Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Torah and its Mitzvot and the Role of Humanity in Creation.

In this previous post, we discussed Rambam’s definition of the two words Chesed and Tzedakah. He defines the third word in the verse in Yirmyahu, Mishpat, in very few words –

The noun Mishpat, it means judgment concerning what ought to be done to one who is judged, whether in the way of conferring a benefit or a punishment.” (MN3:53)

Rambam in his discussion of Divine Providence earlier in the Moreh, spent many chapters explaining the system of cause and effect through which the world functions. All systems that we refer to as physics, biology, chemistry and general sciences operate under this law of cause and effect. It also extends to human behavior where the underlying “science” is freedom of choice. How a person chooses to act has an effect on not only him but also all those he affects by his actions through time and even generations. That system is what the prophets call Mishpat – judgment. [For a thorough treatment of the subject, see my article Divine Providence - Goals, Hopes and Fears כי כל דרכיו משפט ].

The words חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה thus encompass all of creation. Chesed is how we interpret existence per se, Tzedakah is how we refer to the availability of the necessary resources to each being according to its capacity to use them and Mishpat is the system that we operate under that brings about continuity.

Accordingly, He is described as Chasid [one possessing loving-kindness] because He has brought the whole into being; as Tzaddik [righteous] because of His mercy towards the weak – I refer to the governance of the living being by the means of its forces; and as Shofet - judge because of the occurrence in the world of relative good things and great calamities, necessitated by judgment that is consequent upon wisdom.” (MN 3:53)

We are commanded to emulate God. Translating these three divine attributes into human actions is not an easy task. As I discussed earlier, the first one, Chesed – perfect altruism is most difficult. If everything we do has a cause and effect, it is very difficult to find ways to act that do not affect us personally. To take oneself out of the equation when deciding on an action is very difficult. It requires a really perfected human being. The Torah sets out a list of Mitzvot that are meant to train us in perfecting this trait and that fall under the general rubric of Gemilut Chassadim.

The fourth class includes precepts relating to charity, loans, gifts, and the like, as for instance estimations and anathemas, the laws concerning loans and slaves, and all the laws enumerated in the book of Zeraim.” (MN3:35)

But that alone is not enough. Behavior modification works to an extent but there also is a need to change the way we think. To understand morality as it affects others – Tzedakah – we need to work towards containing our natural narcissisms. We have to get a correct ontological understanding of our existence to be able to act responsibly within Mishpat – the system of cause and effect under which we live. The decision how to act responsibly in emulating God and play our role in creation is not always clear and reached objectively. Subjectivity plays a great role in that decision process and requires perfection for it not to be biased and slanted towards narcissism.

It now starts to become clear that humanity needed to abandon the myths of ancient times which clouded the way the world was looked at. More than that humanity needed to be directed towards understanding its role and obligations as part of the universe created by God. That is the goal of Judaism and the Mitzvot of the Torah. It is an all-encompassing system that affects every aspect of life. It makes one think, take stock and learn to do things with purpose. Its goal is not just to change us, the Jewish people, but through us the whole of humanity. That is the concept of Yemot Hamashiach – the messianic Era. Rambam in Hilchot Melachim Umilchamotehem 11:11 writes -

וכל הדברים האלו של ישוע הנוצרי, ושל זה הישמעאלי שעמד אחריו--אינן אלא
ליישר דרך למלך המשיח, ולתקן את העולם כולו לעבוד את ה' ביחד "

All these matters of Jesus the Christian and this Ishmaelite, who followed after him, are only to prepare the way for the Messianic king and to perfect the whole world to serve God in unity.

Rambam sees what we call western culture as a stepping stone in the process of leading humanity to fulfill its role – serve God by fulfilling the “very good” that He saw when He created man –

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

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

Clearly, this approach towards the reason for Mitzvot sees them as a tool rather than an end in itself. There is however a shift where they are no longer just a tool but become intrinsically Avodat Hashem – service of God. I will leave that for a different discussion.

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