Friday, August 03, 2007

It’s A Shame

In the previous installment of this series on the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, we examined the first verse Maimonides uses to “crown” his compendium, “in the name of Hashem, God of the Universe.” We explained that this verse fragment makes reference to the link between the work of the Rambam and the mission of Avraham Avinu, who revolutionized mankind’s understanding of the material world and humanity’s place in it.

However, the Rambam was not satisfied with this introductory verse alone. He appended a second passuq, drawn from Psalm 119:

“Then I will no longer be ashamed – when I gaze upon all of your commandments.”

We must assume that the Rambam understood these two quotations as complementary – that somehow, their combination would provide the ideal bridge from the world of the Written Torah to the framework of the Mishneh Torah. We have already discussed the first verse, which beautifully articulates the overarching purpose of Torah in general. But what does the second verse add that was missing from the first?

A careful consideration of the verse from Psalms will lead us to the answer. The Psalmist describes an internal experience of shame, a painful state of existence that gazing upon all the commandments will ameliorate. On the surface, this inner turmoil is difficult to comprehend. The majority of Jews are very far from having an intellectual grasp of the entire system of mitsvot, yet they don’t seem to be possessed by feelings of inadequacy or inferiority as a result. On the contrary, we take pride in our progress and accomplishments in Torah, despite the fact that we have a great deal left to learn. The process of learning is, after all, a lifelong endeavor, and there is no shame in this. So what is the verse in Psalms getting at?

I believe that King David means to correct a misconception many harbor about Torah knowledge. We tend to approach Torah study as a luxury, a source of enjoyment and stimulation that enhances our lives. This is certainly accurate as far as it goes. However, it falls short of acknowledging the deficiencies within us that Torah and mitsvot are designed to rectify.

A person without Torah is not simply an individual who lacks some added benefit in life; absence of Torah is not merely “lack of a positive”, it is the presence of a negative! When we exercise our capacity for free choice, making decisions and selecting objectives to which to devote ourselves, we must make recourse to some set of values or principles to guide us. The average person is primarily motivated by desires for physical gratification, honor or accomplishment. His lifestyle and routines, reactions to disappointment, attitude toward diet and exercise, work ethic, etc., all derive from his constant strivings for the “good life” as he envisions it. The problem is that his “vision” is the product of his instincts, emotions and fantasies rather than true insight.

A person of Torah, on the other hand, is governed by the principles of God’s wisdom in every aspect of his existence – material, spiritual, social and practical. The deeper and more comprehensive his understanding of Torah principles, the more integrated, harmonious and wise his lifestyle choices become. As knowledge of Torah expands and illuminates one’s perspective on the world, it slowly replaces instinct and impulse as the guiding force in one’s life.

Thus, the Psalmist writes that one who has not yet developed a vision of the Torah system as a whole should experience shame – he should be keenly aware of the deficiency of his knowledge and therefore of the fact that many of his actions and reactions are still under the sway of his instinctual makeup. Until he can systematically apply principles of Torah insight to every area of his life, he realizes that his conduct will continue to be driven by the lower elements of his nature.

As we have noted in prior installments of this series, the Rambam’s objective in composing the Mishneh Torah was to provide a systematic and comprehensive presentation of the entire Oral Tradition. Hence, it is fitting that he should associate this project with a verse in Psalms that beckons the reader to seek just such a thorough and integrated understanding of the commandments. Our need to have Torah wisdom permeate every aspect of our lives irresistibly draws us to the Mishneh Torah.

Now we can better appreciate the connection between the first and second verses that Maimonides chose to introduce his work. The first verse speaks of the so-called macrocosm of existence – the Universe in its totality, including human beings, as reflections of the unfathomable wisdom of One Creator. When Torah teachings are put into practice in the real world, and the harmonious and lawful conduct of nature is paralleled by the harmonious and lawful behavior of mankind, then Avraham Avinu’s grand mission has reached its completion.

However, as long as our knowledge of Torah is still a work in progress, we look upon the rest of Creation and back at ourselves with a modicum of shame. Every entity in our world is governed by the magnificent design of God with breathtaking consistency, yet we are bundles of contradiction, overtaken by petty impulses and base instincts on a regular basis. So long as we lack knowledge, we blissfully allow our animalistic desires to hijack us for their satisfaction. This shameful situation will persist until we finally gaze upon all of the commandments and, through their wise counsel, systematically alter our perspectives on life.

The two verses selected by Maimonide reflect two complementary dimensions of our religious outlook. “In the name of Hashem, God of the Universe” refers to our attitude toward the “big picure” of the cosmos – that is, the principle that the existence of the world and its intricate order express Hashem’s wisdom and providence throughout.

The second verse “Then I will no longer be ashamed” speaks to our view of ourselves as deficient parts of Creation that have not yet come under the governance of Hashem’s design and need the educational system of the mitsvot to enable us to do so.

(This is reminiscent of the shift observed in the first two chapters of Genesis: In the first, the beautiful and idyllic universe is created in all of its majestic beauty. In the second, human beings come on the scene and begin grappling with the question of what values and lifestyle to adopt for themselves. Compare this to Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament tells of His handiwork…The Torah of Hashem is perfect, reviving the soul, the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy, making the simple one wise.” )

We can now fully grasp the relevance of these verses to the Mishneh Torah and its objectives. As the verses suggest, the purpose of the Book is to provide us with a proper outlook on the Universe in general, and to offer us a systematic understanding of the mitsvot that will help us remove the “shame” of unprincipled living in the human realm.

In our next article, we will explore the Rambam’s Introduction in detail. Our goal will be to better understand why Maimonides selected the format that he did for his masterpiece.


Rambam System said...

Nice job. Its a little difficult to know where to make comments in this format. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

Hello I just entered before I have to leave to the airport, it's been very nice to meet you, if you want here is the site I told you about where I type some stuff and make good money (I work from home): here it is

Menorah said...


If some of your readers want to read about Rambam (and other Chazal) texts in Italian or French, they can have a look at our Torah site.
For instance, we have a very nice article on the shape of the Temple Menorah according to Rambam.
Bebirchat Hatorah,

[PS: the previous comment ended up in the wrong page...]