Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More on Finality and Purpose of our Existence - Practical Implications.

In my last post, I discussed the position of Rambam that although we cannot know the reason for existence as a whole, we can discern an internal reason for the different components of the Universe. We see a mechanism for the preservation and survival of each species, species as a whole, ultimately the universe. We also observe that there is an evolutionary process towards perfection. How do we translate these insights into practical action? Why is it so important?

One of the conclusions one arrives at based on this opinion is that man is not the most important component of the universe and unlike the belief of some, including some of our great Rabbis and thinkers he is not the reason for all of existence. Man is only one of the elements that comprise the universe and has a place in it interacting with its components doing his part for the survival of the whole. It is man’s greater abilities, his sentience, his freedom of will and choice, his intelligence, his ability to work towards a goal and thus his ability to voluntarily impact his surroundings and environment that has to be harnessed towards the survival of the whole of existence. It is because man is the most advanced creation in the physical realm, as Rambam in his Aristotelian cosmology puts it, below the sphere of the moon, that he also has great responsibilities and obligations. This is what perfection means when we talk about human beings. It is using their particular abilities to their utmost towards the goals that they were intended for, namely the survival of the whole. It is by developing his great abilities to think and act that man actualizes his potential for perfection. By using the godlike component of his makeup, the Tzelem Elohim, which gives him the ability to think, conceptualize and be creative, man develops an understanding of his role in this great endeavor of survival and continuity. It is only after creation of man that God says that everything is exceedingly good – Tov Me’od.

Study the book which leads all who want to be led to the truth, and is therefore called Torah (Law or Instruction), from the beginning of the account of the Creation to its end, and you will comprehend the opinion which we attempt to expound. For no part of the creation is described as being in existence for the sake of another part, but each part is declared to be the product of God's will, and to satisfy by its existence the intention [of the Creator]. This is expressed by the phrase, "And God saw that it was good" (Gen1:4, etc.). You know our interpretation of the saying of our Sages, "Scripture speaks the same language as is spoken by man." But we call "good" that which is in accordance with the object we seek. When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Gen.1:31), "And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good," it declares thereby that everything created was well fitted for its object, and would never cease to act, and never be annihilated. This is especially pointed out by the word "exceedingly"; for sometimes, a thing is temporarily good; it serves its purpose, and then it fails and ceases to act. But as regards the Creation it is said that everything was fit for its purpose, and able continually to act accordingly.” (MN 3:13)

What Rambam presents here is a convergence of what seemingly were two separate ideas – survival and perfection. Perfection, the creation of the most perfect (in-potentia) component of the universe, man, is also a key requirement for its long-term survival and continuity. It is when man was created, hierarchically the last among all creations, the whole could be seen as “exceedingly good” and continuity of the universe was established while until now it was only “good”, species specific.

Man however has to actualize his potential and how to do that is his challenge. This brings us to the raison d’etre and goal of Torah. “The general object of the Law is twofold: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body”. (MN 3:27) The welfare of the body is addressed through the laws governing society and the rules that deal with personal improvement. Intellectual growth and development cannot occur without taking care of these two basic needs. This part of the law is only a necessary requirement to promote the real development of the human potential which is the soul.

The second perfection of man consists in his becoming an actually intelligent being; i.e., he knows about the things in existence all that a person perfectly developed is capable of knowing.”(MN 3:27)

The Torah’s goal is to help man attain his potential which is to understand the world we live in and act according to this understanding. It is meant to help us overcome the challenge of how to actualize our innate potential to do our part in the survival of the whole of existence. It teaches us how to take care of our physical needs so that we can devote the time and energy necessary to learn about our existence. It is only when we understand our existence and the place God has in it, the laws of nature and how they work in the preservation and continuity of the whole, that we can do our part. That is the Mitzvah of emulating God – Vehalachta Biderachav.

“…the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN3:54)

The importance of how we see our part in the whole becomes clear. When we talk about Avodat Hashem, service of God, we are talking about accepting and understanding the role we play as part of the whole of existence. Avodat Hashem and cleaving to Him, is not just an intellectual exercise. It is acting in accordance with our responsibility as part of God’s universe playing the part He assigned to us at creation to promote the survival and continuity of the whole.

Rambam dispersed this discussion of purpose and finality in many chapters of the Moreh. He however focused on this in MN 3:13, at the start of his discussions on providence, and continued with it in chapters 3:25 and 26 as an introduction to his discussions on Ta’amei Hamitzvot – the rationale for the Mitzvot. It is now self evident why.

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