Sunday, November 09, 2008

Avraham's Great Virtue - Self Doubt.

There is only one rational method for finding and understanding God and that is through contemplating His creations. It is a deductive process through which we hope to get to know HKBH’s will by observing the results of that will in our existence and act in accordance with that understanding. That is the meaning of going in God’s ways, the positive commandment of Vehalachta Biderachav; the eighth Mitzvat Asseh listed in Sefer Hamitzvot. It is a thinking that has to be at the center of every decision we make whether on matters that have immediate and short-term effects or medium and long-term even multigenerational consequences. As every act of ours has consequences, knowing the goal and what we want to accomplish is the key to how we act. The problem is that we are always left wondering whether we have truly understood correctly God’s will and even if yes, are our actions the ones that will take us to the goal we set for ourselves. It is with that in mind that we can understand the importance of Midot, working on our character and behavior urges and wants, making sure that our own personal bias for self-gratification do not blindside us. A hedonistic narcissist can never be expected to make a correct decision no matter how intelligent, learned and smart he may be. That is the Torah’s goal, to give us the tools to make us into that perfected human being. But in reality, no matter how perfect a person may be, there is never full and unquestionable certainty. There is always a lingering doubt in the mind of that perfected human being whether he is doing the right thing.

Avraham Avinu started by contemplating the universe and his existence in it and came to the conclusion that there is a God who willed creation and if we want to understand our goal here on earth, we must learn to emulate Him.

כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה,
והיה תמיה: היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי
יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו.
(Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:9)

Avraham concluded from his contemplation that he is obligated to spread this teaching to all of humanity. Only by understanding this, will humanity be able to fulfill its purpose and role as an integral and important part of the universe and God’s great creation. This vision is the meaning of

ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be thou a blessing.

ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.

3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse them that curse you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'

Rambam in MN 3:29 explains:

God said to him, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee" (Gen. 12:3). The result of the course which Abraham took, is the fact that most people, as we see at present, agree in praising him, and being proud of him; so that even those who are not his descendants call themselves by his name.”

Avraham met great resistance and started to doubt whether he could succeed. That is where the vision, a result of the great internal strength that Avraham had, his ability to overcome his doubts and act according to his principles and what he thought to be correct, that played a role in his continuing on this path. Building on the take of Rav Gedalia Nadel in my earlier post that the Dor Haflagah and Nimrod depict a movement towards monarchy, subjugation of the masses and empire building, Avraham, a contemporary, was reacting against this. That explains the sequence of the stories and the reason for their being reported as a way of putting the life and work of Avraham in context. That is how I understand the Rabbis’ meaning when they tell the story of his being arrested and released and in consequence fleeing with his family.

Avraham’s doubt did not stop here. As he continued on this path, he continually stopped and wondered whether he was doing the right thing. The story of the Brit Bein Habetarim depicts that self-doubt in very stark terms. He doubts whether his path will lead to success. He has no descendants and fears that once he dies all his hard work will go to waste. The vision that he has reinforces his conviction that he is doing the right thing but it also depicts realistically how hard this will be. The darkness that envelops him in his dream, the birds and carrion that populate it are a very poignant depiction of his state of mind. He however sees the hope and is convinced that his endeavor will eventually succeed.

This process of always doubting and convincing oneself of the correctness of one’s action, in other words stopping to take inventory every step of the way, is exactly the correct way to proceed.

ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

This verse has baffled many a commentator – see Rashi, Ramban. Rambam addresses it in MN 3:53 as follows:

“When you walk in the way of the moral virtues you do justice unto your rational faculty, giving her due that is her right. And because every moral virtue is called Tzedakah, it says "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as Tzedakah" (Gen. 15:6) I mean the virtue of faith.”

After explaining that in Tanach the word Tzedakah refers to situations where we have a moral obligation to give someone his due, such as alms to a poor man, Rambam uses this analogy to our verse. Faith is not a blind emotional belief as it is commonly thought to be. Emunah is a rational process where we have to convince ourselves through intellectual and rational thought that our understanding of the universe as being the result of God’s will is correct. We also have to convince ourselves that our actions that result from this contemplation are correct and not prompted by our personal biases. That is only possible if we perfect our moral virtues. Our rational faculty is what makes us into human beings and its ultimate perfection is acquiring this great knowledge of what we are here for, what our role is in this and how to act accordingly. All intellectual growth accompanied by moral perfection are geared towards that goal and are therefore the dues we are giving to our own rational faculty. Doubt and self awareness, constantly questioning ourselves and wondering whether we are on the right path is an integral part of that process. The Torah sanctions it nay praises it. Humanity has known many visionaries from dangerous crackpots to brilliant people who were convinced they found the right path, the ways of God and knew His wishes. Only those that were truly virtuous and full of self-doubt have brought good to the world. The others eventually self-destructed taking along many to their destruction.

I believe that if we approach the text with this perspective much of the difficult questions about its historicity, its context and its relevance, are answered. It is how the rabbis looked at it in the Midrashim, if we read them carefully, and how Rambam and many other great thinkers approached it.

1 comment:

  1. If I, the young one, may disagree: