In our previous post we began examining the thematic principles of the fourteen books of the Mishneh Torah, which represent the Rambam's understanding of the broad outlines of the "mitsvah program" and how the laws of the Torah ultimately find their meaning in an interconnected framework of goals and objectives that address the entire range of individual and communal developmental needs. We continue that analysis where we left off:
5. SEFER KEDUSHA: THE BOOK OF HOLINESS
This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to forbidden sexual activities and prohibited foods. The sexual and appetitive drives are powerful forces in the human organism that have the potential to interfere with and even replace spiritual strivings, substituting the base enjoyments for closeness to Hashem, hijacking the energies that would otherwise be channeled by the values articulated in the Book of Knowledge. The mitsvot in this book teach us how to moderate and balance our physical and intellectual enjoyments in a healthy and fulfilling manner.
6. SEFER HAFLAAH: THE BOOK OF EXPRESSION
This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to vows and oaths. Certain individuals may chose to accept additional restrictions upon themselves because they feel – due to some deficiency in their character or make up - that the laws of the Torah are not sufficient for them to achieve holiness. Thus, like a student with special needs who receives individualized instructional support, these individuals need a personalized holiness plan. These individualized plans supplement the program of development that the Torah prescribes for the entire community.
7. SEFER ZERAIM: THE BOOK OF SEEDS
This book includes the mitsvot that pertain to land and agriculture, such as the prohibition of sowing diverse seeds, the laws of charity and gifts to the Kohanim, and the laws of Shemitta. Human society is situated within the natural environment and is ultimately a component of it. Though we dominate our environment to a certain extent, we are, at the same time, small parts of a Divinely created system. The prohibition of sowing diverse seeds reminds us of the scientific order of Nature that transcends all of our “meddling” with it, as does Shemitta. The commandment to give of our produce to the poor, as well as to the Kohanim and Levites, prevents us from relishing our possessions egotistically and encourages us to use our material resources to support the spiritual growth of our nation. All in all, this book addresses the question of how we can replace the fantastic illusion that we are the true masters of our physical environment with a humble, realistic perspective on our position in the universe.
At this point we observe a key transition in the Mishneh Torah, from a focus on individuals and families to a focus on the nation as a whole. Even if Adam and Eve had never reproduced, they would still have had to balance work, biological drives, agricultural development, etc., with spiritual growth. So the first seven books of the Mishneh Torah would have applied to them fully. Now, however, the Rambam shifts to address mitsvot and themes that are national in character and that are relevant to Jewish society as a whole.
8. SEFER AVODAH: THE BOOK OF DIVINE SERVICE
This book includes the laws related to the construction of the Holy Temple and the performance of the communal sacrifices. Sefer Avodah should be seen as the first installment of a new series. Sefer Avodah is, in a sense, the symbolic counterpart to Sefer Hamada. The ideas in Sefer Hamada comprise the intellectual foundation for all of our spiritual growth. What the Bet Hamikdash does is translate these profound concepts into symbolic and metaphoric terms that are universally accessible to human beings at all levels. The Temple structure, its Kohanim and its services provide a symbolic picture of Jewish philosophy and ethics as outlined in Sefer Hamada. The Torah recognizes that our individual levels of knowledge and perfection all differ, and that each person’s process of spiritual growth is unique, private and constantly in flux. By contrast, national service of G-d must take place in the public arena, and thus be concrete, formal, measurable and consistent.
In reality, all societies must have their “Sefer Hamada” and their “Sefer Avodah”. At the core of our culture is a set of beliefs, values and ideals that consciously or unconsciously guide our thought and behavior. Our schools and universities transmit these beliefs and values directly to children via the lessons they teach. However, the communication of our cultural ideals in the abstract has a limited impact on our citizens. What the vast majority of people are inspired by is the experience of seeing the embodiment of these values “in the flesh”. As an example, let us consider the tremendous significance our society attaches to wealth, glamour and fame. It is one thing to speak about our striving for the “American Dream” in the abstract; it is quite another thing to watch the Academy Awards on television, where we are given the opportunity to ogle living examples of the “good life” that are showcased before our very eyes. Movies and Awards Shows are powerful sources of inspiration for people because they renew their impetus to continue pursuing the American dream in the context of their own lives. Obviously, Torah values share little in common with the American dream, but the psychological mechanism adopted in Jewish society is the same – in the Bet Hamikdash, our “Hollywood”, we showcase concrete examples of the ideal state of human existence (knowledge of and devotion to Hashem) in order to inspire citizens to move closer to it.
9. SEFER KORBANOT: THE BOOK OF SACRIFICES
This book includes the laws that pertain to individual sacrifices. If Sefer Avodah is best understood through comparison to our fascination with celebrities, then Sefer Korbanot is best appreciated by drawing from our experience with “fan clubs.” These are forums that afford us the opportunity to participate in “stardom” at our own level, through establishing a feeling of personal identification and connection with the stars we worship. This desire to affiliate oneself with the Divine, most obviously displayed by “groupies”, often expresses itself in the form of “korbanot” of sorts, including fan mail and other outrageous behaviors that are performed with the hope of receiving some kind of positive response or approval from the recipients of the “worship.” In Jewish terms, individual korbanot are our reactions to Sefer Avodah. In Sefer Avodah we are presented with an ideal vision of Hashem’s providence, the creation, and the highest form of excellence in human conduct. Having witnessed this spectacle, it is incumbent upon us to take a step in the direction of those ideals; the offering of korbanot represents our constant striving toward the “stardom” personified by the kohanim – their knowledge of Hashem and imitation of His ways. We thereby seek our own “niche” within the communal service of G-d.