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Weighing Acts of Piety

Author: Gina Kirsch, Shevat 5773/January 2013

Summary of a talk given by Gina Kirsch at an Etta Kossowsky Study Group on the yahrzeit of
her mother, Doris Mainzer, z.l.

'Mesilat Yesharim' ch.20

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, The RaMChaL, in his work 'Mesilat Yesharim', The Path of the Just', gives a very systematic presentation of the steps that people need to take in order to attain the height of personal kedusha, holiness. He assumes that his readers are already just, righteous, yesharim, in the sense that they genuinely seek to improve their conduct in order to come closer to their Creator.

The Ramchal usually allows three chapters for each of the steps, each virtue under discussion:
1. a defintion;
2. guidelines for acquiring the virtue in question;
3. obstacles that may prevent or incur the loss of that virtue.

Exceptionally here, in his guidelines on piety, chassidut, he inserts a chapter on the need to examine carefully each act of piety in terms of the potential consequences. While, by definition, piety expects a person to go beyond the strict demands of the law, one should be aware that this may have undesirable consequences.

The tools for weighing an act of extra piety, the Ramchal suggests, are:
1. a sincere wish to please the Lord;
2. an analysis of the deed;
3. keeping in mind trust in the Lord's wishes.

To illustrate the problem, Gina referred to an instance when Rabbi Akiva was conducting the service and raced through the Amida prayer, which he would usually, when not conducting the service, recite slowly and with great devotion, an act of piety. Rabbi Akiva explained that the needs of the community overrode his act of piety. Similarly, Rabbi Israel Salanter on one occasion discouraged people from using more than a minimum amount of water for the ritual washing of hands because it had taken someone much effort to bring the water. Being humane was more valuable than being pious and using the water copiously. Thus, circumstances often determine whether an act of piety is positive or not.

Further, while we should always ensure that a fellow Jew is not neglecting a commandment, piously reproaching a person who does not want to listen may harden that person and lead to further sin, which could result in the desecration of the Almighty.

We should be aware that, whereas zeal is essential in our performance of the commandments, piety might lead to excessive zeal and result in quarrels, such as the Levites showed, when each one wanted to be the one to carry the objects needed in the Tabernacle. It is sometimes wise, on the contrary, to hide one's pious act. Gina referred to the distinguished Chasid in Tel Aviv, who carried his Shtreimel, his special hat, in a bag instead of wearing it, so as not to seem ostentatious and thus, perhaps, incur mockery of a mitzva.

Whereas a mitzva has an intrinsic value that the Chasid, the pious person, loves, its performance must always be such that the outcome does not counter any other of the Lord's wishes. This is not always an easy task.