Tuesday, August 24, 2010

And The Likeness of God He Beholds - The Limitations of Human Knowledge.

In the previous two posts, I explained, based on my reading of Rambam, the two terms, Peh el Peh – Mouth to Mouth – and Panim el Panim – Face to Face – he uses to explain Moshe Rabbeinu’s unique type of prophecy. Mouth to mouth describes the end result of an advanced level of a certain kind of metaphysical speculation which is referred to metaphorically as face to face. When Moshe attained an advanced level of understanding which I refer to as Negative knowledge, a full appreciation of God’s unknowability, he was able to bypass his imaginative faculty and deliver prophecies verbatim as he received them, without his own personal interpretation. That level of prophecy was unique to him based on his unique apprehension of the divine. Rambam offers a third prooftext for Moshe’s prophecy –

כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה.  ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך, שנאמר "פה אל פה אדבר בו" (
ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים
ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט"
כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה
מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות" (שם), שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה
הדבר על בורייו

And it says “and the likeness of God he beholds”, namely that there are no metaphors. He sees the matter as it is without a riddle, without a metaphor. That is what the torah testifies about him, “and vision and not in riddles”. [Meaning] that he did not prophesize in a riddle but in a vision, seeing the matter as it is.

What does the likeness [Temunah] of God he beholds mean?

As for the term figure [Temunah] it is used equivocally in three different senses. It is used to designate the form of a thing outside the mind that is apprehended by the senses; I mean the shape and configuration of the thing. … It is also used to designate the imaginary form of an individual object existing in the imagination after the object of which it is the form is no longer manifest to the senses. … The term is also used to designate the true notion grasped by the intellect. It is with a view to this third meaning that the word figure is used with reference to God. Thus, it says and the figure [likeness] of God he beholds. The meaning and interpretation of this verse are: he grasps the truth of God.” (MN 1:3)

Clearly, Rambam is forewarning us that in this context Temunah – figure - does not mean a physical entity as in the first meaning, or even a physical representation as in the second but an intellectual abstract concept. When I say abstract concept I am talking about a notion that is totally removed from our experience. Being that Panim el Panim – face to face – describes a kind of apprehension based on negating any connection or comparison with the physical, how is to “grasp the truth of God” different? Rambam in MN 1:5 explains that before allowing himself to engage in metaphysical speculation, a person must prepare himself by learning the “sciences and the different kinds of knowledge”, truly improve his character “having extinguished the desires and cravings engendered in him by his imagination.

“When doing this [metaphysical speculation] he should not make categorical affirmations in favor of the first opinion that occurs to him and should not from the outset strain and impel his thoughts toward the apprehension of the deity. He should rather feel awe and refrain and hold back until he gradually elevates himself. It is in that sense that it is said, “And Moshe hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” …  And God let overflow upon him so much of His bounty and goodness that it became necessary to say of him: “And the figure of God shall he look upon”. The Sages have stated that this is a reward for his having at first hidden his face so as not to look upon God.”

When one engages in metaphysical speculation trying to “grasp the truth of God”, one must come to it with a cautious attitude and an awareness of one’s limits. As Moshe had his first experience with prophecy at the episode of the Sneh – the Burning Bush – his caution and reticence to jump to conclusions was evident. The Rabbis tell us that it is this trait that predicted that he would eventually reach the advanced level of “beholding the likeness of God”.

What we have here is a contradictory [dialectic] approach. On the one hand, the prophet wants to grasp God’s likeness but at the same time, he knows that he cannot. Should he think he did grasp it, he knows that he is on the wrong path. But it is not enough to accept that it cannot be grasped, the great prophet knows *why* he cannot grasp God’s likeness. The more he understands why he cannot grasp God’s likeness, the closer he is to God and the greater is his appreciation and feeling of awe towards the Great unknown.

“For this reason a man sometimes labors for many years in order to understand a certain science and to gain true knowledge of its premises so that he should have certainty with regard to this science. The only conclusion from this science in its entirety consists in our negating with reference to God some notion of which it has been learnt by means of a demonstration that it cannot possibly be ascribed to God. To someone else who falls short in his knowledge of speculation, this speculation will not be clear; and he will consider it doubtful whether or not this notion exists with reference to God.” (MN1:59)

Rambam explains that the difference between different levels of advancement in metaphysical speculation is dependent on how well one understands *why* God cannot be described in a way that confuses Him and physicality. Sciences no matter how abstract depict our physical world while God is completely removed from it. The awareness of the human limits in speculation, understanding those limits denotes the greatness of the thinker. Moshe Rabbeinu was able to attain the highest level of this apprehension, a level no one else has ever nor will ever achieve, thus his prophetic uniqueness. At the episode of Nikrat Hatzur during the Golden Calf episode, Moshe asked for clarification -

One request consisted in his asking Him to let him know His essence and true reality…. The answer the two requests that He gave him consisted in His promising him to let him know all His attributes, making it known to him that they are His actions, and teaching him that His essence cannot be grasped as it really is. Yet He drew his attention to a subject of speculation through which he can apprehend to the furthest that is possible for man. For what has been apprehended by Moshe has not been apprehended by anyone before him nor will it be apprehended by anyone after him.” (MN 1:54)

The limit of human knowledge is at the center of Jewish theology as explained by Rambam. That knowledge brings about humility and awe. Moshe who had reached the highest possible level of apprehension knowing that after all he could still not grasp God’s essence but only His “likeness” – Temunah – what He is not – was the humblest of man.

ב  וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן, מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו, ויירא ויפחד
ויידע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה, עומד בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות, כמו
שאמר דויד "כי אראה שמיך . . . מה אנוש, כי תזכרנו

As he speculates about these matters [metaphysics] he immediately staggers backwards, [is overcome by] fear and terror, knowing that he is a lowly, small and dark entity, that stands in front of the Perfect Intellect with minimal knowledge as David says ‘when I see your heavens … what is man that You should notice him?” (Yesodei Hatorah 2:2)

The fear and terror is inspired not by contemplating the greatness of creation [Ma’aseh Breishit] but by contemplating the vast chasm between what we know and what we cannot know [Ma’aseh Merkavah] – the lowly creature in front of the Perfect Intellect which he cannot even grasp. (The prooftext here is fascinating and I will address it separately at another opportunity).

Moshe came to metaphysical speculation with an attitude of caution and humility accepting his own human limitations. He was therefore able to understand that the “likeness of God” true reality is incomprehensible. That understanding led him to an apprehension of Panim el Panim, where he understood clearly not only that we humans cannot apprehend God but also why that is impossible. That understanding led him to the ability to transmit prophecies as received – verbatim – without the interpretation necessary when the prophecy passes through the imaginative faculty.

From a practical sense, this whole discussion about Moshe seems to be academic. We are so far removed from Moshe’s state that we cannot fathom his greatness never mind understand it. Not only are we removed but so too are all prophets besides Moshe; none ever got close to his level of prophecy. So why does Rambam expend so much on this topic. This brings us back to the issue of Ta’amei Hamitzvot which we were talking about a few posts back. The Torah is the fruit of that superior prophecy of Moshe, it came verbatim from God as we know it, and will forever remain, as it is, unchanged. That is so because there can never be another Moshe who could reach the levels of prophecy that allow for verbatim transmission. How can the word of God as transmitted be changed by divine messages that require human interpretation?


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Face To Face - Panim El Panim - An Introduction To Negative Knowledge.

In the previous post, I explained that Peh el Peh is a metaphor for a type of prophecy that does not involve the imaginative faculty and therefore can be transmitted verbatim without the prophet’s personal interpretation. I will continue translating Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah chapter 7 where he describes the differences between the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu and that of other prophets.

כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה. ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך,
שנאמר "פה אל פה אדבר בו"
ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים

And it says, and God spoke to Moshe face to face.

As an additional prooftext that Moshe’s prophecy did not involve the imaginative, Rambam brings this verse located towards the end of the story of the golden calf (Shemot 33) which describes the dialogue between God and Moshe as being “face to face”. In discussing the term Panim “face”, Rambam in MN1:37 writes –

“It is also a term denoting the presence and station of an individual…. In this sense it is said: And the lord spoke unto Moshe face to face – which means, as a presence to another presence without an intermediary, as is said: Come let us look one another in the face.

Lest we think that “presence” in this case would denote that there was some kind of tangible entity that Moshe experienced as facing him, Rambam continues:

“Thus Scripture says: The lord spoke to you face to face. In another passage, it explains, saying: You heard the voice of words but you saw no figure, only a voice. Hence, this kind of speaking and hearing are described as being face to face.

Clearly the “presence” that was apprehended in this face off between God and the people was just a sense of an entity, the source of the “voice”. In other words, there is a kind of apprehension during a prophetic experience that changes the perception of the prophet. Rambam explains the uniqueness of this apprehension as being –

“Similarly the words, And the Lord spoke to Moshe face to face, describe His speaking as being in the form of an address [to Moshe]. Accordingly, it is said: Then he heard the voice speaking to him. It has accordingly been made clear to you that the hearing of a speech without the intermediary of an angel is described as being face to face.”

When the prophet experiences the prophecy as coming directly from the source without the intermediary of an angel, when it requires no interpretation of the hearer, it is called “face to face”. And again lest we think that the prophet perceives the source as coming from an entity that speaks with a sound, like all human speech, Rambam again forewarns us –

“In this sense it is also said: But my face shall not be seen, meaning that the true reality of My existence as it veritably is cannot be grasped.”

I read here Rambam as telling us that for a prophecy to not require the intermediary of the imaginative faculty, the prophet must understand that the reality of God’s existence cannot be grasped. When one can accept the truth that God exists but that all we say about Him including existence is only a linguistic necessity, that the reality is that we humans cannot grasp His essence, only then can the intellect alone operate when speculating about God. The apprehension that includes attributes and cannot completely divest God from the physical, requires the imaginative to distill the information and transmit it to the intellect for rational analysis and interpretation.

To elaborate a little further and attempt to put this into practical terms, I am suggesting that there are two levels of speculation about God. As human beings, we have to start looking for God through nature. If we accept that God has willed this existence, we see Him in that same existence. We analyze His actions and their result and extrapolate from that what God had in mind in creation. It requires a small step to conclude erroneously that God is in nature as His will is in it from our perspective. Our imaginative faculty which is experience based takes us to that thinking as that is our experience with our physical existence. We see the life force in all living things and we assume that God the ultimate life force of everything as another though necessary component of existence. But our intellectual understanding of God is that He is the only unique non-contingent entity and thus totally removed from the physical. He therefore cannot be that ultimate life force in the sense that we experience these things and the picture we have in our mind as a result of this speculation is only that – a picture.

Knowing God through nature was the level of understanding of the divine until Moshe came. He introduced the idea that we can only know what God is “not”. He is not anything that can be defined by humans. In human terms when we say that something “exists”, we are really saying that it “came” into existence from not existing. In other words, “existence” is a relative term. We therefore cannot use the term “existent” when talking about God who existed always and was never non-existent. We just use it for lack of another word to indicate that singularity - eternal existence. So when we say that God exists from eternity to eternity, we are really saying that he is NOT existent in the sense that we know existence to be. The same would apply to every attribute that we use about Him. Explaining the meaning of God telling Moshe in response to his question of how to explain to the people about God that sent him to take them out of Egypt, Rambam in MN 1:63 writes –

“Accordingly God made known to Moshe the knowledge that he was to convey to them and through which they would acquire a true notion of the existence of God, this knowledge being: I am that I am (Shemot 3:14)…. Accordingly, Scripture makes, as it were, a clear statement that the subject [I am] is identical with the predicate [I am]. This makes it clear that He is existent not through existence. This notion may be summarized and interpreted in the following way: the existent that is the existent, or the necessarily existent. That is what demonstration necessarily leads to: namely, to the view that there is a necessarily existent thing that has never been, or ever will be, nonexistent.”

Coming back to where this post started, Panim el Panim – face to face – connotes a kind of sophisticated apprehension of the divine which perceives a “presence” that in reality is a non-presence in our definition of “presence”. It is that apprehension that results in a prophecy that is described as Peh el Peh where the prophet repeats the prophecy word for word – verbatim – without his own interpretation. In his presentation of Moshe’s prophecy Rambam first brings the text peh el peh which is the end result followed by Panim el Panim which describes the process of apprehension that resulted in this prophecy.

Next post will address the third prooftext in this Halacha - ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט .

Friday, August 13, 2010

Moshe's Prophecy - the metaphor "Mouth to Mouth" - Peh El Peh.

In a private exchange with Rabbi Yoni Sacks, we touched on the subject of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy. When talking about his prophecy, the Torah refers to it with two different expressions - peh el peh and panim el panim.

וְדִבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ

And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaks unto his friend. (Shemot 33:11)


ח  פֶּה אֶל-פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר-בּוֹ, וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא
 בְחִידֹת, וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה, יַבִּיט;.

8 Mouth to mouth do I speak with him, and vision and not in riddles, and the likeness of the Lord he beholds … (Bamidbar 12:8)

Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7 explains the features of Moshe’s prophecy as compared to that of the other prophets. Among a list of differences he points to these two verses –
כל הנביאים, על ידי מלאך; לפיכך רואין מה שהן רואין במשל וחידה.  ומשה רבנו, לא על ידי מלאך,
שנאמר "פה אל פה אדבר בו"
ונאמר "ודיבר ה' אל משה פנים אל פנים
ונאמר "ותמונת ה', יביט
כלומר שאין שם משל, אלא רואה הדבר על בורייו בלא חידה בלא משל; הוא שהתורה
מעידה עליו, "ומראה ולא בחידות", שאינו מתנבא בחידה אלא במראה, שרואה
 הדבר על בורייו
יכל הנביאים, יראין ונבהלין ומתמוגגים.  ומשה רבנו, אינו כן; הוא שהכתוב אומר "כאשר ידבר איש אל ריעהו"
כמו שאין אדם נבהל לשמוע דברי חברו, כך היה כוח בדעתו של משה רבנו להבין דברי הנבואה; והוא עומד על עומדו שלם.

I will translate and comment as I go along.

All prophets prophesize via an angel, which causes them to see that which they see, in parables and riddles while Moshe Rabbeinu [does not prophesize] via an angel.

What exactly is an angel? Rambam in MN 2:6 explains that it is a very broad term that indicates a messenger or intermediary in all its meanings. It is used in Tanach as a description for the fulfillment of God’s will whether it is through natural events such as winds or fires or singularities. In the context of prophecy, Rambam is explicit –

Accordingly Midrash Kohelet has the following text: When man sleeps, his soul speaks to the angel, and the angel to the cherub. Thereby they have stated plainly to him who understands and cognizes intellectually that the imaginative faculty is likewise called an angel and that the intellect is called a cherub. How beautiful must this appear to him who knows, and how distasteful to the ignorant!

One of the most common forms of prophecy is through dreams. The way those prophetic dreams work, is by stimulating the imaginative faculty [angel] which apprehends abstract matters in their physical forms which are then deciphered by the intellect [cherub] as to their true meaning. The way the prophecy is then transmitted by the prophet to others, is subject to the prophet’s own interpretation and thus is dependent on his level of intellectual perfection. A prominent example of this in Tanach is the short cryptic description of the divinity by Yeshayahu and the more expansive one by Yechezkel. The Rabbis (Hagigah 13b) comment that Yeshayahu was as a Ben Krach – a city dweller – while Yechezkel was a Ben Kfar – a village dweller – a metaphor for their respective level of perfected apprehension which resulted in the different depiction of the same vision. On the other hand, Moshe apprehended the prophecy with his intellect thus the prophecy did not require interpretation by him. He was able to transmit it verbatim without his personal input. This is the kind of prophecy that was needed to transmit laws, whose presentation need to be precise.   

“After we have spoken of the essence of prophecy, have made known its true reality, and have made clear that the prophecy of Moshe our master is different from that of the others, we shall say that the call to the Law followed necessarily from that apprehension alone” (MN2:39)

Rambam goes on to explain that the uniqueness of Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy is necessary for the immutability of the Torah. In other words, the repeated insistence by the Torah of the uniqueness of his prophecy is to make that point that the Torah cannot ever be changed by any subsequent prophet including Elyahu or Mashiach.

Rambam offers the following textual support for Moshe’s unique prophecy -

  1. “Mouth to mouth do I speak with him”

Rambam in MN2:45 explains this term cryptically.

“You will perhaps ask this question: among the different degrees of prophecy there is one in which prophets, e.g., Isaiah, Micah, appear to hear God addressing them. How can this be reconciled with the principle that all prophets are prophetically addressed through an angel, except Moses our Teacher, in reference to whom Scripture says, "Mouth to mouth I speak to him" (Num. xii. 8)? I answer, this is really the case, the medium here being the imaginative faculty that hears in a prophetic dream God speaking; but Moses heard the voice addressing him "from above the covering of the ark from between the two cherubim" (Exod. xxv. 22) without the medium of the imaginative faculty.

Mouth to mouth is identical to hearing the voice from “between the two cherubim”. We saw earlier that Cherub is a metaphor for the intellect. The two cherubim are thus the two intellects, men’s and the source of prophecy, the Active Intellect which in Medieval Philosophy stood for knowledge at its source. A prophet may imagine that God is speaking to him and delivering a message which needed deciphering while Moshe “knew” with his intellect that God was speaking to him. The message that Moshe apprehended needed no further interpretation and could be transmitted further in the form he “heard” it.

If we were to categorize Peh el Peh, we would say that it describes the process of transmission/reception of prophecy – it goes directly from the mouth of the Giver so to say, to the mouth of the prophet without the prophet’s interpretation.

As an aside, it is worthwhile to consider that a metaphor for mouth to mouth is kissing. When we say that Moshe, Aharon and Miriam died through kissing, Mitat Neshikah, we are saying that their physical end came about in the ecstasy of this highest level of prophecy and apprehension where there was no interference of the imaginative.

  1. And the Lord spoke unto Moses face to face.

Another description of Moshe’s prophecy is the metaphor “face to face”. I will address this aspect of Moshe’s prophecy in the next post as I continue with the translation/comment of this Halacha.

Note: this series of posts, though at first blush seem to be a detour in my discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot, are really part of that same discussion. The connection will become clearer as I continue.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Are Mitzvot Arbitrary Rituals?

In my last post, I showed that the underlying reason for Mitzvot is to foster an awareness of God in our daily life. As the Mitzvot involve us almost constantly, we are always connected to God in our thinking. Whether doing  things such as prayer, blessings, Tefillin, Tzitzit, mezuzah and the time-sensitive Mitzvot such as Shabbat and Yom Tov or refraining from things such as eating forbidden foods or when dealings with others we do so with honesty and ethical behavior, we are always brought back to God who commanded us to act this way by doing these Mitzvot. Of course this only works if we accept and understand that Mitzvot are not just some kind of mystical ritual but a tool for our own betterment. Having such an overarching reason one may argue that there is no further need to find reasons for each particular Mitzvah.

Rambam begins his discussion of Ta’amei Hamitzvot with a fascinating introduction in MN 3:26 -  

 “Just as men of speculation among the adherents of the Law are divided on the question whether the actions of God are the result of His wisdom or only of His will without being intended for any purpose whatever, they are also divided as regards the object of the commandments which God gave us. Some of them hold that the commandments have no object at all; and are only dictated by the will of God. Others are of opinion that all commandments and prohibitions are dictated by His wisdom and serve a certain aim; consequently, there is a reason for each one of the precepts: they are enjoined because they are useful.

The comparison is surprising because unlike Mitzvot where Rambam holds there is an overarching reason for them, when it comes to why there is existence in general, Rambam argues that the question is moot and has no answer except that God so wanted.

“After this explanation you will understand that there is no occasion to seek the final cause of the whole Universe, neither according to our theory of the Creation, nor according to the theory of Aristotle, who assumes the Eternity of the Universe…" (MN3:13).

This chapter is the introductory chapter to Rambam’s exposition of Providence. Before he can discuss Providence, Rambam must establish whether there is an end goal for existence. His conclusion is that there really is no way for us to know other than accept that God willed existence. However, as he continues with the discussion he shows that we can discern from the world we live in, a certain pattern from which we can develop an understanding of how God wants to run the world and allows us to partake in His wishes. Although we cannot fathom the goals of the whole of existence, we see that the goal of man’s existence is to develop this understanding of God’s actions using the mind that he has and the freedom of will that he enjoys and act emulating those actions. Rambam rejects the popular arguments given by other thinkers such as Ramban and later Ramchal that God wanted people that worship Him so that He can bestow good upon them and bring into actuality His goodness. Or others who claim that humanity are the reason for existence. However, once we are here we humans have a role to play, though what that role is, is for us to find out.

On the other hand, when it comes to finding a reason for Mitzvot, the overarching reason is keeping the awareness of God’s presence in the forefront of our thinking according to Rambam. We are not talking about an existential issue but about the whys of commandments. The question that confronts us is whether the acts dictated by these commandments are arbitrary. After all any directed action or inaction would serve the purpose of reminding us of God as the One commanding us, even if it were an irrational or arbitrary act. In fact, maybe a counterintuitive commandment would attain the goal of making us aware more efficiently. How then can Rambam link these two subjects, the whole of existence and Mitzvot, and suggest that the same logic goes for both of them?

If we really think about Rambam’s proposal that Mitzvot are to keep God present in our awareness, the question that comes to mind is what concept of God are we striving to be aware of?  Unless we develop our understanding of what God is, what is the point of thinking and being aware of an imaginary entity that exists only in our fantasy? Rambam makes a strikingly strong statement on this issue in MN3:51 -

“Those, however, who think of God, and frequently mention His name, without any correct notion of Him, but merely following some imagination, or some theory received from another person, are, in my opinion, like those who remain outside the palace and distant from it. They do not mention the name of God in truth, nor do they reflect on it. That which they imagine and mention does not correspond to any being in existence: it is a thing invented by their imagination, as has been shown by us in our discussion on the Divine Attributes (Part I. chap. 1.). The true worship of God is only possible when correct notions of Him have previously been conceived.”

How does one develop correct notions about God? As followers on this blog must know by now, we cannot conceptualize God at all. We can only know Him through His actions. By contemplating the universe we are in and the way it works, learning about physics, chemistry, biology and all the other sciences that explain its workings, we can try to decipher God’s mind and will so to say. But how does knowing the sciences in general teach us about God? Is God really involved in all this? Maybe God is what is referred to as the God of the philosophers, an entity that has no involvement in the physical but only the first and only non-contingent entity? Does God really have will? Is He really responsible for existence or is He just a necessary being, a singularity that explains the existence of a chain of cause and effect? These questions cannot be answered by scientific investigation. There is a limit to human knowledge and it stops at the beginning of physical existence. We can investigate how the universe works but we will never be able to definitely answer how it came into being, what triggered that singular event. We can have theories, and there are new ones developed by scientist on a daily basis. We are pushing back the envelope of what can be known, but there always will be a place that human knowledge will not be able to reach. Rambam puts this into words using the medieval scientific language of his time where Aristotelian science was considered the limit of human knowledge.

What I said before I will repeat now, namely, that the theory of Aristotle, in explaining the phenomena in the sublunary world, is in accordance with logical inference: here we know the causal relation between one phenomenon and another; we see how far science can investigate them, and the management of nature is clear and intelligible. But of the things in the heavens man knows nothing except a few mathematical calculations, and you see how far these go. … This is in reality the truth. For the facts which we require in proving the existence of heavenly beings are withheld from us: the heavens are too far from us, and too exalted in place and rank. Man's faculties are too deficient to comprehend even the general proof the heavens contain for the existence of Him who sets them in motion. It is in fact ignorance or a kind of madness to weary our minds with finding out things which are beyond our reach, without having the means of approaching them. We must content ourselves with that which is within our reach, and that which cannot be approached by logical inference let us leave to him who has been endowed with that great and divine influence, expressed in the words: "Mouth to mouth do I speak with Him" (Num. xii. 8).” (MN 2:24)

Of course, as I said earlier, since that time humankind has pushed back the envelope of knowledge and the heavens are much better understood. There are many things we still do not understand and many of them will be explained as science advances. There is however a point that we will never go beyond and that is before existence began, how it began, how the creation event was triggered and by whom or what. It is in that area of speculation that theology has a role and by definition is based on subjective judgments and what is referred to as revelation – Nevuah – “to him who has been endowed with that great and divine influence, expressed in the words: "Mouth to mouth do I speak with Him".” The singularity that was the coming into being of existence can be attributed to a natural phenomenon, negating will to God or as something willed by God, which accepts that God wills and acts. Will we ever be able to definitely prove one possibility over the other? Probably not but which perspective we chose to accept will definitely have a great impact on our behavior and sense of right and wrong.  Our personal biases and natural inclinations, our built in need for self-satisfaction and self-indulgence will influence on how we chose.

Although the overall concept of Mitzvot is to make us think about God, they also have a role in helping us decide what we believe about God. Do we believe in a transcendental unknowable God for whom we have an insatiable yearning to get to know or do we believe in an emotional god who is there to serve us? Do we believe in a god who takes sides and defends those who supplicate the most or do we believe in God who in His great wisdom has put us in a world were our success or failure is consequent on how we act? It is this role of Mitzvot that Rambam addresses in the comparison to existence. By training us in thinking beyond the self, teaching us how to think when we study the minutia of how these Mitzvot are implemented, the Havayot of Abaye and Rava, we become better equipped to deal with these subjective questions with the proper perspective. Although we do not know why God willed existence, we know that He has a role for us in that existence, a role that we have to discover for ourselves. So too He commanded us the Mitzvot so that we perfect ourselves and get closer to Him by knowing Him and believing in Him, as He really is - unknowable. How the Mitzvot accomplish that is the subject of following posts.