Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Ta'amei Hamitzvot - The Role of the Perfected Human Being.

In my last posts on the Reason for Keeping Mitzvot, I wrote that they are a tool to help us understand what role we have to play in promoting existence. Before I get into the specifics of what I mean by tools, I realize that I need to define better, what man’s role in promoting existence consists of. I would like to use a classical example in the Torah that I believe I have written about several times before in different contexts, repeating it again here for this discussion. Please view this as just one example of how people tried to figure out how to act correctly.

After the experience at Sinai, where Moshe led and taught a nation of freed slaves how to attain levels of philosophical and metaphysical apprehension that was unheard of until then, he is confronted with a complete breakdown and possible loss of this great attainment. The people, after a short absence on his part, had taken a major step backwards into idolatry and superstition. They had created their own idol the Golden Calf to replace Moshe. Growing up in Egypt, he had become aware of the existence of his brethrens in slavery and he risked his life to change their state. His prophetic sense gave him the courage to stand up alone to the great Pharaoh and threaten him, cajole him and eventually browbeat him with the plagues into freeing these people. What was the vision that sustained him through all this?

וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, וְזֶה-לְּך

ָ הָאוֹת, כִּי אָנֹכִי שְׁלַחְתִּיךָ: בְּהוֹצִיאֲךָ אֶת-הָעָם

, מִמִּצְרַיִם, תַּעַבְדוּן אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, עַל הָהָר הַזֶּה

12 And He said, “certainly, I will be with thee; and this shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve God upon this mountain.”

The idea was to create a nation that knew and served the one and only God and repudiated idolatry. Moshe had taken over the baton from the Avot who were the first with this vision. Now, at the height of success, at the mountain – Sinai - when he thought he had arrived at the pinnacle of his career, everything came tumbling down. Moshe turns to God and wonders, “did I miss anything?” -

וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיך

הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן


וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה

Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people. (Shemot 33:13)

To which he receives the following answer –

יט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל-טוּבִי

עַל-פָּנֶיךָ, וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ; וְחַנֹּתִי

אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן, וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם.

And He said: 'I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. (Shemot 33:19)

Note the word כָּל-טוּבִי – all My goodness – which reminds us of the words

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

And God saw every thing that He had made, and behold it was very good.

Rambam in MN 1:54 addresses this as follows –

“…and then received, respecting his first request, "Show me thy way," the following favorable reply, "I will make all my goodness to pass before thee"… The words "all my goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). When I say, "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular.”

In other words, Moshe realized that his distress was caused by a lack of knowledge and understanding of how things develop in this world. It was not realistic to expect this rapid changeover from a people who were enslaved idolaters into a nation of free monotheists. Understanding how the world operates and how it develops, what man’s place in it is and how humanity will slowly develop, with all its false starts and sidetracking, into the necessary participant in the whole, helped Moshe see what he had to do and the value of what he was doing. The seed that was planted by Avraham which Moshe now took to the next level will eventually become a nation that will know God and slowly influence humanity. Whatever man’s role is in the long-term survival of existence will only become possible if he breaks away from idolatry and superstition seeing the world as it really is and tries to understand it from a realistic and scientific perspective how it works.

Consequently, the knowledge of the works of God is the knowledge of His attributes, by which He can be known… It is therefore clear that the ways which Moses wished to know, and which God taught him, are the actions emanating from God.

When we repeat the 13 Midot in our prayers, we are reminded of our goal to understand God’s world and our role in it. I find the ending of the 13 Midot telling

ז נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים, נֹשֵׂא

עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה--פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן


עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים, עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים


Keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.

In this verse, the 13 Midot turn from a current perspective to an historical one. This process of humanity developing and adapting to play its role in the universe is long-term and multi-generational. We all have the choice to play our role in it if we try to understand and find it. The Avot and Moshe’s role was to plant the kernel of monotheism, of introducing and teaching humanity about God by creating a nation of seekers of God. Others, who followed their example trying to understand their own role, contributed their part. Aristotle and the thinkers that preceded him in antiquity, to the great contemporary thinkers and scientists, all rejected idolatry and superstition. They all followed in the same path that the Avot and Moshe understood, whether they came to the same realization on their own or were influenced by Judaism. (See the famous Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 11:11-13 )

I hope that using this as an example, we get an idea of what Rambam means by humanity’s role is in the preservation of the whole of existence. It is not something that can be prescribed, but something that man has to discover. For man to be able to do that discovery correctly, his rational faculty has to be in control. His personal biases have to be subsumed and he has to be able to think objectively. For whatever reason, God when He created man wanted him to have freedom of choice so that he can choose to act constructively or not. He created man with a mind that he can use in understanding how to act. The Torah and the Mitzvot it promulgates are the tools that can help, if understood and used properly, perfect a man that fulfils his role.

“… and that the religious acts prescribed in the Law, the various kinds of worship and the moral principles which benefit all people in their social intercourse with each other, do not constitute the ultimate aim of man, nor can they be compared to it [apprehension of God], for they are but preparations leading to it.” (MN 3:54)

For it is only through apprehension of God through His Creation and understanding how He runs it that we can emulate God and partake with Him in creation and its preservation, fulfilling the role set out by Him for humanity.

Ending on a lighter note for the Star Trek and Frank Herbert’s Dune fans, maybe humanity will have to spread throughout the galaxy and beyond bringing other worlds to life and populating them[1]. That may be the key to the eternal survival of existence. That surely could not happen if we were still mired in idolatry and superstition.

[1] I prefer my vision to EJ’s - "Why isn’t it possible that man is only a way station to some higher form of life, say a supercomputer that can simulate consciousness but be much more intelligent and rational?"


  1. I was just reading an essay by the recently departed scholar Tikva Frymer- Kensky. She says the use of the term 'ezer' with respect to Eve, as in other instances in the Bible(God is ezras yisroel) connotes a mentor -superior rather than an assistant. In mythology the creation order traditionally indicates that the last created is the culmination of creation, which is the implication of Genesis 1 in which humans are created last. In Genesis 2, the use of 'ezer' for Eve, and her last created position, would suggest woman's superiority over the man. Needless to say both the mesorah and all the male commentators think of Eve as an afterthought.

    My point is that the tachlis of creation is not marked "End of the line" but is dependent on the subjective values of the reader. The same for apprehension of God through his creation need not lead to one univocal idea how to partake with Him in the preservation of his creation. If God's main text, the Bible is systemically subject to multiple readings, his other major work, the text of nature is even more ambiguous.

  2. EJ -

    Good point. The problem is that man is a complex entity and parts of him are narcissistic and make his decisions biased. That is themetaphor of Eitz Hada'at and Eve. Torah comes to teach how to overcome that weakness. That is why the nachash injected "zohama" and only at Sinai were the Jews taught how to overcome it.

  3. The role of selfishness in chessed is described very well in Rav Shim'on Shkop's introduction to Shaarei Yosher. I put it on line along with my translation.