What I want to do in this work is clarify certain ostensibly simple things that everyone contends with and which a lot of ink has been spilt over trying to explain, that still-and-all haven’t been spelled out clearly or adequately enough.
Notice that Ashlag is claiming that he’ll be clearing up some seemingly “simple things” which is a fairly humble way for him to put it, since he’ll set out here to solve things that have bothered thinking people for millennia — like the meaning of life, our role in the universe, our relationship to God, and the like!
He apparently terms the things he’ll first touch on as “ostensibly simple” because we tend to think we know the answers already, but his point is that we really don’t. And he implies that he has an entirely different approach to all of it, largely because he does.
Here are the conundrums he’ll be solving for us:
What are we essentially? What role do we play in the great course of events in the cosmos? Why were we created as imperfect as we are — after all, shouldn’t a perfect Creator’s products be perfect themselves? Why did God create so many people who suffer and are tried their whole lives long? And, how could finite, mortal, and ephemeral creatures like ourselves ever derive from an Infinite Being like God as we’re said to?
We’d clearly need to first dissect the questions before we can begin to answer them, but let’s go on though to present the questions. There are five in all. They’re this work’s most basic, underlying questions. There’ll be others, too, but they will be secondary (and tertiary) to these.
First of all, what are we essentially?
There’s no question asked more often than this one, on one level or another, both by each one of us about ourselves and by humankind at large.
We all know what we are basically. We’re this body, this mind; with these feelings, these opinions, this sense of truth, these experiences, etc. But those aren’t us, our selves. They can be termed our “outright self” — the combination of this and that with which we greet others, and which we take into consideration when we think about ourselves. But they’re not what we are essentially.
Don’t assume, though, that Ashlag is going to say that our souls are our essential self, as so many do. He’ll contend that we’re defined by some other phenomenon; and that while we do indeed have souls, we’re to know that they too are part of the “outright self” (albeit a deeper, more abstruse and subliminal, immortal aspect of it, as we’ll illustrate in Ch’s 9 and 20 below).
But now let’s turn to the rest of Ashlag’s underlying questions, which touch on our place in the grand scheme of things, our stature, God’s intentions for the universe, the place of pain and suffering, and our relationship to God.
Second, what role do we play in the great course of events which we’re such minor players in?
We’d only be expected to wonder where we fit in, once we know who we are at bottom, which was the gist of the first question. After all, given that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, purposeful, and well-intentioned too (as we’ll soon determine), it follows that everything and everyone created by Him must play some role or another in His creation. So, which one do we humans play?
Is it a major or a minor role? We’d imagine we’d only be expected to play a minor one, seeing how thick in the midst of so much matter and so many events and phenomena far more colossal and portentous than us we seem to be.
Third, when we consider ourselves closely we find ourselves to be as tainted and lowly as can be, and yet (conversely) when we look at our Creator we can’t help but praise Him for how utterly exalted He is! But wouldn’t a perfect Creator’s creations be expected to be perfect?
That’s to say, we seem to be so base and garish at bottom, while God Almighty our Creator is so grand and sublime — which then raises the question of why one such as He would create us as we are. (See Ch. 17 below.)
Fourth, logic would suggest that God is all-good and utterly benevolent. So, how could He have purposefully created so many people who suffer and are tried their whole lives long? Wouldn’t an all-good Creator be expected to be benevolent — if not at least less malevolent?
God has no needs. After all, He’s perfect, utterly self sufficient, independent of everything, and fully contained. Thus everything He does is for “the other”. And since a being who does things only for the other is benevolent (by definition, since there’d be no need for him to harm the other, which is only a self-serving need), then why does God indeed allow so many of us to suffer? It seems so “out of character” for Him.
Understand the ramifications of this question, if you will.
For indeed nothing lies deeper beneath the surface of human consciousness than the fact of suffering and the distinct possibility of sudden, virulent woe at that. After all, who hasn’t heard of quick accidents out of the blue that maimed their victims? Or of sudden gunshots rushing through windows and mangling chance targets?
There are two broad reactions to that fear overall, though. The first is based on a deep and primal conviction that no Divine Entity would ever allow such a thing to happen, so when it does, that proves that there’s no God. But the second reaction is based on the equally deep and primal conviction that nothing is as it appears to be (which is confirmed every day), and that while God’s ways are largely inexplicable, He still-and-all has our best interests in mind. Those who believe that draw comfort from the idea that when we suffer, we do so for some good reason. Yet they’re still thrown by their pain and misery, and left in an emotional — if not a philosophical — quandary.
So we’d need to understand the underpinnings of suffering in fact if we’re to be steadfast in our faith.
And fifth, how could finite, mortal, and ephemeral creatures (like us) ever derive from an Infinite Being who is without beginning or end?
In other words, how did we manage to be products of an Almighty Creator who’s so unlike us, as we indicated (See Ch. 18 below)?
(c) 2010 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
AT LONG LAST! Rabbi Feldman’s translation of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters” is available here at a discount.
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Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon “The Path of the Just” and “The Duties of the Heart” (Jason Aronson Publishers).