In my last post, I suggested that it is humankind’s goal to understand its purpose and role in existence and act accordingly. The answer to this question, unfortunately or maybe fortunately, was not handed to us on a platter. We are expected to figure out on our own what our role is supposed to be. How are we supposed to go about it? The obvious and only answer is to observe carefully our existence, the environment we find ourselves in, both from a macro and micro perspective, trying to read the clues as to where we belong in it and what is expected from us.
As we look at the world we live in, we see that there is a built in mechanism for survival. All the components are interdependent and function together to a fascinating degree. Biological entities depend on each other for sustenance and survival, the ecosystem is finely tuned to insure its continuity and the same applies to every other component of our world and universe. It is therefore clear that each component’s goal is to survive and at the same time ensure the survival of other components that depend on it directly or indirectly. Thus, in addition to its own survival, each component also plays a role in the survival of the whole.
However, if we look carefully we see that all these components function in a predictable and automatic mode. The lion is hungry, he preys on other animals, the sun evaporates the waters of the seas and lakes, they gather in clouds and rise to cooler air, the wind pushes them over land and the waters return to feed the living organisms on land. Tehilim Perek 104 so eloquently presents this whole picture. There is no individual thought process, ethical or moral choice or any conscious thought process in all these components except man. From a functional perspective, man is outstanding in that he thinks and may choose how to act. That capacity of thinking and choosing therefore must be an important aspect of man’s role in the survival of the universe. It is this capacity to think and act accordingly that must be the sine qua non of his existence.
That capacity to think and choose is a function that man has because of the mind he possesses, the thinking part of man. Unlike all the other components of the universe, man has the capacity for self-awareness, he can understand abstract concepts, he can grasp how things work and with all that information, he can change his environment at will. The creativity that comes with this freedom allows man to do unpredictable things, act and react to circumstances as they arise and generally take control of everything.
וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם
אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ
בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them - ‘be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth.'
Apparently, it is this unique capability that gives man the ability to fulfill his intended role in the whole of existence. However, because freedom of thought is an integral part of this ability, there is a risk that man will lose sight of true reality. And this is where things get complicated. The human mind is complex. It has many functions among which are imagination, intuition and rational thought. All three components are crucial to its proper functioning but they have to be kept in perfect balance for man not to go off into a world of fantasy, or miss important aspects because his imagination is too restricted. If his intuition is too suppressed his insights vanish. If it is however founded on imagination and fantasy, it has no realistic value.
Because early man could not understand the true reality of his environment, he developed an imaginary world of spirits and semi physical entities, a world of demons and angels that seemed to answer his questions about how things function. Fantasy and imagination took control of his rational capabilities. These ideas took hold and delayed human development by millennia. These ideas still exists and are with us, especially in the mindlessly “religious” societies. It certainly is quite common still in our own frum communities. It is exactly these ideas, this way of thinking that the Torah is intent on eradicating. In a discussion about the divinity of the Torah, comparing it to other man made legal systems, Rambam says:
You will also find laws which, in all their rules, aim, as the law just mentioned, at the improvement of the material interests of the people. But, in addition, tend to improve the state of the faith of man, to create first correct notions of God, and of angels, and to lead then the people, by instruction and education, to an accurate knowledge of the Universe. This education comes from God; these laws are divine. (MN 2:40)
The Torah contains no theological discussions. It however sets out sets of beliefs that it expects its followers to understand and prove their truths, each according to his capacity. The first such belief is that God exists and is the First Cause, the unique non-contingent Entity. We repeat this thrice daily when we say Shema. We are expected to understand what this means and prove it to ourselves, each according to his capabilities. It tells us that God is the ONLY transcendental entity and EVERYTHING else is physical. The Torah also teaches us that on the seventh day of creation, the day where all was put in place, God rested. From that point on, there was no more divine intervention to change things. The laws of nature took over. Any anomaly, what we would consider to be a miracle, was preset before the seventh day (see Avot Perek 5 Mishna 5). Angels are not some kind of semi physical entities – such entities do not exist and are at the core of idolatry – but descriptions of natural forces that are governed by the laws of nature set in place at creation.
ד עֹשֶׂה מַלְאָכָיו רוּחוֹת; מְשָׁרְתָיו, אֵשׁ לֹהֵט. 4 Who makes winds His messengers, the flaming fire His ministers (Tehilim 104).
I am just mentioning the above as examples to clarify. The Torah has several more such beliefs that it asks us to accept and then go back and think about them so that a rational understanding can be developed of what they mean. (I will discuss in a separate post what they are and why there should be preset beliefs and not require man to develop a priori concepts based on empirical evidence). It is only if we have a correct notion about the metaphysics that underlie our existence that we can have an “accurate knowledge of the Universe”. Otherwise, we are blinded and sidetracked. Instead of looking for natural laws that explain the workings of the perceived mysteries of our existence, our world and universe, we hang our hat on mystical and supernatural explanations. Science, the knowledge that gives us the necessary “accurate knowledge of the universe” does not thrive in a supernatural environment. If we are to understand our role and place in the survival of the whole of existence, we have to develop a better understanding of the universe we live in. It is only then that we will grasp the true intent of God in creating us, understanding how we are to emulate Him in ensuring the continuity of existence. It is only after creating man that the Torah says –
לא וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד 31 And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was exceedingly good.
That is because it man’s role to emulate God, the ultimate eternal Existent, the source of all existence, the greatest “Good”, and thus do “good” by ensuring existence. Contributing to the existence of the whole is “exceedingly good” - טוֹב מְאֹד. It is with this in mind that Rambam closes his magnum opus of theology, the Guide of The Perplexed,
The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that 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, man will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, thus imitating the ways of God. (MN 3:54).
More to come in upcoming posts including the role of Torah, revelation and also, I hope to deal with the great controversial subject of Ikarim (dogma).