Having informed us of the importance of being “נקיים (literally ‘clean’, but generally understood to be ‘free from sin and the suspicion of sin’) in the eyes of God and of Israel” (see Bemidbar 32:22), today’s daf (Shelakim 9b) quotes Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair’s steps of spiritual growth – which includes the trait of נקיות (literally ‘cleanliness’, but generally understood to be ‘free from sin and the suspicion of sin’) – to teach us how to achieve this state, and how to grow beyond it.
Famously, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) based his Mesillat Yesharim around these steps of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair, with each chapter in Mesillat Yesharim providing guidance about how to acquire the traits of זריזות (diligence), נקיות (cleanliness) etc. As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (1930-2021) writes in his ‘Lights Along the Way’ – his modern-day commentary to the Mesillat Yesharim – the very fact that Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair ‘provides an orderly, sequential progression’ where some of these components ‘are prerequisites for others’ teaches us that ‘if one leaps ahead of oneself, one may remain with nothing’. In fact, it is of interest that Rabbi Twerski proves this lesson from an event that we will be commemorating in the coming days – namely Kriat Yam Suf. As he explains:
“The Midrash states that at the miraculous dividing of the waters of the Red Sea the Divine revelation was so great that even the person with the least spirituality had a prophetic vision that surpassed by far the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. We can assume what the intensity of the experience must have been for those at higher spiritual levels. Yet, just three days later, the Israelites rebelled against Moses and wished to return to the enslavement of Egypt. Why had they not been transformed by the intensity of the spiritual experience? The answer is that they were not prepared for it. Their own spiritual level was inadequate for the prophetic vision to have had an impact upon them and to be so integrated that it would influence their thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.”
Rabbi Twerski then offers crucial and timeless advice to all those on a path of spiritual growth: “There is no elevator for spirituality. We must approach spiritual growth in an orderly fashion, grasping and integrating each level before moving on to the next higher level.”
Having provided personal and spiritual support to numerous men and women along their spiritual growth journeys, this truth expressed by Rabbi Twerski has been borne out time after time. Moreover, when I meet people who are ebbing away from an apparently observant lifestyle, they often tell me that the reason why they feel comfortable to leave observance behind them is because they had never truly grasped and integrated many of the values and laws of Jewish observance in their life.
What we learn from here is that growth is a steady process, and that while those who educate others towards growth may wish to educate towards זריזות (diligence), they must also do so in a manner and at a pace that they can also claim to have achieved נקיות (cleanliness) in their methods.