiled about our own human experience—the good in anger and what ought to be avoided, the positive side of envy and the envy that “rots the bones,” the difference between desire and lust, and so on through the widest range of human experiences—was consigned to dusty library shelves. How different the Jewish world would have seemed to me, and how different my life could have been, had I been exposed to these treasures of inner guidance as part of my experience of growing up Jewish.
Take, for example, the traits of ratzon, which occupy a whole chapter of Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot. I notice that the English translation of this book (published as The Book of Middoth and translated by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein) leaves the word untranslated as ratzon, though many other chapters have English titles. Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot was also the basis for the book The Jewish Moral Virtues by Eugene Borowitz and Frances Schwartz, where also the word ratzon is left in the Hebrew. That is because ratzon is not easy to translate. It is one of several categories of inner experience clearly demarcated within the traditional Jewish understanding of the inner life but for which no direct English equivalents exist. Another example is the term yirah, which names a unified inner experience of fear-awe-reverence for which there is no term in English.
So what is ratzon? And why is it important for us to understand and even more important to internalize as part of who we are?
Like many Mussar books, Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot is organized around binary traits, which means that the chapter on charitable generosity also explores miserliness, and the one on humility also considers arrogance. We begin to get an insight into ratzon by noticing that Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot has no chapter on anger, but rather anger is introduced as the polarity that is the counterpart of ratzon.
We learn from this that ratzon is a positive trait, though when taken to an extreme, it generates anger. At one level, the translation of “will” fits this situation well because it is easy to see that approaching life with a will to take action is a positive asset. But we are also familiar with the danger facing a person whose will is very powerful (someone we might call “willful”), which is that he or she becomes enraged whenever the force of their will is stymied by factors beyond their control.
To understand this pairing of will-and-anger and to find the practical guidance in that duality, we need to introduce a different notion of will into the equation. Or, more accurately, that should be “Will,” because the additional factor is the Divine Will. Human will is a positive asset, and what keeps it from veering into anger is recognizing that we are not the masters of our own lives but are subservient to the Divine Will. Yes, we should take action on our behalf, and that is why we come equipped with a human will, but it is delusion to think that our individual will should prevail in life. We are neither author of the script nor director of the play. We have only our own part to play.
From this perspective, we see that the best of ratzon involves not two inner qualities but three, the third being humility. Acting with conviction and strength is virtuous as long as that trait is accompanied by the humility to recognize that it is certainly in our hands to take action. But we should not be so arrogant as to think we determine the outcome of our action. The final product is actually out of our hands, since so many forces come into play in every situation which are inevitably beyond our control. In the immortal words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot (2:21), “It is not yours to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Also in Pirkei Avot (2:4) we find the teaching “Make God’s will like your will, so that God will make your will like God's will.” Among the many dimensions to this teaching, the one that links most directly to the understanding of ratzon in Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot is the instruction to subsume personal will to the Divine will, because in Sefer Ma'alot Ha’middot R’ Yechiel dwells on the aspect of ratzon that involves having an obliging mind and a soft tongue. And here we come to the subtlety in understanding the trait itself. A person is meant to act with a firm will in life but not with goals that are self-serving. Rather, we should endeavor to embody what we can understand and appreciate as the Divine Will in that situation. When our efforts are not directed to serving ourselves but to enacting the Divine Will, we will inevitably be sensitive to the views and desires of other people and not just furiously driving for the goal, because we will recognize that these other people are part of God’s world, too, and it is entirely possible that they have a role in our lives as the instruments of the Divine Will. This is what saves us from anger, because God’s will is, after all, bigger than my will, and so I have no reason for frustration and annoyance when my will is deflected.
To be sure, will, commitment and perseverance are essential traits of the spiritual life, and as Judaism does not preach fatalism, one needs to pay attention to the subtleties of what is being taught here in the name of ratzon. We are obliged to apply our will to shaping events to correspond to our highest values. When our efforts are frustrated, as they often are, we should respond with an obliging mind and a soft tongue, not out of fatalism or weakness, but because in our wisdom we have the humility to accept the Divine will.
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