Title Quote: Malcolm Forbes
The Gemara on Amud Beis quotes the famous beraisa of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair, which the Mesilas Yesharim used as the basis for the Sefer. The Mesilas Yesharim describes each middah in the beraisa and what are the steps to develop it:
[וְכֵן הָיָה רִבִּי פִינְחָס בֶּן יָאִיר אוֹמֵר. זְרִיזוּת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי נְקִיּוּת. נְקִיּוּת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי טַהֳרָה. טַהֳרָה מְבִיאָה לִידֵי קְדוּשָּׁה. קְדוּשָּׁה מְבִיאָה לִידֵי עֲנָוָה. עֲנָוָה מְבִיאָה לִידֵי יִרְאַת חֵטְא. יִרְאַת חֵטְא מְבִיאָה לִידֵי חֲסִידוּת. חֲסִידוּת מְבִיאָה לִידֵי רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ. רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ מֵבִיא לִידֵי תְחִײַת הַמֵּתִים. תְּחִײַת הַמֵּתִים מְבִיאָה לִידֵי אֵלִיָּהוּ זָכוּר לַטּוֹב.
Rabbi Pineḥas ben Yair would say: Alacrity in the proper performance of the mitzvot leads to cleanliness of the soul, so that one will not sin. Cleanliness of the soul and refraining from all sin leads to purity, so that one purifies his soul from his previous sins. Purity leads to holiness. Holiness leads to humility, as one recognizes his lowliness. Humility leads to fear of sin, because when one recognizes his inferiority, he becomes more fearful of sin and is careful to avoid temptation. Fear of sin leads to piety, as one begins to impose upon himself stringencies beyond the letter of the law. Piety leads to the holy spirit, because when one acts in a manner that goes beyond the letter of the law, Heaven acts with him in a way that is not natural to man, and informs him of the secrets of the Torah through divine inspiration. The holy spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, because the spirit of holiness and purity that descend upon him enter the bones of the deceased and resurrect them. The resurrection of the dead that will precede the arrival of the Messiah leads to the coming of the Prophet Elijah, of blessed memory, who will herald the upcoming redemption.
The Mesilas Yesharim is an extraordinary Sefer that has achieved a universal level of use and recognition that spans every era, culture and sect, and is recognized even beyond the Jewish faith. I want to share an interesting and less known back-story about the origins of this holy Sefer.
Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato, The Ramchal, was born in 1707, in Padua Italy and lived only 37 years, succumbing to a plague that killed himself, his wife and his son. In such a short number of years, he accomplished more than hundreds of lifetimes of work. But his life was not easy nor the path of his work without unusual obstacles. In his early years, the Ramchal had begun to experience a Magid apparition coming to him in the form of a voice issuing from his own mouth, and teaching him Torah, particularly new mystical ideas. He began to write Sefarim as almost an extension to the Zohar. This apparently aroused fear of Sabbateanism, and how it could lead people astray. A group of contemporary rabbonim made the Ramchal to swear under duress, possibly even death threats from vigilantes, to no longer publish such manuscripts. There were further persecutions and accusations, including the burning of certain of his manuscripts.
Ultimately, he settled in Amsterdam and during this relatively calm period in his life that he produced the Mesilas Yesharim, which has no overt reference to the mystical ideas which were replete in his other works.
What I find most telling is that he was forbidden by an oath to publish any mystical work. From this repressive experience, under what must have been painful psychic oppression, he produced one of the world's greatest literary and ethical treatises of all time. Is that a coincidence or somehow the very pressure to suppress his mystical yearnings and wish to teach brought us Mesilas Yesharim. Like coal being crushed deep under the earth that turns into a diamond, the Ramchal’s most esoteric mystical inclinations became converted into a work of beautiful simplicity yet amazing wealth.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria