Sunday, May 17, 2009

Action Oriented Knowledge

Upon descending from the mountain and the forty days and nights of meditation and learning, Moshe Rabbeinu was confronted with the idolatry of the Golden Calf. Here was a man who took responsibility for the long-term plan and goal of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov to create a nation that knows God, and is at a loss of how to continue implementing this objective. He has dedicated several years to reintroducing the people to the theology of their ancestors and in the process freeing them from enslavement to the dominant culture of the era. He has also introduced with great fanfare the experience of intellectual union with the unique God at Sinai. Just when he thought he had succeeded, he is confronted with unquestionable recidivism – the Golden Calf. He is at a loss and turns to God for guidance.

יג וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ
, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן
בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה

13 Now therefore, I pray to you, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your ways, that I may know You, to the end that I may find grace in Your sight; and consider that this nation is Your people.' (Shemot 33:13)

Moshe was saying, “I am at a loss. Please teach me how to proceed so that I can accomplish my goal and lead the people to the truth.”

The reply was –

יט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל-טוּבִי
עַל-פָּנֶיךָ, וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ;.

And He said: 'I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; (Shemot 33:19)

Rambam notes that the word טוּבִי refers to “וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד”
Moshe was directed to look at creation and learn from it.

“The words "all My goodness" imply that God promised to show him the whole creation, concerning which it has been stated, "And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31). When I say, "to show him the whole creation," I mean to imply that God promised to make him comprehend the nature of all things, their relation to each other, and the way they are governed by God both in reference to the universe as a whole and to each creature in particular.” (MN 1:54)

The only way a person can attempt to act in a really constructive way is if he understands the consequences of his actions. To be able to have a true picture of that he has to know the true reality in which he is acting. He must therefore learn, not only the specific science that regulates each component of that reality, but also understand the interrelationship of all the components and try to get a picture of where this is all going. It is a long process that never brings complete certainty but that is the human condition (more about this point in upcoming posts). Moshe represents the paradigm of what a human being should strive to become. When we say that the search for God is the ultimate goal of a man, we are not talking merely about an intellectual quest. We are talking about an intellectual quest that is necessary for man to know how to act by emulating God in creation. Rambam explains the second part of the verse above when Moshe asks for help,

“For his saying: “Show me now Your ways, that I may know You,” indicates that God, may He be exalted, is known through His attributive qualifications; for when he would know the ways, he would know Him.” (MN 1:54)

The purpose of knowing Him is not merely intellectual but –

He says, however, that man can only glory in the knowledge of God and in the knowledge of His ways and attributes, which are His actions, as we have shown (Part 1:54) in expounding the passage, "Show me now thy ways" (Exod. 38:13). We are thus told in this passage that the Divine acts which ought to be known, and ought to serve as a guide for our actions, are, Chesed, "loving-kindness," Mishpat, "judgment," and Tzedakah, "righteousness."” (Mn3:54)

Rambam ties together our verse with the one in Yirmyahu 9:23

כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ: כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי, נְאֻם-יְהוָה.

…that I am the LORD who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the earth; for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

Rambam explains the words “for in these things I delight, says the LORD” to mean,

“My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown (Part 1:54) that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. 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 the knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN3:54)

The key point here is the knowledge “of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence”. That knowledge is the basis for imitating the ways of God and guide man’s actions.

I will be writing in upcoming posts about this quest for knowledge, how to make sure it is not distorted by our own subjectivity and imagination and how the Avot and those who bought into their goals, used it to guide them in their actions. We also will address the role of Torah and Mitzvot in this. I will also try to flesh out what these actions expected of us are and how they affect the whole of existence.

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