What does a person need to do in order to achieve the highest levels of spirituality? What are the steps one must follow to achieve a genuine connection with God? What were the minimum requirements that had to be achieved by any prophet?
The Gemara (Avodah Zara 20b) tells us a famous beraisa (teaching of the Tannaim) that gives us the basic information:
אמר רבי פינחס בן יאיר: תורה מביאה לידי זהירות, זהירות מביאה לידי זריזות, זריזות מביאה לידי נקיות, נקיות מביאה לידי פרישות, פרישות מביאה לידי טהרה, טהרה מביאה לידי חסידות, חסידות מביאה לידי ענוה, ענוה מביאה לידי יראת חטא, יראת חטא מביאה לידי קדושה, קדושה מביאה לידי רוח הקדש, רוח הקדש מביאה לידי תחית המתים.Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair said, “Torah leads to Carefulness, Carefulness leads to Diligence, Diligence leads to Cleanliness, Cleanliness leads to Abstinence, Abstinence leads to Purity, Purity leads to Piety, Piety leads to Humility, Humility leads to Fear of Sin, Fear of Sin leads to Holiness, Holiness leads to Ruach HaKodesh (Divine Inspiration), and Ruach HaKodesh leads to the Resurrection of the Dead.”
One of the most popular and influential works of mussar (character development) of all time is the classic Mesillas Yesharim, by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (d.1747). The Messilas Yesharim is based on the beraisa of R’ Pinchas ben Yair. He discusses each of the steps, from זהירות - Carefulness to קדושה - Holiness, in detail.
The following is a description of the essence of each of these traits as explained in Messilas Yesharim. As we study it, it will quickly become clear that very few people achieve more than a few of these steps. Even that is a great accomplishment! This should bring us to appreciate the incredible heights of self-perfection that were achieved by every holy Jew who ever achieved Ruach HaKodesh.
- תורה – Torah: The first step for any achievement of spirituality must be the study of the Torah and the commitment to follow its commandments.
- זהירות – Carefulness: A person must carefully consider all his actions and habitual behavior to determine if they are proper and conducive to his spiritual growth.
- זריזות – Diligence: Just as זהירות trains us to avoid the negative, זריזות trains us to actively pursue the positive. This trait requires us to overcome our laziness and to strengthen ourselves to serve God.
- נקיות – Cleanliness: A person must work to cleanse his mind and soul of any inclination or desire towards sins and bad middos (character traits). He will then have a perfectly clear mind, capable of pure clarity of thought.
The traits detailed above describe the level of a tzadik, the following traits are towards the higher level of the chassid:
- פרישות – Abstinence: This is the level where one trains oneself to stay away from anything that might lead to spiritual harm, even if the thing itself is permitted. (The Messilas Yesharim emphasizes that this principle can be misused to cause a person to abstain from proper and necessary behavior.)
- טהרה – Purity: This is the perfection of one’s thoughts so that even when one does take pleasure from this world, it is not done for the sake of enjoyment but only for the sake of the good that will result. Similarly, when one does a mitzvah, it should be done purely for the sake of God.
- חסידות – Piety: This is when a person serves God out of love, doing more than is strictly required by law. A person with the trait of חסידות looks at every mitzvah to find its underlying message and works to fulfill God’s desire, not just His command. (The Messilas Yesharim emphasizes here too that this principle requires great care to avoid improper behavior. He devotes an entire chapter to the methods used for determining what is true חסידות and what is not.)
- ענוה – Humility: This is when a person does not attach any importance to himself and does not consider himself deserving of praise or honor.
- יראת חטא - Fear of Sin: This is the trait of one who is constantly concerned that some element of sin may have entered into his actions, thus detracting from the glory of God. Fear of Sin is not fear of punishment, which is a very basic level, which even the simplest Jew must achieve. Fear of Sin derives from a consciousness of the awesome greatness of God, and a constant fear of doing anything in opposition to His greatness.
- קדושה – Holiness: This trait is similar to טהרה, mentioned earlier, but much stronger. In קדושה, a person engages in physical acts, not simply with pure intention, but in a state of complete attachment to God, lifting the physical items he uses to a higher spiritual level. The Messilas Yesharim emphasizes that this trait is one that a person must strive for, but it can only be fully achieved as a gift from God.
- רוח הקדש - Ruach HaKodesh: This is when the Shechina (Divine Presence) rests upon a person and his understanding transcends his human nature.
- תחית המתים - Resurrection of the Dead: It is possible for a person to reach such a high level that, through his perfect union with God, he is granted the power to revive the dead, as did Elijah the Prophet and his student, Elisha.
We must always bear this in mind when we learn about the great holy people of Tanach (the Jewish Scriptures). The first ten traits, enumerated above, are the minimum requirements for achieving Ruach Hakodesh. Every holy prophet in Tanach reached these high levels. As we see, this means that they reached a level of self-control that is almost impossible for us to truly understand. Such a person never just did something by habit, or gave into temptation. On the contrary, every action was carefully measured and used to achieve higher levels of spirituality.