Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Goal of the Torah and The Mitzvot.

This series of posts which I started back in April here was inspired by questions about why we keep the Torah and Mitzvot and the restrictions that come with it. I have shown that Rambam sees human existence is a part of the whole of existence and that it has a special role to play in that whole. The Torah and Mitzvot therefore are seen as a tool to guide humanity in understanding and fulfilling that role correctly. If we adopt this perspective, I believe that the religious enterprise takes on a realistic, practical and important role in our life. This understanding of a role for humanity in creation, crystallized in my mind while I was working on my article on Divine Providence and subsequently on the article on idolatry both published in Hakirah here and here. In that first article I wrote -

The paradigm of people who have tapped into Divine Providence and lived their lives fully in accordance with their apprehension, are Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe (Yehoshua is also included in one quote). Their goals were broad in the sense that they influenced as many as they could during their lifetime. They were also acting with a long-term outlook in the sense that they were creating a nation that has as its goal the full development of the human intellect. It also has as its mission to spread that goal across humanity.

Consider how the action of Divine Providence is described in reference to every incident in the lives of the patriarchs, in their various activities and even in their acquisition of property and what they were promised in consequence of providence accompanying them.(MN3:18)

I think these four reached that high degree of perfection in their relation to God, and enjoyed the continual presence of Divine Providence, even in their endeavors to increase their property, feeding the flock, toiling in the field, or managing the house, only because in all these things their end and aim was to approach God as much as possible. It was the chief aim of their whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. (MN3:51)”

As an introduction to the Torah and the Mitzvot that come with it, the Torah tells the story of the Patriarchs – the Avot – and sets them out as paradigms of the type of people it intends to develop with the ultimate goal that the whole of humanity will follow in their footsteps. I believe I have convincingly shown in many of my posts on this blog that “to know God and worship Him”, means to get to know our existence and the processes that give it continuity. God can only be known through the results of His actions and that is the universe we live in. It is this way of thinking that fosters scientific advances and knowledge. I always see Newton as the prime example of how science advances because the underlying quest was God – see my post here, here, here and here. Not all scientists who discover new insights and revolutionize human knowledge follow Newton’s example but ultimately it is the quest for God – the Unique God – and spurning the myths of idolatry that allowed for scientific advances. If we look at the Avot from this perspective, it becomes clear that they were struggling to break the hold that these idolatrous myths had over humanity. It is only through the correct understanding of the world that humanity will be able to fulfill its intended role and play a role in its survival which is summarized in these verses -

כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ

And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and conquer it.

Conquering the earth is the ultimate goal, to take control of the environment and insure its eternal continuity, the intended “very good” of creation.

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד

And God saw every thing that He had made, and behold it was very good.

Thus, when we say that the Avot’s main goal was to “create a people that should know and worship God” we are saying that they wanted to bring about a people that would see reality as it is. When the Rabbis extol Avraham’s proselytizing efforts, they are broadening his goal to the whole of humanity. In other words, the intent is to have all of humanity focused on understanding reality and the Jewish people as the conduit for this teaching.

The problem is that this idea of understanding reality and knowing how to act responsibly to fulfill humanity’s role is not an easy thing to do. It is especially difficult when people have to make decisions and act on matters that affect things in the future sometimes several lifetimes in the future. These decisions cannot always be arrived at objectively. I understand the description the Torah gives of Yaakov’s doubts at every major decision in his life as an example of this problem. Yaakov always questioned whether his decision to join Lavan at the beginning of his life journey or to join Yosef at the end of it was correct. What effect would these decisions have long term on his descendants and how will they affect his goal of creating a God worshipping people?

The Torah teaches us to reject the world of fantasy that idolatry promotes. It teaches to look at the world realistically knowing that it exists and operates within a system of wisdom and science, not spirits and other such fantasies. It also regulates our behavior training us to think about others not just of our narcissistic needs. It wants us to take control of our natural urges and channel them into productive areas. It is only after we become perfected human beings that we can trust our decision making to be unbiased and realistic.

The Torah’s goal of developing a perfect human being is rooted in reality. It realizes that the goal will take millennia to accomplish, that it is a developmental process that will not always go in a straight line. It is a long and incremental process with many twists along the way. It also has start from the ground up. A society that is peaceful and prosperous is needed to allow for intellectual growth.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state… For it has already been found that man has a double perfection: the first perfection is that of the body, and the second perfection is that of the soul… It is clear that the second and superior kind of perfection can only be attained when the first perfection has been acquired; for a person that is suffering from great hunger, thirst, heat, or cold, cannot grasp an idea even if communicated by others, much less can he arrive at it by his own reasoning… The true Law, which as we said is one, and beside which there is no other Law, viz., the Law of our teacher Moses, has for its purpose to give us the twofold perfection. It 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)

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