Thinking people have difficulty accepting revelation-based knowledge, knowledge that is transmitted from generation to generation without empirical supporting proof. Their difficulty is legitimate and the questioning is as it should be. In fact, it is exactly the thinking that revelation is intended to trigger and it is why Nevuah i.e. revelation is one of the Ikarim. A close friend of mine always comments when I go off on my theological musings that all my ideas are a posteriori, trying to understand preconceived dogma rather than starting from a tabula rasa position. I believe this question goes to the heart of the human condition and Judaism. The subject is quite lengthy and is an important component in trying to understand the purpose of Torah, Mitzvot and the whole enterprise we refer to as Yddishkeit and Avodat Hashem. I will try to address this in a series of posts.
Man is an interesting creature who from one perspective is no more than another component of a great universe, an insignificant species that struggles for survival just like every other creature and species. (See MN 3:13) From another perspective, he is the most advanced entity in the whole universe, the only one that can take his own fate into his hands and control everything. (See MN 3:25). The first perspective is how man is before he fulfills his potential; the second perspective is ideal man.
If we were to look at the whole of existence as one big living entity, each component would be seen as an important limb that contributes to the survival of the whole. Certain limbs are indispensable while others are optional; all contribute to the wellbeing of the whole of existence. Where does man find himself in that whole, what kind of limb is he?
Physically man is not impressive. Unlike other living things, he is not the strongest; he is much more sensitive to his environment for survival; he needs to put out much more energy to provide for his own sustenance. To compensate man has evolved into a thinking species that can use its mind to survive.
“An animal does not require for its sustenance any plan, thought or scheme; each animal moves and acts by its nature, eats as much as it can find of suitable things, it makes its resting-place wherever it happens to be, cohabits with any mate it meets while in heat in the periods of its sexual excitement. In this manner does each individual conserve itself for a certain time, and perpetuates the existence of its species without requiring for its maintenance the assistance or support of any of its fellow creatures: for all the things to which it has to attend it performs by itself. With man it is different; if an individual had a solitary existence, and were, like an animal, left without guidance, he would soon perish, he would not endure even one day, unless it were by mere chance, unless he happened to find something upon which he might feed. For the food which man requires for his subsistence, demands much work and preparation, which can only be accomplished by reflection and by plan; many vessels must be used, and many individuals, each in his peculiar work, must be employed. It is therefore necessary that one person should organize the work and direct men in such a manner that they should properly cooperate, and that they should assist each other. The protection from heat in summer and from cold in winter, and shelter from rain, snow, and wind, requires in the same manner the preparation of many things, none of which can properly be done without design and thought. For this reason, man has been endowed with intellectual faculties, which enable him to think, consider, and act, and by various labors to prepare and procure for himself food, dwelling and clothing, and to control every organ of his body, causing both the principal and the secondary organs to perform their respective functions. Consequently, if a man, being deprived of his intellectual faculties, only possessed vitality, he would be lost in a short time.” (MN 1:72)
It is this same necessary trait that man evolved to survive that also is his uniqueness in that it allows him to use it for higher purposes other than personal survival. “The intellect is the highest of all faculties of living creatures: it is very difficult to comprehend, and its true character cannot be understood as easily as man's other faculties.”(MN 1:72). In the process of using his ability to think and develop ways of surviving man also delves into understanding how things work, how they came about and how this whole existence came into being. Understanding these existential questions leads him to try to understand the “mind” of the First Cause and what its purpose is in existence. He hopes that by doing that he will understand his own purpose and role in the whole of existence.
This idea of trying to understand his own role and purpose, the great existential question, is triggered by man’s self-awareness and contemplation of his own position in the whole of existence. The answer to this question is the most elusive and possibly unattainable by man. It deals with “pre” physical concepts, not necessarily “pre” temporally but “pre” hierarchically. Man as a physical entity cannot conceive of non-physical existence without going beyond the empirical. He may “know” that there must be a non-contingent Existent but that knowledge is indirect and deductive. Man can sense that there is such an Entity rather than having real empirical knowledge of its existence, existence itself being an equivocal term.
As hopeless as this quest may be, it lies at the center of all human thought. Our existence is senseless without the quest for the answer to that question. What is our purpose and role as a species and as individual components thereof? A thinking person realizes that this question cannot be answered by any one person in a lifetime, or a whole generation during its lifespan or even many generations over many life spans. It is a quest that may take an indefinite amount of time and generations, many millennia with the combined effort of all humankind and even then who knows? Is it a wonder that nihilism is such an attractive philosophy?
However, this question is more than just a conceptual exercise; it also has practical implications. Besides his own survival man seems to have a role in the survival of the whole of existence. It is after all inconceivable that the most evolved component of the universe has no other purpose than his personal survival. In fact, man’s role must be crucial to the survival of the whole of existence. It is only by finding the answer to the great existential question that man will know what his practical role really is.
The realization of the above I believe lies at the core of Judaism. It is what the whole enterprise of Torah and Mitzvot is meant to accomplish; to lead humankind in finding the answer to that question – what is man’s purpose and role in the existence of the whole? That is why the Torah starts with a synopsis of existence as it is and places man at the end of the process.
“On this principle the whole Law of Moses is based; it begins with this principle: "And God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was exceedingly good" (Gen. i. 31); and it ends with this principle: "The Rock, perfect is His work" (Deut. xxxii. 4). Note it.” (MN 3:25).
“When therefore Scripture relates in reference to the whole creation (Bereshit 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.” (MN3:13)
It is thus man that is seen as the final and most important component that insures the survival and continuity of the whole of existence. It is as if the Torah is giving us an introduction and a preface to what it is trying to accomplish – help man find his own role and purpose. The Torah is thus answering our question about man’s importance, what kind of limb he is. He is crucial and indispensable for the survival of the whole of existence. However to fulfill his role he must find and understand the “mind” of God, the First Cause, the Cause of the whole of existence. It is in this quest that the Torah is trying to teach man how to go about it. I will address this in an upcoming post.