Derech Hashem — The Way of G-d 1:4:1-2
Ramchal termed this chapter “Man’s Standing in This World, and The Specific Ways Available to Him” 1. It begins with the point that at bottom, man’s standing in this world is dependent on two things: his own makeup, and his surroundings and circumstances 2.
As to our makeup, it’s characterized by the fact that we’re a mélange of two conflicting elements: a soul and a body 3. The body and all of its physicality hold sway from birth on 4 until your mind — and hence, your soul 5 — comes into its own. But the body only gives way to the soul when you grow in wisdom 6 and learn how to keep your baser instincts in check.
For at bottom, sin and rank physicality reflect a sort of murkiness as opposed to the clarity of spirituality, and that murkiness is the polar opposite of what those who want to draw close to G-d 7 would crave.
The rub is that the soul has to experience that murkiness as long as it’s in the body and must suffer it until the soul overcomes it 8. Given that the body and soul are to reunite in the end 8, it behooves the soul to eventually undo the body’s murkiness so that the two could ascend together as they must 10. And so each one of us must engage in the struggle to have the soul hold sway over the body here, in life, so as to improve ourselves and achieve our true potential.
1 … to achieve his ultimate goal, which will be focused on in 1:4:6 and 1:4:11.
It could be said that we’re now approaching the more practical core of Derech Hashem since rather than dwelling on abstract notions of G-d’s makeup, the purpose of creation, and our future life, we’ll now be concentrating on the means we have to live out and fulfill our life’s purpose and how some of the above touches on that.
As to our standing being dependant on our makeup and circumstances, it’s important to underscore the fact that G-d’s own will and plans obviously play a role in our station as well, oftentimes despite our makeup and situation. But that is a vast and numinous subject that’s far beyond the scope of this discussion.
2 See 1:4:2 specifically for a discussion of man’s makeup and 1:4:3 for his surroundings, though both will be discussed throughout the chapter.
Our makeup touches upon our inner life while our circumstances, of course, touch upon our outer lives. The two are often in conflict, as we’ll discuss below, but they needn’t be. In fact, the greatest among us are characterized by the harmonious interplay of the two.
The greatest classical paradigm of one’s makeup and surroundings affecting his standing would be the situation that Adam and Eve found themselves to be in before their sin, while they were of the greatest caliber and lived in the Garden of Eden, as opposed to their lesser stature subsequent to that when they were no longer in the Garden.
3 See 1:3:2.
4 That’s to say that one could quite naturally and understandably remain subservient to his body and its needs given the state we’re born into, were it not for the fact that we’re not just composed of a body, but of a body and a soul.
5 See 1:3:2.
6 I.e., in Torah-study (for service to G-d), Mussar (for character growth), and Kabbalah (for understanding G-d’s intentions for us).
Ramchal spoke of the growth of the mind in a number of other works: see especially Adir Bamarom pp. 91, 128, 140, and Da’at Tevunot 53.
7 This is another allusion to the fact that our goal is to draw close to G-d, as we’ll focus upon later in this chapter.
8 Thus, a soul is like a prince who’d been confined to a dungeon but who can free himself if he only rises above his environment with his mind.
9 In a bracketed note Ramchal reiterates that even though body and soul will indeed separate after death, that’s only a “temporary” situation, for ultimately they’ll be together forever. Though it seems counter intuitive to us, he’s reiterating the fact that death should be taken as something of an “illness” or “set-back” which, while “annoying” will pass in the end.
10 In a sense, body and soul are like two brothers united since birth and forever. The first-born brother — the body — is more athletic perhaps and worldly, while the second brother is more principled and intellectual. The point is that while the first-born will dominate throughout their childhood and “bully” his younger brother, the younger one will eventually dominate through his mind and somehow or another “save the day”.
In fact, this is like the situation of first-born Esau who is depicted as being “a cunning hunter, a man of the field” who first dominated, and his younger brother Jacob who was depicted as being “a pure man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27), who eventually held sway over the two. For as their mother was told when she bore them, “Two nations are in your womb, and two sorts of people will be separated from your bowels; one people will be stronger than the other; (yet) the elder will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). And while now isn’t the place to expand upon this, the whole story of the two brothers and the interactions between Jewish People and the Gentile Nations that they represent can be read as the playing-out of the interactions between the body and soul.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon “The Gates of Repentance”, “The Path of the Just”, and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various locations on the Web.