With summer nearing its end, we are more mindful of the upcoming High Holidays and their themes and observances. However, we first arrive, next week, at what Rabbi Abraham Twerski calls the greatest of our holidays: Tu B’Av, a festive signpost heralding our concern for the value of marriage.
One literary work that should be given its due this time of year is a book written over 300 years ago, which is of increasing moral importance and relevance to this very day.
In two essays written by Rabbi Twerski, Mesillat Yesharim, a work written by the Ramchal, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, is given great prominence. In the first essay, “Declaration of Independence vs. Mesillat Yesharim,” dealing with the rights of humanity, Rabbi Twerski cites Luzzatto’s work with the following observation:
“Ramchal begins his epochal work with a chapter entitled, ‘The Obligation of a Person in His World.’ This sets the theme for the entire book. If a person has inalienable rights, then he is free, within accepted limits, to decide how he wishes to exercise these rights.”
Further on, Rabbi Twerski states that the “Ramchal would fully agree with ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
“Life, because the Torah says, ‘You shall observe My decrees and My laws which man shall carry out and by which he shall live.’
“Liberty, because the Torah says, ‘Proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.’
“Pursuit of happiness, because the Torah says, ‘You shall be completely joyous.’
“These are inalienable mitzvot, not rights” notes Rabbi Twerski, in an attempt to give the Declaration the status of sacred writ.
This take on our Declaration of Independence brings into sharp focus the relevance of the writings of the Ramchal to the very foundational concepts of the American republic.
In his second essay, entitled, “Tu B’Av — The Greatest of Our Holidays,” Rabbi Twerski once again cites the Ramchal’s work:
“Living a Torah life requires more than observance of halachot. It requires that a person be driven by the will to do what G-d wants, and this is the all-important area of middot.”
Thus, Rabbi Twerski adds an essential element of morality to the concept of mitzvot as they concern interpersonal relationships. He goes into further detail as to how this impacts human relationships, from casual friendships to marriage.
This view of Luzzatto’s intellectual legacy was shared by many, including Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l, a noted scholar of Luzzatto’s works in his own right, who stated:
“Luzzatto was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the past several centuries. Both his depth of thought and systematic mind are evident in all his works.
“Over two hundred years ago, the Vilna Gaon declared that Luzzatto had the most profound understanding of Judaism that any mortal human could attain. He furthermore stated that if Luzzatto were alive in his generation, he would go by foot from Vilna to Italy to sit at his feet and learn from him.”
To get a good idea as to what the Ramchal is all about, especially during the month of Elul when the study of Mesillat Yesharim is appropriate, I suggest Rabbi Twerski’s truly lucid, practical, user-friendly commentary based on Mesillat Yesharim, entitled, Lights Along The Way (Artscroll), now in its eighth printing.
For another point of view, there is Mesillat Yesharim (Jewish Publication Society, 2010), with a detailed and scholarly introduction and commentary by Dr. Ira F. Stone.
Still, as a work in progress, we have to date five volumes in print of “Ascending The Path” by Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, a scholarly work sponsored by Lawrence residents Debra and Richard Parkoff. Read, enjoy — and most importantly, learn.
A version of this column originally appeared in 2011.