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The Human Ideal (1)

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg


Captain of the Car


            Now that we have covered a number of the principles which are central to an understanding of the commandments, we may step back and survey what may be termed the human ideal.  To illustrate this I will use the example of the car, a model which seems important to me both as allegory and as exposition.  Philosophers and moralists in generations past often compared man to the captain of a ship.  Today, we can translate the ancient parable into modern reality by employing the car.  The tragic daily reality of accidents brings the dangers of the roads close to home and shows us the need to understand our weaknesses and potential failures.  However, in principle, the problems and dilemmas of driving can serve as a model for the problems and dilemmas of life in general.  They have much in common; yet, there is also a fundamental difference between them.  The difference between the allegory and its meaning lies in the fact that, to a certain extent, we are actually both the car and the driver.


            The first requirement that we must fulfill in order to be able to travel in a car is, of course, that the vehicle be in good working condition, enabling the car to move.  How may we define this condition?  Among all the possible definitions and perspectives, I have chosen one, which is in essence a summary of R. Sa'adia Gaon's approach as he expresses it in the last essay of his book Emunot Ve-de'ot.  Good working condition means that each part of the car is capable of carrying out its particular function in full, and also will limit itself to that function, so that the various parts will function together in harmony.  Some of us are all too familiar with a car which spends most of its time being repaired.  This is comparable to the state of a person who has not achieved physical or intellectual harmony, or of a person who experiences psychological problems.


            However, let us assume that man has reached a minimal state of harmony.  Inside the car sits the driver, who provides each of the car's needs in the appropriate measure: gas, oil,  water, etc.  Until this point, we have described the driver's technical responsibility.  Or, in the explication of the parable, until now we have described the responsibilities of science and technology.  This is the limit of their utility.  The various branches of medicine and psychology can minister to the health of the body and the mind; however, beyond these goals lie other questions which they cannot answer.  The mechanic can give the driver a car in good working condition, but he cannot make the driver adhere to traffic laws.  On the other hand, no sane person will ask his mechanic, "where should I go?" unless he needs the address of a garage.  These are the questions involving signs and goals, commandments, values and meaning, which are neither within the authority of the mechanic, nor of the doctors and the psychologists.  These are our religious and ethical dilemmas.


            These are the central ideas for Rihal, as we see in his description of the devout Jew.  After man has given each component of his car what it needs, he must define the purpose of the journey: "to cleave to ... the Divine level which stands above the intellectual level."  This, then, is the Divine essence.  The natural and intellectual sphere deals with taking care of the car.  The journey's ultimate goal is decided within the sphere of religious faith.


The Mt. Sinai Experience


            The appropriate human attitude towards the goals of life finds expression, in Rihal's view, in the historical encampment around Mt. Sinai.  Mt. Sinai symbolizes the goal.  Our apparent existence on the plain is only an illusion.  Mt. Sinai symbolizes man's ascent.  This ascent occurs when one moves beyond the fulfillment of mere physical needs.  To return to the parable of the car, if we recall that the car is actually the individual himself, we can imagine the person who finally gets his own car.  He takes care of it, polishes it, washes it, and emphasizes the goal not of driving but of his having a relationship with the car.  The absurdity of his behavior is obvious.  There must be something else beyond simple maintenance.  Knowing where to drive means knowing the goal and aim of our lives.  This is the meaning of the Sinai encampment.


            This parable, which originated with Rihal, continued to develop after his time.  The Rambam wrote that the ascent to Mt. Sinai represents human development.  Just as at the time of the Sinai revelation, the multitude stood in one place, a higher spot was allocated for the priests,  a higher place for Yehoshua and a higher one than that for Moshe, each individual achieves a different level of development.  The next to develop this parable was R. Yitzchak Arama in his philosophical commentary on the Torah entitled "Akedat Yitzchak."  He teaches us that the concept of the center of life and its ultimate goal is symbolized by Mt. Sinai and later by a new symbol, that of the Tabernacle.  The Tabernacle becomes  a sort of traveling Mt. Sinai which remains with us.


            However, the commandment to ascend the mountain is also accompanied by a warning.  No one may ascend the mountain of Divine inquiry unprepared.  This is a common mistake, and holds within it the seeds of ruin.  This word has a dual meaning.  The language of the Torah refers to the ascent of one who is unprepared; however, in more recent Hebrew, it denotes the ruin which man perpetrates through this act.


            This ruin constitutes the polar opposite of the concept of the burning bush.  The Rambam gives a wonderful interpretation of the vision of the burning bush, Moshe's first vision.  But as we shall see when we discuss the issue of prophecy, every prophetic vision contains elements which originate from the imaginative faculty, or in what one might call the subjectivity of the perceiver.  Moshe does not experience any other visions of this sort, besides the vision of the crevice in the mountain, which is actually the complete opposite of a vision.  Moshe hides his face; in other words, he refuses to look at the burning bush, because he knows that the vision is tainted by his own imaginative faculty; therefore, Moshe merits a different type of prophetic experience.  The Rambam maintains that the prophetic experience does descend upon man, but that man apprehends this experience through his own subjective perception, using, among other things, his imagination.  His imaginative faculty allows him to receive the prophetic message, but to a certain extent it also distorts the message.  Moshe refuses to look upon the burning bush not because of its holiness, or because God was hidden within it, so to speak.  Rather, he refuses to accept the distortion caused by the imagination.  Because he covered his eyes, our Sages teach us that he merited to perceive God directly.


            The Rambam gives us a new perspective on opening our eyes.  From here we learn a great lesson regarding all the professedly prophetic phenomena about which we often hear.  From time to time we hear of a prophet of sorts, who has created a new religion based on a personal revelation.  Certainly, supernatural phenomena exist.  A Heavenly voice speaks out daily and makes announcements, sending telegrams.  However, people read these telegrams through the distorting spectacles of their imagination.  The message that they perceive is not at all identical to the message that was sent from on High.  The Torah could only be given after the imaginative faculty had been subdued.


            Thus, we must deal with truth as we relate to other commodities that are up for sale.  We must wave a large banner warning everyone to beware of imitations.  However, other dangers beset us as well.  Rihal warns us to be constantly on guard against the imaginary realities which surround us.  For just as man is sometimes given to hallucinations, so too life presents imaginary ideals.


The Human Ideal: The Chassid


            Rihal maintains that the ultimate human ideal is embodied in the Chassid.  The model he employs to describe the Chassid is the model of leadership: the Chassid is the successful leader.


            This parable is based on the comparison between man's approach to himself and his approach to the leader of the country or the society.  This parable has both biblical and philosophical origins.  Both the Scriptures and the writings of the Sages abound with comparisons between the ruler of a city and the ruler of one's passions.  Similarly, the parable of the foolish king and the wise king serve as a common allegory for man's approach to himself.  The classical philosophical source for this idea is found in Plato's Republic.


            Plato wished to define the essence of morality.  In order to succeed at this task he moved from the individual to the collective, from man to the republic.  His method can be compared to a person who unsuccessfully attempts to read tiny letters.  Since he cannot read the writing, he moves on to a different copy, in which the same text is written in large type.  The transition from the individual to the group constitutes a kind of magnifying glass.  Man's ideal approach to himself will be clearer, if we investigate the problem not on the plane of the individual but on the plane of the republic.  The justice of the republic is parallel to the justice in man's comportment of himself.  The solution in both cases must be a search for harmony.  Man must develop all of his faculties, and not stunt any of them.


            The just ruler uses the great principle of justice: "give each person what is suitable for him."  If we move to the interpretation of the parable, from the leader of a country to the individual guiding himself, we find an interesting parallel.  According to Judaism, man must give each of his personal strengths its due and not destroy or blight certain powers in order to develop others, even if the preferred powers are higher faculties and they are developed at the expense of lower gifts.  In the classical tradition we have found various theories regarding the makeup of the soul.  The common denominator between them is that the soul is composed of many powers.  Some approaches even speak of different souls that coexist in man.  As we know, the Rambam came out against this idea in the first chapter of his "Eight Chapters."  The Rambam concedes, though, that the one soul has many attributes.  In every situation, our role remains the same: we must establish a harmonious relationship between these powers.


            Rihal maintains that man is composed of various attributes.  Man and the animal world share the attribute of desire, the demand to satisfy one's basic needs.  The second quality is the animal force of anger.  The third power is the intelligence.  Rihal claims that even higher characteristics exist in man, and one of these is the attribute of divinity.


(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1997 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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