“You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty?” Malachi 3:14
I think there’s an inevitable question that will be raised in the conscience of the faithful somewhere throughout their lives. Why, indeed do I fight to follow ancient Laws that were commanded to my great ancestors so many years ago? The world offers many pleasurable and enticing outlets, many forbidden fruit from which to taste. The struggle to resist is all but easy. Why not take a bite?
This morning, on my 15 minute commute to school I read a fascinating book called “The Kuzahri.” The author, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, was one of the greatest Jewish philosophers and poets of all time. He relates a tale (which is probably just a metaphor) of the king of Kuzahr who woke up morning after morning with strange dreams about the meaning of life. He tried to ignore them, but when the dreams wouldn’t go away, he realized that he ought to do something about it. So, he summoned a philosopher and a Jewish rabbi to hear what they each have to offer to make sense of his dreams. The rest of the book (In my print is about 200 pages without commentary) is a brilliant dialogue between the king and the rabbi exploring the depths of our faith and the wisdom of our tradition.
Halevi is not the only medieval rabbi to write a detailed philosophical works of that caliber. He’s in great company; there’s Maimonides‘ Guide for the Perplexed, Bachya ibn Pekuda’s Duties of the Heart, and Saadia‘s Book of Faiths and Beliefs. (Coincidentally, these four most important philosophical works were all originally written in Arabic!)
Riding a bus through the mountains and valleys of Jerusalem, with the beauty and eloquence of a well related parable, I finally found an answer to one of the most important questions of life.
“…One of a company of friends who sought solicitude in a remote spot, once journeyed to India, and had honor and rank bestowed on him by her king… The king loaded him with presents for his friends, gave him costly raiment for himself, and then dismissed him, sending members of his own retinue to accompany him on his return journey. No one knew that they belonged to the court, nor that they traveled into the desert. He had received commissions and treaties, and in return he had to swear fealty to the king. Then he and his Indian escort returned to his companions, and received a hearty welcome from them…
Henceforth they frequently sent ambassadors to India to wait upon the king, which was now more easy of accomplishment, as the first messengers guided them the shortest and straightest route. All knew that travelling in that country was rendered easier by swearing allegiance to his king and respecting his ambassadors. There was no occasion to inquire why this homage was necessary, because it was patent that by this means he came into connection with the monarch-a most pleasing circumstance.” Kuzari, end of First Essay
In Halevi’s world, we swear allegiance to the Merciful and Kind King, for it is by that means that we attain the greatest gift of all-a connection with the King. When you follow the ways and guidance of the King and his messengers, you will build a relationship with the King, and there’s no greater reward than being loved and cherished by the King.
A hundred years before Halevi, Bachya addressed this question, but offered a very different viewpoint.
“…When one feels that his tendencies are to rebel against the Creator and to break His covenant. Let him take account … that all of what he perceives in the universe with his senses – whether the foundations of the earth, its elements and compounds, its higher (stars, planets) and its lower creations – all of them exist by the word of God and guard His covenant (follow the laws of physics, etc).
If we would imagine in our mind that one of them would transgress the covenant of the Creator, no human would be left alive. For example, what would happen if one of the elements would transgress the covenant of the Creator and change its nature, or that the earth would leave its center… if the organs of a man were to rebel, and the organs whose nature is to move would be stationary, or the stationary ones would move… one’s formation would be lost, his composition would disintegrate, and his normal ability to function would become null and void.
How can a man not be ashamed to transgress the covenant of his God in a world which does not transgress the covenant of God, and do so with the help of limbs which God has commanded them to obey the man’s wish and bear all the man’s affairs, and these limbs do not transgress the Creator’s covenant?” Duties of the Heart, Gate of Spiritual Reflection
In Bachya’s world, disobeying the Word of God is foolish, selfish and hypocritical. We obey His Commandments for we owe it to Him. He created us, He feeds us, He sustains us, and it is through His Laws to nature that we survive. Using His creation against Him, is inhumane.
In the same time of Halevi, Maimonides took yet another, very unique approach:
“Good deeds are such as are equibalanced, maintaining the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little. Virtues are psychic conditions and dispositions which are mid-way between two reprehensible extremes, one of which is characterized by an exaggeration, the other by a deficiency. Good deeds are the product of these dispositions.
To illustrate, abstemiousness is a disposition which adopts a mid-course between inordinate passion and total insensibility to pleasure. Abstemiousness, then, is a proper rule of conduct, and the psychic disposition which gives rise to it is an ethical quality; but inordinate passion, the extreme of excess, and total insensibility to enjoyment, the extreme of deficiency, are both absolutely pernicious. The psychic dispositions, from which these two extremes, inordinate passion and insensibility, result—the one being an exaggeration, the other a deficiency—are alike classed among moral imperfections…
…The perfect Law which leads us to perfection—as one who knew it well testifies by the words, “The Law of the Lord is perfect restoring the soul; the testimonies of the Lord are faithful making wise the simple”—recommends none of these things (such as self-torture, flight from society etc.). On the contrary, it aims at man’s following the path of moderation, in accordance with the dictates of nature, eating, drinking, enjoying legitimate sexual intercourse, all in moderation, and living among people in honesty and uprightness, but not dwelling in the wilderness or in the mountains, or clothing oneself in garments of hair and wool, or afflicting the body.” Commentary to Mishnah, Introduction to Avot
In Maimonides’ world, the Law is here to protect us. Like a careful prescription by the greatest doctor, one disobedient act is a risk of life and death. God’s Way is the Way of Life.
Therefore, my friends, strengthen your faith in difficult times and follow the ways of God. It is as Bachya explains, the humane thing to do. According to Maimonides, the safe thing to do. And perhaps most importantly, as Halevi says: you have a connection to the King!
I think it is enough food for thought. I encourage you to read the beautiful words of these great masters again. It will enlighten your life.
God/Allah Bless you