Friday, January 09, 2009

Musings About Mitzvot And The War.

There is an interesting recurring theme which Rambam seems to find very central to his understanding of Mitzvot. In MN 2:39 Rambam explains that the Mitzvot of the Torah are finely tuned and balanced to the point of perfection.

Things are similar with regard to this Law as is clear from its equibalance. For it says "Just statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); now you know that just is equibalanced. For these are manners of worship in which there is no burden or excess such as monastic life, pilgrimage and similar things. On the other hand, they are not so deficient as to lead to greed and being engrossed in the indulgence of appetites so that in consequence the perfection of man is diminished with respect to his moral habits and to his speculation – this being the case with regard to all the other nomoi of the religious communities of the past.”

Asceticism is not a requirement for holiness and perfection; on the contrary, it leads away from it just as excessive indulgence does. Perfection is equibalance. Rambam then continues by focusing in on “worship in which there is no burden or excess” and elaborates –

“There are persons who believe that the Law commands much exertion and great pain, but due consideration will show them their error. Later on, I will show how easy it is for the perfect to obey the Law… We must not consider the Law easy or hard according as it appears to any wicked, low-minded, and immoral person, but as it appears to the judgment of the most perfect, who, according to the Law, are fit to be the example for all mankind.”

What exactly does he mean by “burden or excess”? Why should someone consider the commands of the torah as “much exertion and great pain” when it is equibalanced? If the criterion for perfection of the law is how it is perceived by the “most perfect”, which we know to mean in Maimonidean parlance “intellectual perfection”, how will knowledge change the same precept from hard to easy?

In MN 3:30 Rambam explains that idol worship, Avodah Zara, is a belief inculcated into people that by doing one thing an unrelated result will occur.

On examining these old and foolish doctrines we find that it was most generally believed by the people that by the worship of stars the earth will become inhabited, and the ground fertilized. The wise, pious, and sin-fearing men among them reproved the people and taught them that agriculture, on which the preservation of humankind depended, would become perfect and satisfy man's wishes, when he worshipped the sun and the stars. If man provoked these beings by his rebelliousness, the towns would become empty and waste.”

In other words, instead of perfecting agricultural methods, developing new strains of seed that can better adapt to the environment they are in, and other such actions that relate to the intended goal, idol worshippers operate in different ways. They believe that worship of gods will induce the gods to improve the crops and protect them from drought. Man’s actions are futile. The gods, the “spiritual” powers are what decides outcome. Man toils in vain. Man is only an actor with no real impact on what he does; in reality, the “spirits” are the real power behind the results.

“The idolatrous priests then preached to the people who met in the temples, and taught them that by certain religious acts, rain would come down, the trees of the field would yield their fruit, and the land would be fertile and inhabited… The following words of the Sabeans are quoted there: All ancient wise men advised, and prophets likewise commanded and enjoined to play before the images on certain instruments during the festivals. They also said--and what they said is true--that the deities are pleased with it, and reward those who do it. They promise, indeed, very great reward for these things; e.g., length of life, protection from illness, exemption from great bodily deformities, plenty of the produce of the earth, and of the fruits of the trees.”

Rambam gives us here a lucid and clear description of a belief that sees a lack of connection between cause and effect and thus result oriented action. It is a belief based on myths and causes people to act in ways that are unrelated to reality or in simpler terms, in vain. Their action will not bring about the intended result but to the contrary. The land will become barren as the crops fail. No matter how much worship and prayer, self-flagellation and asceticism, prostration and genuflection before the gods, there cannot be any relief. It is frustrating and purposeless efforts.

“When these ideas spread, and were considered as true, God, in His great mercy for us, wished to efface this error from our minds and to take away fatigue from our bodies through the abolition of these tiring and useless practices and to give us the Law… .”

Our bodies are fatigued and practices are tiring when they are useless. That is the meaning of “burden or excess”. The Law is different. All Mitzvot of the torah have practical purposes. Worship of God is not unrelated to a practical outcome because all Mitzvot are geared towards –

“It [the Mitzvot] aims first at the establishment of good mutual relations among men by removing injustice and creating the noblest feelings. In this way, the people in every land are enabled to stay and continue in one condition, and every one can acquire his first perfection. Secondly, it seeks to train us in faith, and to impart correct and true opinions when the intellect is sufficiently developed.” (MN 3:27)

The Torah does not demand that we do senseless Mitzvot and in exchange, we will be rewarded. The Torah intends to teach us how to become perfected human beings so that we act responsibly thus avoiding disasters and that is the purpose of the Mitzvot.

In other words, useless practices that do not relate with the intended outcome are tiring. If one is told to stop whatever they are doing because Shabbat has arrived, to learn Massechet Bava Metziah with fervor or to say Tehilim and the purpose for doing this in New York or for that matter Bnei Brak is so that our soldiers in Gaza are protected can become tiring and difficult to a thinking person. Ask people in any Shul in your neighborhood how they feel about davening and I bet you the majority answer will be that it is very hard, boring and requires discipline. That is so because we are taught that Davening helps by changing God’s mind. How many REALLY believe that it is so? How many feel guilty because they cannot truly accept this belief?

However, if we understand that stopping everything when Shabbat arrives is meant to remind us that God created the world we are in and we have a purpose and a goal to fulfill in it, Shabbat becomes a great treasure. It is the day that we take stock of reality and it resets our mind for the coming week so that whatever we do is directed towards a greater purpose than just selfish indulgence. If Davening three times daily, is meant to remind us that all we have, whether health, possessions even a justice system all exist in a world that was willed by HKBH and we have a role to play in it, it no longer is a burden but rather a needed reality check. The same applies to learning Bava Metziah. We do it so that we know better how to maintain a peaceful society. We learn Tehilim so that we get a better understanding of our relationship with HKBH. That goes for all Mitzvot. Once we understand that God gets nothing out of Mitzvot but rather that they are tools given to us to help us understand God and our role in His universe they take on meaning and are no longer tiring, excess or a burden.

Our brethren in Eretz Israel are going through tough times. Most families have members on the ground in operation Cast Lead. It is heartening to know that so many of these soldiers are Bnei Aliyah who understand what God wants from us. I am confident that the Torah they learned and the love and fear of God that they have acquired through keeping the Mitzvot, will lead them to make the right decisions for the good of the Jewish people and eventually humankind.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Thank you.
    It has become very popular to read Tehilim for the safety of our (Israeli) soldiers in the front. A popular, non-religious radio program on Galei Tzahal had a reading of chapter 20 the day the ground assault began. What do you think about that practice? If reading Tehilim only helps us to get a better understanding of our relationship with HKBH, is the practice helpful?

  2. Elizabeth, It is helpful for the person reading it if he understands what he reads, assimilates the teachings and acts accordingly. It does nothing for anyone else unless they take heed and learn from him to do the same.

    I wish that our leaders in the Israeli government would pay more attention to the tools we have in Torah and make their decisions with proper goals in mind. Let us hope for the best.

  3. "What exactly does he mean by “burden or excess”? Why should someone consider the commands of the torah as “much exertion and great pain” when it is equibalanced? If the criterion for perfection of the law is how it is perceived by the “most perfect”, which we know to mean in Maimonidean parlance “intellectual perfection”, how will knowledge change the same precept from hard to easy?"

    This reminds me of Brachos 33b:

    ואמר רבי חנינא הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים שנאמר (דברים י) ועתה ישראל מה ה' אלהיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה אטו יראת שמים מילתא זוטרתא היא והא"ר חנינא משום ר' שמעון בן יוחי אין לו להקב"ה בבית גנזיו אלא אוצר של יראת שמים שנאמר (ישעיהו לג) יראת ה' היא אוצרו אין לגבי משה מילתא זוטרתא היא דאמר ר' חנינא משל לאדם שמבקשים ממנו כלי גדול ויש לו דומה עליו ככלי קטן קטן ואין לו דומה עליו ככלי גדול

    And R' Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven, as it states "And now, Israel, what does HaShem, your God, ask of you, but merely to fear [HaShem, your God]." Is fear of Heaven, then, a small matter? Why, R' Chanina said in the name of R' Shimon ben Yochai: "The Holy One, Blessed is He, has nothing in his treasure house other than a store of fear of Heaven, as it states "the fear of HaShem, that is His treasure."" - Yes! For Moshe, it was a small matter, for R' Chanina said: "It is analogous to a person from whom a large utensil was demanded and he had it, it thus appears to him like a small utensil. [However if they demanded] a small [utensil] and he did not have it, it appears to him like a large utensil."

    Which is to say, that once one is in a more perfected state, and comprehends reality with greater clarity, aligning one's self with reality is relatively easy, it is the natural step one would take. However if one chooses to deny reality and entertain false ideas, then aligning one's self with reality is indeed very difficult.

  4. A.A.K. Thank you. Well said.