Finding G-d Through Action Written by Gil Student
I. Confusing and Misleading
One of the more frustrating elements of Torah study, which is generally a joyous and exciting undertaking, is finding a confusing text and being unable to understand it. While there are usually commentaries that can assist, these commentaries are not always sufficient. Sometimes, Rashi does not say anything to help you out.
The only option is to keep going and, frequently, after covering a little more ground you understand the passage. Sometimes the answer hits you after a few more pages; sometimes it takes years of learning. However, "the words of Torah are poor in one place and rich in another" and frequently one passage explains another distant one.
Consider Rashi's commentary to Nach. Unlike his commentary to the Torah, which is replete with quotations and summaries of various midrashic material, his commentary to Nach is very short and devoted to the simple meaning of the verse.
Frequently, when I am learning Nach, I see Rashi explaining a verse by giving background material or saying of whom this passage refers. "How", I think, "does Rashi know this?" While some more devout than I would never question Rashi, the accuracy of his commentary sometimes comes to question in my mind because of these statements. It usually only takes a few more verses until I realize that Rashi was simply telling me something that I would have already discovered had I kept reading. Other times, I have to read another book (such as Chronicles) to find Rashi's source. However, the puzzle is almost always eventually solved.
This is only with confusing passages. Sometimes, however, there are passages that are not just confusing; they are misleading. These texts actually indicate, with a simple reading, something that is wrong and is contradicted by many other passages. The classic example is in Bereishit (1:26) where the verse records G-d as saying "Let us make man in our image." The inescapable implication is that G-d, in the plural, wanted to make man in their, in the plural, image. Is G-d more than one? That is what the verse clearly suggests.
I am not the first to ask this question. Something this obvious did not escape thousands of years of scrutiny of the Biblical text. The midrash (Bereishit Rabah 8:9) records the following based on our verse, "Sectarians asked Rabbi Simlai, 'How many gods created the world?'" Rabbi Simlai was a talmudic sage from the early third century who lived in Palestine. He was a student of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah I, the grandson of the author of the Mishnah, and a colleague of Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah II. Given the time and place in which he lived, there can be little question who these sectarians were. In fact, the spiritual descendants of these sectarians continued asking this very question through the middle ages all the way to today. Like today, the question from this verse was probably quite common, as the Talmud in Sanhedrin 38b has Rabbi Simlai's colleague Rabbi Yochanan commenting on this verse in an apparent response to the above question.
The midrash continues:Rabbi Simlai said: "Every place in which there is a proof for sectarians there is an answer right beside it." The sectarians then asked, "What does it mean when it says 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'?" He replied, "Did you read what it says in the next verse? 'And God created [in singular] man in His [singular] own image'"
Rabbi Simlai answered the question with a counterproof that G-d is only one. However, the question remains why the first verse speak in terms of plural?
Just to show that rabbis can have a sense of humor, allow me to relate what a late thirteenth century author answered. The Nitzachon Yashan is an anonymously authored encyclopedia of rabbinic answers to missionary claims on the Bible. On the above verse, the Nitzachon Yashan answers that, according to the questioner, G-d asked his son to assist in creating the world. >From the following verse, however, it is clear that the son refused and did not help. After all, that verse is in singular. Therefore, when the son was captured and taken to be executed, and he called out for G-d to help him, G-d decided not to bother. After all, the son refused to help Him, why should He help the son?
Rashi summarizes very nicely the talmudic and midrashic answer to the above question of why the verse speaks of G-d in a plural form. Rashi says, "From here we learn the humility of G-d. Since man is in the image of the angels and they would be jealous of him, G-d, therefore, consulted with them." In other words, the plural form is to teach us a lesson of G-d's humility and His humble actions. A good leader will diminish his own glory for the sake of his underlings. For example, a good boss will want to develop the abilities of his workers. Therefore, he will give them opportunities to make suggestions and give presentations, even though the boss would otherwise receive the glory for these public actions.
This is, indeed, an important lesson. However, the downside to this lesson, the potential mistake to which this can and did lead, is very serious. The usage of plural is misleading and can cause someone to make a mistake about the essence of G-d. It is possible, by reading this verse incorrectly, to think that there is more than one G-d. Is this lesson in humility really worth the potential error?
This question was asked by Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the famous Alter of Slobodka, in a lecture that is recorded in Or Hatzafun vol. 1 lecture 2. The following is based on his answer.
II. How To Live Forever
The Rambam writes in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Mezuzah, end of ch. 6), "And one will know that there is nothing that lasts forever except for knowledge of the Eternal One." Similarly, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (4:9) the Rambam teaches that eternal life after death is obtained through knowledge of Hashem.
The way this has been explained to me is that knowledge of something is the possession of an approximation of the form of what is known. If I know something, I have acquired in myself a mental copy of what is known. There is thus a similarity between the knower and the known. Therefore, if G-d is the only thing that is eternal, knowing G-d is the only thing that will give one eternal life.
This is what the Rambam means when he says that "nothing that lasts forever except for knowledge of the Eternal One." There is no way to acquire eternal life other than through knowledge of the one eternal Being. In talking about the soul in the world-to-come, the Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuvah 8:3), "The soul that is referred to in this topic is not the neshamah that requires a body but the form of the nefesh that is the knowledge it has acquired, according to its potential, of the Creator." Each person lives in the world-to-come based on the knowledge he has acquired of G-d (according to one's potential, which is an important qualifier but for another time).
An important and frequently discussed topic is the Rambam's 13 principles of faith. In his Commentary to the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, the Rambam lists and discusses thirteen ideas that he considers to be fundamental beliefs of Judaism. Within those 13 principles, R. Yitzchak Abarbanel (in his Rosh Amanah ch. 10) detected 3 distinct groups. The first group of principles is those five principles that discuss the Commander. The first five principles relate to G-d. They are the existence of G-d, that G-d is one, that He is incorporeal, that He created and guides the world and that only He is worthy of being worshipped.
The second group of principles is those four that relate to the commandment, i.e. the Torah. They are the existence of prophecy, the primacy of Moshe's prophecy, that the Torah is of Divine origin, and that the Torah will never change. The third group of principles is those four that discuss the commanded. They are that G-d knows what people do, that G-d rewards and punishes people, that mashiach will come, and that there will be a general resurrection of the dead.
The Rambam makes clear that only those who believe in these 13 principles will have a place in the world-to-come. However, what of those who, due to no reason of their own, do not believe in them? Granted, we understand why someone who does not want to believe them will not have a place in the world-to-come. But what about someone who wants to believe in them but cannot? Dr. Menachem Kellner has suggested that according to the Rambam, those who "accidentally" do not believe in the second and third categories will still have a place in the world-to-come. However, regardless of why one does not believe in the first category of principles, someone who does not cannot have a place in the world-to-come.
This is an interesting theory which, correct or not, deserves consideration. The emphasis that the first category is primary, the beliefs that relate to G-d are necessary for a place in the world-to-come, fit in with what we discussed earlier. Knowledge of G-d is the key to eternal life. A mistake about G-d, regardless of circumstances or intentions, precludes one from eternal life according to the Rambam. Therefore, someone who even "accidentally" has a mistaken belief regarding G-d has not acquired a knowledge of G-d and therefore is not capable of eternal life.
III. Knowing G-d
But how do we get to know G-d? Philosophers have long troubled over the concept of Divine attributes. Rabbi J. David Bleich explains the problem in this way in his introduction to the second principle in his With Perfect Faith. If one were to say, "John is good" the one implies that there is a John who may or may not be good but in this case is good. In other words, John is separate from good. When speaking of G-d, however, G-d is by definition good and cannot be separated from that idea. Calling G-d good is separating Him from the attribute and is therefore wrong.
Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda in his Chovot HaLevavot (Sha'ar HaYichud ch. 10) solves this problem with the concept of negative attributes. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, when we call G-d good, we are not saying that He is good but that he is not the opposite of good. This way we do not attribute to G-d an idea. Rather, we are removing from G-d certain attributes. This approach is standard in medieval Jewish philosophy and was adopted by philosophic giants like R. Yehudah HaLevy and Rambam.
If that is the case, however, if we only know what G-d is not but not what G-d is, how do we fulfill our goal of knowing G-d? How can we reach that level of knowledge in which we acquire eternal life?
The answer is in the second kind of attribute that Rabbeinu Bachya assigns to G-d -- the active attribute. This kind of attribute discusses not G-d, but His actions. For instance, when we call G-d merciful, we are saying that G-d acts mercifully. Similarly, when we call G-d compassionate, we are saying that He acts compassionately. Therefore, by understanding G-d's actions we can begin to understand G-d. By contemplating how He relates to His creation, by how He interacts with people and things, we can approach the crucial knowledge of G-d.
This raises the importance of understanding G-d's actions. The Divine interaction with humans becomes not just an interesting mystery of life, but information whose understanding brings us closer to G-d. The more we understand G-d's ways, the more we know G-d. Additionally, any error we make in understanding G-d's ways is magnified because we then have a corresponding lack of knowledge of G-d.
With this in mind, we can return to our original question. Why did the Torah use a plural to refer us to G-d's humble actions when this usage of plural can lead to a misunderstanding of the unity of G-d? By saying "let us make man", the Torah can be understood as implying that G-d is more than one. Why is the lesson of G-d consulting with the angels so important that it is taught despite the possible resulting mistake?
However, based on what we have explained, understanding G-d's actions is necessary to know G-d. Recognizing the extent of G-d's humility is a requirement to understanding the Divine. Therefore, the message learned from the usage of plural regarding G-d is part of knowing Him.
Similarly, the mistake of thinking that G-d is plural is a misunderstanding of Him. In other words, the possible error that could lead from the message is the same result that comes from not having the message - misunderstanding G-d. That is why the message of humility is worth the possible error. Without that lesson, we might have had a similar error because our way to know G-d is through knowing His actions.
IV. Learning About G-d
How do we go about learning G-d's ways? Educators tell us that the best way to learn anything is through doing it - through experiential learning. For instance, no matter how well you learn the laws of tying the knots of tzitzit, until you have actually done it your knowledge is lacking. It is not just the feel and touch of it; it is the internalization of the experience that leads to a fuller understanding. Similarly, rabbis are required to undergo apprenticeship - shimush talmidei chachamim - before ruling on issues. They have to be a part of the process before they fully understand the issues involved. It is only through doing that they can completely learn the material.
The implication of this is that through doing - through acting like G-d - we can better understand G-d. By emulating the way He acts towards people, the way He is merciful and gracious, for example, we can grow in our understanding of what it means to be merciful and gracious. Through the development of our own mercy and grace we acquire knowledge of G-d.
There is a long tradition of trying to understand the reason why G-d commanded individual mitzvot. While it is always speculative, it is still an endeavor that can be very fruitful. Even though we would follow G-d's orders whether we understood them or not, by knowing why we are doing certain actions we find them more meaningful. However, we always have to keep in mind that there can be many reasons for any given commandment and just because we know one reason does not mean that we know all of the reasons.
Most interpersonal mitzvot are fairly self-explanatory. The reason behind their being commanded is to promote peace and cooperation among a community. For instance, the rationale behind the mitzvah to give charity is so that poor people can survive. The reason for the prohibition against slander is to not hurt others or create discord in a community. The interpersonal commandments - mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro - are generally quite intuitive.
However, based on what we have just learned, there is more to interpersonal commandments than simply good will among people. While social harmony is definitely a good thing, there is an additional goal in these commandments. Interpersonal mitzvot are a way to act like G-d, thereby learning about Him. Mitzvot bein adam lachaveiro are an opportunity to know G-d and therefore gain eternal life.
© Gil Student 2001