Why Is Humanity Here? How Do We Know?

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One of the central questions we’ve been working to answer is Ran’s overall goal in these Drashot. This Drasha gives us a big clue, because Ran repeats discussions he’s already shared. I suggest he was trying to draw his listeners/readers in a surprising, perhaps challenging direction. By giving us what we are already used to, he can slip in another message of particular importance. Watching him do that, we will be one giant step closer to seeing his goals in this Drasha and in the book as a whole.

Prior essays in this series

Ran starts with a source we’ve seen before, R. Yochanan’s statement in Nedarim 38a that a prophet has to be wise, strong, rich, and humble. That will lead him (in the early parts of this drasha) to arguing, as he had before, that R. Yochanan meant wealth and strength literally. These seemingly superficial qualities were necessary for the prophet to have the best odds of impressing his audience, making it more likely they would listen to him.

Moshe Rabbenu’s speech defect was necessary to prove his prophecy was Divine and not purely an extension of his personal qualities. Moshe was so remarkable intellectually, morally, physically, and financially, that without some flaw people might have thought the Torah (and all his miracles) were his own innovations. By giving him a speech defect, Hashem ensured that people would know that his ability to convince others must be God-given, since he wasn’t a good speaker.

This is all as we’ve seen before, raising the question of why Ran repeats himself at such length. One option is what R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik has said about other great scholars of Jewish tradition, that writing did not come easily. Once he worked out a topic to his satisfaction, he would insert that version wherever it topic arose (we would hyperlink it from our other Internet articles, but it’s the same idea).

That doesn’t ring true for me regarding Ran, but before we can offer another answer, let’s see the drasha, the old material (summarized in greater brevity than usual) and the new.

The Importance of Prophecy

The opening quote is about the required characteristics of a prophet, but Ran starts by explaining the importance of prophecy. Since it is well known (Ran says) that Hashem created the world for humanity to worship Him, we need prophecy to teach us how.

First challenge for us: Do we agree that Hashem created the world for humanity to worship Him? (Rambam didn’t). Even if we adjust it to read that Hashem created humanity for us to worship Him, do we accept that? That’s a crucial question, because if our essential job as human beings is to worship Hashem (in the myriad ways there are to do that), and we decide we have some other central purpose (however worthy that something else might be), we’ve gone off the rails already. As we’ll see in the course of this drasha, the earlier we go off the rails, the farther from our goal we’re almost guaranteed to end up.

The contention that we need prophecy because we cannot intuit the worship Hashem would prefer is also much contested in our times.  There is a category of mitzvot known as sichliyot, which loosely translates as  those we can intuit on our own, although I wonder at exactly how intuitive even those mitzvot are (as I’ve written about elsewhere). It is also true that the Torah and the prophets give us general enough guidance to leave many important decisions to our own intuition.

Even granting that, much of Jewish worship does not lay any claim to being intuitive. Yet many people in our times, observant and not, assert their ability to understand what Hashem does and doesn’t want.

Ran’s view that we need the Torah, whose commandments leave marks on our souls (positive for fulfilling, negative for violating) and the further guidance of the prophets to know how to fulfill our destinies is a challenge to many people today, who prefer to do what they think is right and assume that of course Hashem would agree.

Ran’s view of mitzvot as impacting us as people, positively or negatively, is also out of step with today’s thinking. It’s not just that we acting in certain ways is or isn’t pleasing to Hashem; Ran is saying that our merits and sins change the deepest recesses of our beings. I wonder how many of us experience our achievements and failures that way. Do we feel like we’ve elevated ourselves and our souls each time we listen to Hashem, or vice versa for each time we fail to?

Yaakovs LadderThe Necessary Ups and Downs of a Righteous Life

Ran then says that Hashem’s mitzvot help us navigate the balance between our higher and lower selves. The higher selves reach for Hashem and all that is heavenly and divine, while the lower selves deal with the mundane and earthly. Not even the most righteous among us can continuously move up (especially since some material aspects of life are religiously necessary and important, such as for prophecy), and that is one symbolism of Ya’akov’s dream of angels climbing and descending a ladder. This idea of balancing the divine and the mundane is another example of Ran’s recurring interest in how the two realms interact (next time, we’ll see that Ran thinks of the heart as a crucial organ for this concern).

He sees angels of Hashem (Ran reads that as Hashem’s messengers, i.e. prophets and other righteous people) going up and down, reflecting their moving closer and farther from the divine as they work their way through life. It is impossible, according to Ran, to focus only on ascending; life requires even the righteous to be involved in it, so there will be times of ascent and times of descent.

If these were heavenly angels, Ran says, they should have been coming down first, not going up. Hashem was showing Ya’akov life’s ups and downs and promising him protection while he’d be out of Israel. By focusing on the need for protection, Hashem was stressing the higher level of Divine connection in Israel, to be sure that Ya’akov would want to return there.  An important piece of the dream, for Ran, was reinforcing Ya’akov’s awareness of how special Israel is, to make sure he’d want to come back.

Major Questions

In this first part of the drasha, Ran has put us on track to consider important issues. First, is humanity’s purpose to worship Hashem (and, if so, what does that say to each of us about how to structure our lives, what kinds of jobs to choose, what kinds of spouses to marry, how to raise our children)? We who live in an era lacking in prophecy how much are we handicapped by its lack—Ran would seem to say a great deal, do we experience it that way? And, finally, what are the advantages of Israel Hashem wants Ya’akov to know and Ran wants us to know?

About Gidon Rothstein

8 comments

  1. I don’t think “avodas Hashem” is as specific as “worshiping Hashem”. I think the Ran is simply saying that G-d created us to do His work, rather than spending our lives pursuing our own desires. Without defining that that work is.

    Given the causal nature of reward and punishment the Ran is about to take us to, I would faster argue that his specific idea of life’s purpose is the refinement of our souls rather than worship. (Although one may be the consequence of the other. Worship may be the means to refinement, it may be one of many means, but the Ran’s idea of the goal seems to be defined elsewhere. And perhaps that’s in the next topic. How does sin cause punishment? The causal connection would presumably involve the goal in life, such that punishment is proportional to failure.

    Unfortunately, I see two different possible implications there, but I am now getting ahead of the discussion.

    My point was more that while it is important to ask the question, “Do we agree that Hashem created the world for humanity to worship Him?” and if not, what are we here for? — while that is indeed the most important question of our lives, it is not raised by what the Ran wrote. Yet. It inheres more in your translation.

    Also, you comment on that question that the “(Rambam didn’t)” agree. I share R’ Hirsch’s antipathy for the Rambam’s answer that life is about gaining abstract knowledge about G-d. If you care why, see
    http://www.aishdas.org/asp/rambam-and-mesorah
    and
    http://www.aishdas.org/asp/akrasia

  2. gidonrothstein

    I’m not sure what you’re objecting to in the word “worship.” Did you think I meant only prayer? Then I should have written “service,” is that clearer? But say it your way– do you think most people today agree that their task in life is to be doing Hashem’s work, all the time?
    Ran doesn’t mention refining souls, he speaks of our serving Hashem, which could be through prayer, through Torah study or, for all I know, doing all the mitzvot, including those involved in building the world.
    And I think it exactly inheres in what Ran writes, since he takes for granted that it’s what we’re here for, to do Hashem’s work.
    Rambam doesn’t say that life is about gaining abstract knowledge about G-d, you should go back and read more carefully, especially Guide III;51-54, but also much of Mishneh Torah. The fact that a crown in Olam HaBa comes from knowledge, isn’t the same as speaking of abstract knowledge.

    • Worship, at least to my ear, connotes mitzvos that directly refine our relationship with the Divine (בין אדם למקום).

      I am suggesting that perhaps avodas Hashem should be defined in terms of what we can understand of what Hashem set out to do in making us, completing His job, doing His work. The way an eved, a servant, becomes an extension of the master’s will. This might place more emphasis on making the world a better place for His creation, and thus mitzvos that are interpersonal (בין אדם לחבירו) than is connoted by the word “worship”.

      In my current world-view (it evolves), I am something of an Orthodox Jewish Humanist, believing that Rabbi Shimon haTzadiq’s three pilllars (Avos 1:2) are a progression, Torah and Avodah being the means to support others through true lovingkindness (גמילות חסדים), bringing G-d’s Good to others. I am staking out space for this idea in sources older than R’ Shimon Shkop.

      I am saying that you are translating avodas Hashem the way most commentaries on that mishnah understand Shim’on haTzadiq as using it. But that’s not necessarily the same usage Moshe Rabbeinu or the Ran intended.

      I think most Orthodox Jews’ brains think their job is do do Hashem’s work all the time. That the only excuse for R&R is to be more capable of doing that work overall. I do not think their hearts internalized this idea, so it’s not necessarily reflected in their — nor my — actual life decisions.

      (But you and I live in different neighborhoods, and neither of us did a survey, so there will be huge difference in sample bias.)

      The part where I thought I was getting ahead of the series is that the Ran is about to discuss a causal chain between sin, the state of the soul, and punishment. One could read in that a message that refinement of the soul is an integral part of the avodas Hashem he is describing. Not worship in the sense I took you to mean, but completing His work of creating me in His perfect “Image”.

    • The Rambam deserves his own discussion. So I’m commenting separately.

      To open, perhaps my use of the word “abstract” was too extreme and thus misleading. I mean that the Rambam values knowing about G-d rather than knowing G-d. I don’t think the Rambam would consider a personal relationship with the Divine, knowing G-d the way one knows a Parent, Lover, or Friend in a literal sense. What I called “knowing G-d”. Rather he maps it to knowing about G-d. E.g. the Rambam’s transvaluation of love of G-d (אהבת ה) and fear/awe of the Divine (יראת שמים) in Yesodei haTorah 2:1.

      Moreh 3:54 ends the book by ranking four kinds of perfection: in ascending order: wealth, physical fitness, moral refinement and at the peak — intellectual perfection. The Rambam clearly means knowledge in contrast to applying wisdom ethically or morally.

      The Moreh also opens on this note, saying that Adam’s original job was to discern truth from falsehood. The moral plane was introduced by the eating of the fruit, and it introduced a distraction from what should be life’s main task.

      In between, we are told that while the navi is the ideal human, the philosopher is one step below the navi. Aristo as an individual is explicitly put on that pedestal. We are told that it’s knowledge of G-d which allows us to share in His Eternity by persisting into the afterlife. And according to the Rambam, individualized Divine Providence (השגחה פרטית) is proportional to knowledge.

      So yeah, I share the Maharal’s and R’ Hirsch’s opinion that the Rambam made all of Judaism about collecting theological knowledge on a philosophical level, rather than moral or experiential knowledge.

      • Let me be honest, and spell out my potential ulterior motives (נגיעות) outright.

        Every morning, my 15 yr old son and I go to Shacharis together. Shuby has Downs, and given his issues we chose a secular school for the weekdays, supplemented with a Sunday School program that’s only about 3-4 hours a week. For someone who learns slowly, it’s just enough to learn that Judaism is important and precious; he can’t possibly learn that much actual informational content in that little time.

        The Rambam, following Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, calls people who have less intellectual ability or who have not used that ability “small souled”. (This might only be in his igaros; it’s hard to search for text in the Moreh, given the lack of canonical text.) Which, I am arguing, is part of his general derekh.

        But in any case, a derekh that emphasizes cognitive prowess isn’t likely to win me over. Even if we take the Rambam to be speaking of thought as a necessary precondition, rather than my read that he is defining it as the goal of life itself.

  3. What do you think Rambam means by adding that the end of the verses in Yirmiyahu are “knowing Me that I am Hashem…Who does chessed, mishpat, and tsedakah in the land?” What does Rambam imply about the connection between knowledge and action, about how it might be necessary to act in certain ways in order to fully know Hashem? And what does that say about what knowledge is for Rambam?

    • In one school of Aristotilian thought, akrasia (the problem of why people make decisions they know are bad ones) is due to a failure of opinion.

      The Rambam appears to believe similarly: if people just knew more about G-d and His Truth, including His “Middos”, morality would follow.

      And on the other half of the cycle, notice your own words, the Rambam says morality is necessary for knowing G-d. Knowing G-d is the ultimate goal, acting moral, like following any of the Taryag, is a way to get there.

      So, morality both causes and is caused by proper knowledge. But the goal is the knowing. Morality is a comparatively secondary form of perfection one gets along the way.

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