Shabbat Parashat Shemini| 5764
From the works of Hagaon Harav Shaul Yisraeli zt”l - The Essence of and Path to Perfection - Part II - From Perakim B’machshevet Yisrael, p. 391
[Last time we discussed the differences between the Rambam and Ramchal on the question whether a person who strives for self-perfection need to expend great efforts in curbing his worldly desires.]
The common denominator between the Rambam and Ramchal is that they see the world as centered around people of exceptionally high spiritual achievement. The rest of the world is their staff, so to speak. If one uses the body metaphorically to describe society, the elevated people are like the head, with the relationship between the different parts of humanity following suit. The main importance is in regard to the head. The proper functioning of the rest of the body enables the head to act in the special manner it designs.
R. Yehuda Halevi had a very different approach. For him, as well, the center of the nation is the elite of the elite, the prophets. However, he describes this centrality metaphorically with the heart, not the head. The content of these religious leaders’ role is, by their acting as expected, to uncover the vitality of the whole nation, in all of its facets. This works out logically according to his approach as to how the prophet reaches his greatness. They are the chosen from among a nation which is destined to have prophecy in its midst. They are not chosen for their own sake and in their own merit, but in the merit of the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is also clear that the importance of having prophets is so that they can serve as guides for the nation, to familiarize them with the Divine. “If not for Bnei Yisrael, the Torah would not have been. Furthermore, it was not that they reached their heights because of Moshe, but that Moshe reached his heights because of them. This is because the [special] love of Hashem was only to the multitude of the offspring of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov” (Kuzari II, 56).
R. Yehuda Halevi saw the ideal of the complete person not necessarily in the elite but in the normal type of Jew. He saw completeness in the absolute control of the person over his body and his desires. He finds the path to this level being reached by following the Torah and mitzvot, which provide the means to properly handle of all of a person’s inclinations. There is value, within reason and limits, even for things that one can exist without. An excess of food and drink has a place in a complete person’s life, if it helps bring joy at the appropriate times on the calendar year. Similarly, there are times during the year when it is appropriate to be particularly pensive and introspective. R. Yehuda Halevi scoffs at those who think that it is possible to reach control over the body’s desires by suppressing them. He shows that the result is just the opposite.
R. Yehuda Halevi also agrees that there is room for a life of distance from pleasures of the world. However, this is only for very unique people, and the point of this lifestyle is not to actively suppress one’s physical side. Rather it stems from the lifestyle of a person who has reached a state of elevation approaching that of angels, to the point that worldly pleasures no longer interest him.
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