What Does Hashem Your God Require of You..." - Moshe's Speech and the Mesilat Yesharim

  • Rav Uriel Eitam

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"What Does Hashem Your God Require of You…" -

Moshe's Speech and the Mesilat Yesharim

By Rav Uriel Eitam



Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), in the introduction to his Mesilat Yesharim, awards a prominent place to the following verses:

"And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you, but to fear Hashem your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him, and to serve Hashem your God with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes, which I command you this day for your good?" (Devarim 10:12-13)

Ramchal explains that Moshe here captures the essence of all the elements of avoda (Divine service):

"And it is a great wisdom that Moshe ... teaches us when he says, 'And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you...' Included here are all the elements that comprise the complete service desired by God."

Ramchal already used this verse to describe the complete form of avoda in a sharp letter he sent to his teacher, after the rabbinic court in Frankfurt forbade him (in the year 1735) to continue teaching Kabbala:

"The German Jews are whole and numerous, thank God - in Frankfurt alone there are some three hundred Torah scholars studying in yeshivot - and they are talented enough to understand Torah deeply. But behold, they waste their days in pointless casuistry, and there is no spirit of piety in them. If only that were all! If in all of Germany where I traveled and in all of Holland where I live there are God-fearing people who seek to know how to fear and love God and how to behave piously before their Creator, they can surely be counted by a child. In Italy, your honor surely knows better than I, there is no one at this time who knows how to seek God; rather chaos and darkness rule the city, and there is no understanding even of the words, 'What does Hashem your God require of you but to fear…'" (Letters of Ramchal, p. 304)

Upon examination of this verse it would appear that an additional fundamental principle from Mesilat Yesharim is concealed in Moshe's words. Throughout his book, Ramchal deals with Divine service itself, but at the beginning (chapter 1) he addresses not only the question of what a person's OBLIGATION is in the world, but also the question of what his GOAL should be. The answer to this latter question depends on the purpose for which man was created. Ramchal explains that:

"Man was created solely to take pleasure in God and to enjoy the glory of His Shekhina, for this is the true pleasure and the greatest enjoyment of any that could exist. And the place of this enjoyment is truly in the World to Come."

This idea is hinted at in the above verse, which not only defines one's obligation but also expresses one's ultimate goal. The instruction, "And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you," ends with the words "for your good." Ramchal defines this "good" in accordance with the teaching of Chazal (Kiddushin 39b) that refers to the World to Come as "the world that is entirely good." (Further on, Ramchal negates the possibility that this "good" is to be found in the present world.)


Despite the great importance of Moshe's words, the structure that Ramchal follows in his book reflects not our verse but rather a beraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. At the end of his introduction Ramchal explains as follows:

"And behold, all of these (principles mentioned by Moshe) are principles that require much explanation, and I have found that our Sages of blessed memory included these elements in a different order, more detailed and organized according to the gradual steps required for their proper acquisition… And behold, it was in accordance with this beraita that I decided to compose this work in order to teach myself and to remind others of the conditions for perfect service and its various levels."

What makes the beraita preferable, in Ramchal's eyes, to Moshe's formulation? The beraita is more detailed, and - more importantly - it is structured with a view to the attainment of perfection in one's avoda. In other words, Moshe defines the components of proper service, while R. Pinchas ben Yair describes the path leading to that service and facilitating its attainment. And since the book is structured as a gradual path to perfection, it is appropriately named "Mesilat Yesharim" (the path of the upright).

Although our verse does not provide the basis for the structure of the book, it does represent the goal of the book and of the path that it describes, and therefore it is useful as an important key for an understanding of the book as well as its structure. Hence we must ask ourselves how the five components of Divine service mentioned by Moshe are addressed in the beraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. Do the steps along the path represent stages in the process of acquisition, such that only at the END does one attain perfection in one's service of Hashem with all its components, or are the components of perfect service themselves broken down in the beraita into an order for their acquisition?

Let us examine Ramchal's explanation of the components of avoda as expressed by Moshe: fear of God, walking in His ways, love, purity of heart, and observance of all the mitzvot, and compare them with Ramchal's definition of the various middot (traits) of the beraita.

FEAR: Moshe Rabbeinu is referring to "fear of God's loftiness ... leading one to be ashamed before God's greatness in every movement he makes." This obviously corresponds to the eighth midda (quality) listed the beraita - fear of sin: "He should be fearful and constantly concerned for his actions lest the tiniest hint of sin be mixed up in them, or lest they involve anything great or small that is not in keeping with the greatness of God's honor and the loftiness of His name" (chapter 24).

WALKING IN HIS WAYS: This is not categorized as an independent midda in Mesilat Yesharim, and appears primarily as a component of the middot of dignity and piety.

LOVE: Ramchal explains that Moshe is referring to love "to the point where one's soul is aroused to bring satisfaction to Him." This is the basic definition of the sixth midda - that of chassidut (piety), as addressed in chapter 18: "The root of chassidut is, as Chazal taught, 'Happy is the man whose toil is in the Torah and who brings satisfaction to his Creator.'"

WHOLEHEARTEDNESS (referred to elsewhere in the introduction alternatively as 'purity of the heart' or 'how our thoughts are purified'): "That one's service of God should be performed with purity of intention." This is the fifth midda in the beraita - that of purity, defined at the beginning of chapter 16 as "correction of the heart and of one's thoughts."

OBSERVANCE OF ALL THE MITZVOT: "In all their detail and with all their necessary conditions." Observance of positive and negative mitzvot is based on the middot of caution and industriousness, but the midda that brings one to observe the mitzvot in all their details and with all their necessary conditions is the third one - that of dignity. The structure of the observance of mitzvot based on these three middot, with which Mesilat Yesharim opens, is defined by Ramchal in chapter 12: "Behold, once the obligation of dignity and the need for it have been identified in man, once he has already attained caution and industriousness in his involvement in the way to their attainment and has distanced himself from all that will detract from them, he now has nothing that will block his attainment of dignity other than (the need) to know the details of the mitzvot, in order that he will be able to exercise caution in all of them."

INVERSION OF THE ORDER: The parallel presented by Ramchal between the verse and the beraita is fascinating, but it raises a question as to the order of the stages mentioned. Why does Moshe conclude his words with the mobasic requirement - that of observance of the mitzvot, with which he should seemingly have started? (Indeed, R. Pinchas ben Yair begins with this midda.) Moreover, it would seem that the entire order of the stages is inverted (except for "walking in His ways," which, as stated, is not awarded a separate chapter in Mesilat Yesharim). Moshe mentions fear before love, which is defined as bringing satisfaction to the Creator, and love precedes wholeheartedness. However, in R. Pinchas ben Yair's formulation, purity of heart precedes piety (which is defined as bringing satisfaction to the Creator), and piety precedes fear. It would seem that this inversion of the order in general, and in particular the fact that Moshe mentions the obligation of observing the mitzvot only at the end, casts a question mark over the entire comparison - and certainly over the fundamental structure of Mesilat Yesharim as being based on the connection between the verse and the beraita.

We find no answer to this puzzle in Mesilat Yesharim, but recently a solution came to light. Ramchal, as is known, wrote an earlier version of Mesilat Yesharim, presented in the form of a dialogue between a cchasid (pious person) and a chakham (scholar). This version was published in 1994 by Rabbis Yosef Avivi and Avraham Shoshana (Ofek Institute). The first part of the book reveals a significant difference between the two versions, and in several instances the earlier version elaborates at greater length than the latter. In his explanation here for mentioning the verse before the beraita, Ramchal explains the inversion of the order of stages regarding the beraita:

"Moshe Rabbeinu, in teaching us to know in truth what our obligation is and what is appropriate for us, said: 'And now, Israel, what does Hashem your God require of you but…' The principle of observance of all the mitzvot, including all the specific laws and injunctions with which you are involved, is only one of the elements mentioned in this verse. There are four other elements mentioned here, and they are: fear of God, walking in His ways, love, and service of the heart…

Close examination reveals that all the mitzvot that involve action comprise one category, while the mitzvot of the heart and the mind comprise a different category. Hence the Torah divides them and mentions the mitzvot of the heart prior to the mitzvot pertaining to the limbs, for this is a proper reflection of their greater importance…

Thus, aside from knowledge of the mitzvot for the purpose of fulfilling them, there are four other elements that accompany their performance and complement it such that it may be acceptable before the Holy One. But you, by your words, have involved yourself only in the first requirement (performance of the mitzvot) while neglecting the other four."

Thus Ramchal teaches that Moshe arranges the elements of avoda according to their importance, while the beraita arranges them according to the gradual progression required for their acquisition. For this reason the order is inverted: the greater the importance of a certain stage (and the earlier its consequent appearance in Moshe's formulation), the more significant the preparation required for its attainment - causing it to appear nearer the end of the beraita.


Until now we have seen how each of the elements of avoda mentioned in the verse finds its parallel in a certain stage in the process of attainment presented in the beraita. The truth is, however, that this principle fails to reflect the relationship in its entirety. A more thorough study reveals that the middot mentioned by Moshe themselves develop in the course of the various stages of the beraita. Just as "observance of the mitzvot" develops in the course of three middot - caution, industriousness and dignity - so other middot likewise appear in a number of stages.

We find this principle clearly enunciated in Ramchal's discussion of "fear of God" in the dialogue between the chasid and the chakham:

"Fear - that is, that a person should be in awe of the loftiness of the Holy One, like someone who stands before a great king. And behold, the ultimate degree of this fear of God is that a person should feel this awe constantly, at all times, with every action that he performs and with every word or thought… However, it is difficult for a person to reach this ultimate level, for his material nature prevents him… but there are progressive stages, and to the extent that one constantly strives to approach this great degree, he is to be praised."

Indeed, the midda of "fear of God" appears in Mesilat Yesharim in the stages of caution, chassidut (piety) and fear of sin. Similarly, purity of motive, for example, is found both in the discussion of purity and in the explanation of the elements of chassidut.


We have noted above the fact that no independent stage or chapter in Mesilat Yesharim is devoted to the element of "walking in His ways" mentioned by Moshe. This is one of many thought-provoking aspects of the book. Not only is the general principle of walking in God's ways not addressed individually, but even the specific middot are mentioned only rarely. Only "the attainment of modesty" has a chapter devoted to it, and in his treatment of the middot within the chapter on dignity Ramchal addresses only pride, anger, jealousy and the coveting of honor and money (all of which are interrelated and thus do not collectively reflect a wide range of middot). Many middot pertaining to interpersonal relationships that are discussed in other well-known ethical works (Ma'alot ha-Middot, Orchot Tzadikim, Netivot Olam) do not appear in Mesilat Yesharim, and the list of Ramchal's chapter headings is blatantly different from theirs.

It would seem that this reflects a more fundamental principle. Mesilat Yesharim is unique among the mussar works. In essence, it is not a book of middot, but rather a book of avodat Hashem. Its intention is not to discuss the derekh-eretz that precedes Torah - the molding of one's moral character as a basis for his being worthy to receive Torah, but rather to address the matters of the heart that follow Torah. It focuses not on the world of middot that we learn from the Patriarchs, but rather on the soul of mitzvot that we learn from Moshe.

The edifice of one's avodat Hashem thus is comprised of three tiers:

    1. the derekh-eretz that precedes Torah, and which we learn mainly from Sefer Bereishit;
    2. the mitzvot of the limbs, found from Sefer Shemot onwards;
    3. the mitzvot of the heart, which is awarded a prominent place is Moshe's introduction to the mitzvot of Sefer Devarim, with which our parasha deals.

Ramchal applies himself principally to this third tier, and for this reason he does not elaborate on the middot of derekh-eretz. Nevertheless, derekh-eretz - which clearly precedes the mitzvot of the limbs - must unquestionably precede the duties of the heart, and therefore it is mentioned by Moshe and echoed by Ramchal in his introduction.

[Question for further study: Even though Ramchal does not focus on interpersonal character traits, why does he nevertheless devote attention to pride, anger, jealousy, and the craving for honor and money? Why does the beraita devote a specific stage of development to the quality of humility?]

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)




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