Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rambam on Moshe - Apprehension and Doubt - An Apparent Contradiction.

I learned this Shabbat with two young men Rambam’s introduction to Avot – the Shemona Perakim. As usual when you learn Rambam, no matter how many times you have read him, every time you reread him you get a new insight or a new thread of thinking is triggered.

In the seventh chapter, Rambam discusses the perfection of knowledge and character necessary for a person to acquire prophecy. The level of prophecy is commensurate with how perfected the person’s character is. (Interestingly, the level of perfection in character is what creates the variation between different prophets and not knowledge, but that belongs in a separate post.) Moshe Rabbeinu is seen as the paradigm of the limits of how high a human being can aspire to, when it comes to this dual perfection and consequently prophecy, yet he too had limits in apprehending God. To illustrate Rambam uses three verses in Shemot 33 (the weekly reading in two weeks) where Moshe asks to know God.

יח וַיֹּאמַר: הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ.

18 And he said: 'Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory.'

כ וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי.

20 And He said: 'You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.'

כג וַהֲסִרֹתִי, אֶת-כַּפִּי, וְרָאִיתָ, אֶת-אֲחֹרָי; וּפָנַי, לֹא יֵרָאוּ. {פ}

23 And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.'

Rambam explains this as follows: (I will translate only the pertinent segment to this post, using selectively both the Rav Kafieh and Tibon versions and paraphrase the rest. The Hebrew below is the Tibon version at www.daat.co.il ) -

וכאשר ידע משה רבנו,
שלא נשאר לו מסך שלא קרעו, וכי נמשלו מעלות המידות כולן והמעלות הדיבריות
כולן. ביקש להשיג את האלוהים באמיתת מציאותו, אחר שלא נשאר מונע. אותה שעה

הראני נא את כבודך (שמות ל"ג, י"ח).

והודיעו, יתברך, שאי אפשר לו דבר זה, להיותו שכל נמצא בחומר. רצוני לומר: באשר הוא אדם. והוא אמרו:

כי לא יראני האדם וחי (שמות ל"ג, כ')

הנה לא נשארה בינו ובין השגת האלוהים באמיתת מציאותו זולת מחיצת וילון אחת בהירה, והיא השכל האנושי שאינו נפרד. וגמל עליו האלוהים יתברך חסד, בתיתו לו מן ההשגה, אחר שאלתו, יותר ממה שהיה לו קודם שאלתו. והודיעו, שהתכלית אי אפשרית לו כל עוד שהוא בעל גשם. וכינה אמיתת ההשגה
בראיית פנים. כי האדם כשיראה פני חברו, הגיעה לנפשו צורתו ולא יערבבנו
בזולתו. אבל כשיראה אחוריו, ואם גם הבחינו באותה ראייה, אף על פי כן סופו
שיסופק בו ויערבבנו בזולתו כמו כן השגתו יתברך באמיתות היא, שיגיע לנפש מאמיתת מציאותו, שלא יהא שותף
לאותה מציאות שום נמצא אחר. עד שימצא בנפשו מציאותו קבועה ונבדלת ממה
שימצא בנפשו ממציאות שאר הנמצאים. ואי אפשר לאדם להשיג שעור השגה זה, אלא שהוא, עליו השלום, השיג מעט למטה מזה. והוא שנאמר בו:

וראית את אחורי (שמות ל"ג, כ"ג).

Moshe having understood that he had reached the ultimate human perfection (note that there is no self-modesty here, yet Moshe is the “Anav Mikol Adam” – knowing one’s self worth does not contradict humility), wanted to apprehend the essence of God. The answer he received was that it is impossible for a human being to achieve this, as man’s existence is materialistic. We are physical entities and therefore cannot grasp transcendence in its essence.

“He [God] informed him that this ultimate goal [apprehending the divine essence] is impossible whilst he is in a physical body. He metaphorically referred to the true apprehension of God’s essence as “seeing a face”, because when a person sees another person’s face, it leaves an imprint so that he does not confuse him with another. On the other hand, when he sees him only from the back, although he does recognize him during that sighting, he will eventually have doubts and confuse him with another. So too does true apprehension [of God] occur, when a person apprehends in his mind His true essence in such a way that no other existent shares that existence, to the point that he permanently establishes His existence in his mind so that His existence is different from the existence of all other existents. That level of apprehension is impossible. He, Moshe Rabbeinu, apprehended a level below this one and that is the meaning of “and you shall see my back”.”

Rambam is saying that a human being can never know with absolute certainty that what he is apprehending, what he is picturing in his mind as God, is really God and not another entity or a figment of his imagination. God is not physical therefore He does not have a face nor any other feature that when “seen” could identify Him just as we would identify an individual. God can only be identified as “being” different from the “being” of anything else. In other words to have absolute certainty that one apprehends God and not another, requires that one apprehend God’s “existence” as unique. The most a man can apprehend is that God exists but not even what “existence” in this context means. As we cannot “see”, or better, apprehend God’s essence because our minds are bound in materialism we cannot fathom existence in this context. There always remains a certain level of unknown and insecurity even to a man of Moshe Rabbeinu’s stature. Rambam however adds that although Moshe could not see God’s face, he reached a level of apprehension just below that. The implication is that he could still “confuse Him with another” because he could not fully apprehend the uniqueness of God’s “existence”.

In MT Hil Yesodei Hatorah 1:12 Rambam gives a slight variation -

והודיעו ברוך הוא מה שלא ידע אדם לפניו ולא יידע לאחריו, עד
שהשיג מאמיתת הימצאו דבר שנפרד הקדוש ברוך הוא בדעתו משאר הנמצאים, כמו
שייפרד אחד מן האנשים שראה אחוריו, והשיג כל גופו ומלבושו בדעתו משאר
האנשים; ועל דבר זה רמז הכתוב, ואמר "וראית, את אחוריי; ופניי, לא ייראו

The Blessed One informed him [Moshe] of something no other man before him knew nor [any man] after him will know. He apprehended about His essence a matter that differentiated God in his mind from other existents, just as he would differentiate a person from another person when he sees his back and apprehends his body and clothing in his mind [note: not his face]. That is what the verse signaled by saying “and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

Here Rambam is giving Moshe a level of security that comes when one is at the limit of human apprehension of the transcendent. When one meets another person and sees him only from behind, notices his body language and shape, notices his clothing but does not see his face and then meets him again in the same manner, he cannot be absolutely certain that it is the same person that he is seeing. Let us however imagine that this observer lives in a contained environment where he knows everyone that is there and discovers one detail that differentiates this person from all the others, knowing that no one else shares that feature, he still would not know how this person’s face looks but he will know it is that person and no other. In this presentation, although others, who do not know that particular detail that differentiates God from all other existents, are never sure that it is the same God they are meeting again, Moshe had no such doubt. Apparently, Moshe was able to identify something different in God’s “existence”, enough to, in his mind, separate God from any other existent, although he could not fully apprehend “existence” in this context.

Did Rambam change his mind? I do not know at this time how to explain this apparent contradiction. In upcoming posts, I will look at how Rambam addresses this issue in various other places and in the Moreh. Hopefully things will clarify as I move along.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Three Concepts of Prayer - Praise, Supplication and Acknowledgement.

Here is how Rambam describes the mitzvah of Tefilah in Mishne Torah:

מצות עשה להתפלל בכל יום, שנאמר "ועבדתם, את ה' אלוהיכם"
מפי השמועה למדו שעבודה זו--היא תפילה, ונאמר "ולעובדו, בכל לבבכם
אמרו חכמים, איזו היא עבודה שבלב, זו היא תפילה. ואין מניין התפילות מן
התורה, ולא משנה התפילה הזאת מן התורה. ואין לתפילה זמן קבוע מן התורה

It is a positive commandment to pray daily as it says, “Worship Hashem your God”. Tradition [generally, when Rambam uses this term it refers to the explanation that Moshe received together with the written text] teaches that this worship is prayer as it also says, “and to worship Him with all your heart”; the Rabbis said one worships from the heart through prayer. [The point is that worship is a matter of the heart [in biblical parlance the mind] which is expressed in prayer]. Neither the number of prayers, nor the language of the prayer, nor the time of prayer [are set] biblically. (Hil Tefilah 1:2)

Unlike other Mitzvot that have clearly defined parameters on how they are to be performed, prayer is loosely defined as meditation, עבודה שבלב- worship from the heart, which is expressed. There is neither a specific template nor even a set time; one can pray all day or just once for a short time. However, the conceptual content of prayer is defined by the rabbis. This was defined in two steps. From the time of Moshe until the times of Ezra [the Return from Bavel], there was only a rough outline of what the prayer should contain.

אלא חיוב מצוה זו, כך הוא--שיהא אדם מתפלל ומתחנן בכל יום, ומגיד שבחו
של הקדוש ברוך הוא, ואחר כך שואל צרכיו שהוא צריך להן בבקשה ובתחינה, ואחר
כך נותן שבח והודיה לה' על הטובה שהשפיע לו: כל אחד כפי כוחו.
אם היה רגיל, מרבה בתחינה ובקשה; ואם היה ערל שפתיים, מדבר
כפי יוכלו ובכל עת שירצה. .

The obligatory performance of this Mitzvah is thus; one should pray and implore daily. [First] one should declare the praise of HKBH, thereafter one should supplicate and implore for ones’ needs and thereafter give praise and thank God, for all the good He bestowed on him. If fluent, one would be profligate with the imploration and supplication. If, on the other hand, one were tongue tied, he would speak as well as he could and at any time one so wished.

As opposed to the other kind of prayer, the prayer required when one encounters difficulties, this prayer requires us to look to the future in context of the past. We are commanded to contemplate how everything we hope to get and accomplish, all our needs, is the result of God’s will. One begins by expounding on our awareness of God through His actions, our perception of him in our existence as the First Cause. Having internalized this idea, we now turn to all the things we are planning to do going forward and place them in that context. Whether we are doing things for ourselves or for the community, we want to make sure that we are doing them in a way that falls in line with God and His ways. When we supplicate and implore God, we are saying we want to do what is right, we therefore want to get as close as possible to You and sublimate our personal wants to the greater goal that You set for our existence. We are in a quandary about what we are about to do; we are not sure we are doing the right thing. But we do have to act and decide how to move forward. We remove ourselves from the equation and try to see everything from God’s point of view. We express this quandary and insecurity through supplication. We then close with an acknowledgement that God is ultimately responsible for all the good things that we have so far. As we will see when we discuss the second phase of prayer, from the time of Ezra onward, the Rabbis fleshed out these components of prayer very clearly.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Prayer As A Concession To Human Nature.

We cannot know the essence of God; we can only know that such an entity exists, where the word existence itself, in this context, is not what we know existence to be. Any description, attribute or any other designation of God is only a verbal construct that we use in communicating and thinking. These words are descriptions of what we as humans believe are traits of an entity that could have caused existence, as we know it to exist. They are intrinsically untrue and artificial words. However, as humans we have no choice but to use these words to communicate both, with each other and internally, to ourselves, when we want to translate an abstract concept into something that we can call reality. If daily prayer is an expression of this meditation, how do we verbalize it without saying falsehoods? In fact why pray at all?

“The idea is best expressed in the book of Psalms, "Silence is praise to Thee" (65:2). It is a very expressive remark on this subject; for whatever we utter with the intention of extolling and of praising Him, contains something that cannot be applied to God, and includes derogatory expressions. It is therefore more becoming to be silent, and to be content with intellectual reflection, as has been recommended by men of the highest culture, in the words "Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still" (Ps. iv. 4).” (MN 1:59)

In fact, prayer has the same inherent problem that exists with Korbanot, burnt offerings. In our contemporary society, the latter stands out as an archaic custom and raise the hackles of modern man. If we were to think about it more carefully, any form of physical expression of worship should be suspect and questioned. What exactly are we doing? Are we bribing God or cajoling Him? What does it mean to worship? If prayer is worship, why is it better than bringing burnt offerings? Korbanot, with their animal slaughter, offend modern sensibilities but in reality prayer as worship should just as strongly offend our theological and ontological understanding of God. Why should an omnipotent entity that is the First Cause and the only non-contingent entity require us to worship Him? Does it not suggest a lack of self-confidence?

The surprising answer is that just like Korbanot; prayer is a concession to our humaneness. We as human beings, whose existence is rooted in a physical world, cannot operate in an abstract conceptual realm only. We need to express our abstract thoughts. In MN 3:32, the famous chapter where Rambam expounds his controversial explanation of Korbanot, he explains that human beings are conditioned to worship. Although the ideal would be to just meditate internally without giving expression to these thoughts -

“It would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble. If he told us that, we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason, God allowed these kinds of service to continue.”

Note how he lumps together all types of worship including prayer and discusses prayer as a contemporary form of such an expression. The idea is that just meditation and no further worship or any physical action would be the ideal but impractical. The danger with this concession is that if the form this worship takes is left to the untrammeled human imagination, all kinds of bizarre practices emerge. As I discuss in depth in my article in Hakirah (available in full on line at http://www.pdfdownload.org/pdf2html/pdf2html.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fhakirah.org%2FVol%25206%2520Guttmann.pdf&images=yes ) unregulated worship is at the root of Avodah Zara. That is why the concession comes with very restrictive and punctilious regulation. Halacha is saying that if we want to express our emotions and feelings that result from our meditation, we have to do it in a minutely detailed prescribed form. Just as Korbanot are strictly regulated, so too must Tefilah be, if to a lesser extent as, after all, verbal expression is closer to meditation than the action packed Korbanot.

You must surely know the following celebrated passage in the Talmud--would that all passages in the Talmud were like that! Although it is known to you, I quote it literally, as I wish to point out to you the ideas contained in it. "A certain person, reading prayers in the presence of Rabbi Hanina, said, 'God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous, the powerful, the strong, and the mighty.' The rabbi said to him, have you finished all the praises of your Master? The three epithets, 'God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous,' we should not have applied to God, had Moses not mentioned them in the Law, and had not the men of the Great Synagogue come forward subsequently and established their use in the prayer; and you say all this! Let this be illustrated by a parable. There was once an earthly king, possessing millions of gold coin; he was praised for owning millions of silver coin; was this not really dispraise to him?" Thus far is the opinion of the pious rabbi. Consider, first, how repulsive and annoying the accumulation of all these positive attributes was to him; next, how he showed that, if we had only to follow our reason, we should never have composed these prayers, and we should not have uttered any of them. However, it has become necessary to address men in words that should leave some idea in their minds, and, in accordance with the saying of our Sages, "The Torah speaks in the language of men." The Creator has been described to us in terms of our own perfections; but we should not on that account, have uttered any other than the three above-mentioned attributes, and we should not have used them as names of God except when meeting with them in reading the Law. … Were it not for the first reason, we should never have uttered them; and were it not for the second reason, we should not have copied them from the Pentateuch to recite them in our prayers; how then could we approve of the use of those numerous attributes!” (MN 1:59)

To be continued…

Monday, February 09, 2009

Prayer As Worship - Yearning.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Rambam places the Mitzvah of daily prayer in Sefer Ahavah, the Book of Love. True love can flourish only when there is an intimate knowledge and understanding between two loving people. It develops when both parties get a sense of the other and like what they see, giving rise to a steady urge and yearning to get to know each other better. As they get a better sense of each other and still like what they see, that yearning grows in magnitude and turns into a strong urge to merge and become one with the loved one. The book preceding Ahavah, Sefer Hamada, the Book of Knowledge, the first book of Mishne Torah, ends (Hil Teshuvah 10:3 and 6) with a highly charged description of this great yearning and urge.

וכיצד היא האהבה הראויה: הוא שיאהוב את ה' אהבה גדולה יתרה רבה, עזה עד
מאוד, עד שתהא נפשו קשורה באהבת ה', ונמצא שוגה בה תמיד--כאלו חולי האהבה,
שאין דעתם פנויה מאהבת אותה אישה שהוא שוגה בה תמיד, בין בשוכבו בין
בקומו, בין בשעה שהוא אוכל ושותה

What is proper love? One should feel such an extreme, great and strong love for God to the point that one’s mind [soul] is tied up and dwells upon it at all times. It is similar to one who is lovesick and whose mind [soul] cannot stray from the love he feels for a particular woman; he dwells on it at all times, whether it is when he goes to sleep, when he awakens or when he eats and drinks.

ו] דבר ידוע וברור שאין אהבת הקדוש ברוך הוא נקשרת בליבו של אדם, עד
שישגה בה תמיד כראוי ויעזוב כל שבעולם חוץ ממנה כמו שציווה ואמר "בכל לבבך
ובכל נפשך";
אלא בדעה שיידעהו. ועל פי הדעה--על פי האהבה--אם מעט מעט, ואם הרבה הרבה.

It is well known and clear that the love of God does not bind in man’s heart unless he dwells on it properly at all times. He must leave behind all worldly cares other than the need to know Him as it is commanded, “with all your heart and your soul [mind]”. Love is commensurate with knowledge; little knowledge - little love, much knowledge - much love[1].

When we look at the structure of Mishne Torah, the first Sefer, the book of Knowledge, describes the end point of all of religion, the end goal of our existence. That ultimate goal is Madah, knowledge of God’s world, through it God and His ways so that we can emulate them. The other books deal with the different tools that we as humans need, to allow us to reach that ultimate goal. Rambam ends the Book of Knowledge by describing the state of mind necessary to achieve this goal; an almost obsessive immersion into God and His ways. That can be accomplished through following the actions prescribed in the following book, the Book of Love. Indeed as I noted earlier, that book is introduced with the verse –

מה אהבתי, תורתך
: כל היום, היא שיחתי

O how love I Thy Torah! It is my meditation all day.

The Mitzvot in this book are thus tools that help us reach this goal of immersion in matters that deal with God and His ways. Rambam in MN 3:51 describes that goal, using Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm for human perfection –-

When we have acquired a true knowledge of God, and rejoice in that knowledge in such a manner, that whilst speaking with others, or attending to our bodily wants, our mind is all that time with God; when we are with our heart constantly near God, even whilst our body is in the society of men; when we are in that state which the Song on the relation between God and man poetically describes in the following words: "I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my beloved that knocks" (Song v. 2):--then we have attained not only the height of ordinary prophets, but of Moses, our Teacher, of whom Scripture relates: "And Moses alone shall come near before the Lord" (ibid. xxxiv. 28); "But as for thee, stand thou here by me" (Deut. V. 28).”

Daily prayer, the subject of the second group of Halachot in Sefer Ahavah, is meant to train us into this mode of thinking. It requires us to stop what we are doing and take stock to make sure that we are not losing sight of what should be the ultimate goal of everything we do – fulfilling our role in God’s universe by understanding His ways and emulating them. Here is how Rambam explains how this process works –

“I will now commence to show you the way how to educate and train yourselves in order to attain that great perfection. The first thing you must do is this: Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read Shema or during the Tefilah, and do not content yourself with being intent when you read the first verse of Shema, or the first paragraph of the prayer. When you have successfully practiced this for many years, try in reading the Law or listening to it, to have all your heart and all your thought occupied with understanding what you read or hear…” (MN3:51)

One starts with concentrating and meditating about HKBH for short periods of time daily when praying. These times are slowly extended throughout the whole time we pray. Eventually it is carried over into the times we learn Torah and eventually it becomes the underlying theme while we go about our daily chores as described earlier, with Moshe Rabbeinu as the paradigm. Prayer is thus described as a time for meditation and a stepping-stone towards the ideal; total immersion in HKBH and His ways.

Clearly, this type of prayer is quite different then the one described in the earlier posts. There the prayer was focused on our actions and the effect they had on our lives. We are looking back and trying to see how we can change things so that the calamity that befell us does not repeat itself. Here we are dealing with the future. We are trying to develop an understanding of how to do things right from the start, how to act responsibly and fulfill our intended role in existence. We are involved in a process of worship of and immersion in God and His ways. Ultimately, however, the goal of both types of prayer is the same, as is that of all Mitzvot. It is through knowledge of God and his ways that we know how to emulate Him in our own actions.

This brings us to the content of prayer – the Tefilah we say daily – which will be the subject of upcoming posts.

[1] I translated the word Nefesh as “mind” rather than “soul”, which is the traditional translation, based on Rambam’s description of that term at the beginning of his Shemona Perakim. He defines there Nefesh as the totality of an entity’s cognitive ability which in man includes the intellect, urges and emotions.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Fear Of Heaven, Ethics And Morality.

It is always fascinating to me how Rambam can be read many times and each time a new insight is gained. This applies not only to Rambam but also with many of the great amongst the Rishonim and Acharonim. This Shabbat I was reading Rambam MN 3:36 and noticed an interesting presentation. I will quote the Kafieh, Schwartz as well as Pines translations because it is important to note the nuance. (Friedlander missed the whole point.)

Rav Kafieh edition:

ופשוט הוא כי גם התשובה מן הקבוצה הזו, כלומר: מן ההשקפות אשר לא תהא סדירה מציאות אישי התורתיים 12
כי אם בסבירתה, לפי שאי אפשר לאדם, שלא יחטא ויטעה, אם שטעותו בהחשיבו השקפה או מידה שאינן חשובים באמת, או בהתגברות תאווה או כעס

Michael Schwartz Edition:

ברור שגם התשובה10
בקבוצה זאת, כלומר, שהיא מן הדעות שבלעדי האמונה בהן לא תסתדר מציאותם של אנשים בני-תורה11,
מפני שבהכרח אדם טועה ונכשל, או שמתוך בורותו הוא מעדיף דעה או מידה שבאמת אינם עדיפים, או שתאווה או כעס גוברים עליו.

And Shlomo Pines English translation:

It is manifest that repentance also belongs to this class, I mean to the opinions without the belief in which the existence of individuals professing a law cannot be well ordered. For an individual cannot but sin and err, either through ignorance – by professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth – or else because he is overcome by desire or anger.

The statement that caught my attention is – “by professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth”. What does being “not preferable in truth” mean? It implies relativity namely that an opinion - השקפה or דעה as well as a moral quality – מידה – may at times be considered wrong under certain circumstances.

Rav Kook in a new collection of his notes published recently – the Shemona Kevatzim (page 21) – writes[1] -

אסור ליראת שמים שתדחק את המוסר הטבעי של האדם, כי אז אינה עוד יראת שמים
טהורה. סימן ליראת שמים טהורה הוא, כשהמוסר הטבעי, הנטוע בטבע הישר של
האדם, הולך ועולה על פיה במעלות יותר גבוהות ממה שהוא עומד מבלעדיה. אבל
אם תצוייר יראת שמים בתכונה כזאת, שבלא השפעתה על החיים היו החיים יותר
נוטים לפעול טוב, ולהוציא אל הפועל דברים מועילים לפרט ולכלל, ועל פי
השפעתה מתמעט כח הפועל ההוא, יראת שמים כזאת היא יראה פסולה.

Yra’at Shamayim – fear of heaven – may not supplant the natural sense of morality of a person, for in that case it is not a pure Yra’at Shamayim. The signpost for a pure Yra’at Shamayim is when the natural sense of morality that is extant in the straightforward nature of man is improved and elevated by it more than it would have been without it. But if one were to imagine a kind of Yra’at Shamayim that without its input, life would tend to do well and bring to fruition things that benefit the community and the individual and furthermore, under its influence less of those things would come to fruition, such a Yra’at Shamayim is wrong.

I believe that Rav Kook is saying the same thing Rambam is. The Mitzvot are a training tool to bring us to proper Yra’at Shamayim. They have no meaning other than that. They are however clearly defined and regulated by Halacha unlike the Yra’at Shamayim they are meant to inculcate in us. The Mitzvot bring discipline into our life and focus us on thinking about our reality and our relationship with God who gave us the Mitzvot. This process is supposed to change the way we do things, making us less narcissistic and self-serving by enhancing the altruistic moral and ethical instinct we all have in us. We get used to doing things, not because they bring us physical benefits but because they are right. However once we leave the world of defined Halacha we enter the realm of the subjective. Moral and ethical decisions have a tendency to go beyond the prescribed Halacha. Real life is full of surprises and new situations that require us to make decisions that are not clearly prescribed. We know that they are correct if they are in harmony with our deep instinctual feeling of what is right and wrong. When we act in ways that do not meet this criterion, we are “professing an opinion or a moral quality that is not preferable in truth”.

Several years ago, I was present at a festive meal for the writing of a new sefer Torah. It took place at the “court” of one of the Rebbes who shall remain unnamed. The waiters were kids who obviously were not Chassidic, some wearing Kippot Serugot while others leather Yarmulkes and very few had Peyot behind their ears. The Rebbe was concerned that they not touch the wine that was being served and would not let them serve. The kids were made to stay in a separate room during the whole time. I kept on thinking about how these kids must have felt - ostracized and unnaccepted by a supposedly holy man. The Rebbe’s Yra’at Shamayim was clearly false; it was not Yra’at Shamayim but self-serving superstition. It went against the natural human instinct of what is right and wrong. His punctiliousness with Mitzvot had warped his instinctual sense of ethics and morality instead of enhancing it.

Rambam in one of the chapters (3:52) in MN where he clearly lets his emotions come through writes –

“We do not sit, move, and occupy ourselves when we are alone and at home, in the same manner as we do in the presence of a great king. We speak and open our mouth as we please when we are with the people of our own household and with our relatives, but not so when we are in a royal assembly. If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Solomon. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between God and us.”

Note that the king in whose presence we must see ourselves at all times is not God but the “Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between God and us”.

“What I have here pointed out to you is the object of all our religious acts. For by [carrying out] all the details of the prescribed practices, and repeating them continually, some few pious men may attain human perfection. They will be filled with respect and reverence towards God; and bearing in mind who is with them, they will perform their duty. God declares in plain words that it is the object of all religious acts to produce in man fear of God and obedience to His word-the state of mind which we have demonstrated in this chapter for those who desire to know the truth, as being our duty to seek.”

Note that the “religious acts” are not “fear of God and obedience to His word”, but rather the tools that bring us to that state.

[1] Quoted recently by Marc Shapiro at http://seforim.traditiononline.org/index.cfm/2009/1/28/Marc-B-Shapiro-Thoughts-on-Confrontation--Sundry-Matters-Part-

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Prayer and Fasting When Bad Things Happen To Us.

Rambam In Hilchot Ta’aniyot 1:9 legislates –

כשם שציבור מתענים על צרתן, כך היחיד מתענה על צרתו. כיצד: הרי שהיה לו
חולה, או תועה במדבר, או אסור בבית האסורין--יש לו להתענות עליו, ולבקש
רחמים בתפילתו ואומר עננו, בכל תפילה שמתפלל

Just as the community fast when faced with a calamity, so too the individual should fast. Should a dependent be sick, lost in the desert or in prison, he should fast for him and ask for mercy in his prayer adding Aneinu to every Tefilah he prays.

There are a few striking elements in this Halacha. Maggid Mishna already notes that there is no source for an obligation to fast for a personal distress. Looking at the sources Gra and others suggest, they do not clearly say that it is an obligation. In fact one of the sources, the Gemara in Ta’aniyot 22b permits one to fast for a personal problem rather than commands one to do so, as if there may even be a possible prohibition to do so, which is in fact the opinion of rabbi Yossi[1]. The other thing that is striking is that the obligation is only when it is for something that happened to someone close. [I translated לו dependent to emphasize this.] There is neither obligation nor even the mention of the viability of fasting for a stranger in this Halacha[2].

I believe that Rambam is consistent with his understanding that when a calamity befalls us, we need to look at ourselves and see what our contribution to this mishap was. It is a process of repentance and reformation. This process applies to the community as well as to the individual. It is however limited to our dependents who are under our influence thus suffering from our decisions. Our prayers and subsequent repentance will have no effect on strangers who are not affected by our deeds. Whatever befalls us is, in most cases, a result of decisions and actions that we made. In MN 3:12 Rambam discusses the evil things that befall us. Looking at all the bad things that happen to us, we can divide them and their causes into three distinct groups; those that occur naturally; those that occur as a result of people trying to subjugate others and finally the most common one by far, the ones we bring upon ourselves.

“The third class of evils comprises those which every one causes to himself by his own action. This is the largest class, and is far more numerous than the second class. It is especially of these evils that all men complain, only few men are found that do not sin against themselves by this kind of evil… This class of evils originates in man's vices, such as excessive desire for eating, drinking, and love; indulgence in these things in undue measure, or in improper manner, or partaking of bad food. This course brings diseases and afflictions upon body and soul alike.”

Rambam explains in MN3:36 –

“For the belief of the people that their troubles are mere accidents causes them to continue in their evil principles and their wrong actions, and prevents them from abandoning their evil ways.”Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved" (Jer. v. 3). For this reason, God commanded us to pray to Him, to entreat Him, and to cry before Him in time of trouble.”

Unlike the general view that prayer in such circumstances will somehow miraculously bring relief, Rambam sees taking responsibility and ownership for what happened as the only way that will prevent recurrences. It is only when we understand that our actions have consequences and we try to mend our ways that we can change our future. Prayer is not a miraculous cure but a first step in recognizing our role in what happened to us that lead to repentance and self-improvement.

So what is daily prayer? Why pray when nothing bad has occurred? More to come in upcoming post(s).

[1] He holds that by fasting one risks becoming sick and dependent on others.
[2] In Hil Evel 14:6 Rambam discusses the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim – visiting the sick.

הנכנס לבקר את החולה--לא יישב לא על גבי מיטה, ולא על גבי ספסל, ולא על
גבי כיסא, ולא על גבי מקום גבוה, ולא למעלה ממראשותיו; אלא מתעטף, ויושב
למטה ממראשותיו, ומבקש עליו רחמים, ויוצא

Note that this prayer is only while visiting. Along the same approach as Meiri, it is a subtle reminder, by example, for the sick person to repent.