Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 1

Shaarei Yosher was written by Rav Shim’on Shkop (1860-October 22, 1939), and the body of the text deals with the principles by which doubt is resolved in court cases and in legislation, and the principles by which halakhah is set.

We will be dealing, however, with the first part of the introduction. The introduction opens with an explanation of the meaning of life and man’s purpose of existence, and then segues from there to a quite usual thanking his benefactors and others who made the work possible. One of his accomplishments is to place their contribution to the work within the context of life as a whole.

“An uninvestigated life is not worth living”, as Socrates said. But a life that is well understood, yet for which one did not define goals, is also of little value. One can find oneself chasing a life’s dream only to realize afterward that all that effort did not accomplish what one is striving for. Before climbing a ladder to get to the top of a building, it pays to check if the ladder climbs the right building. In the ideal, every decision we make each day should be tied back to some larger goal, which in turn fits within an even larger goal, so that every act is meaningful in terms of one’s “Mission Statement”. In that way, every act has meaning.

So, every person should be seeking to define for themselves that “Mission Statement”.

There are many ways that the goal of life is defined within the various streams of Jewish Tradition. One might say they are all aspects of the same basic idea, different descriptions of the same thing. However, the choice of which points one chooses to give more attention will impact one’s day-to-day decision.

Here we will explore Rav Shim’on’s. He opens:

Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us,
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו

Note that the initials of the opening four words are Y-HV-H, the Tetragrammaton. A number of texts begin similarly, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim.

The original Hebrew reads: Yisbarakh HaBorei VeYis`alah HaYotzeir. To translate precisely but less readably, “The One Who creates ex nihilo will cause Himself to be blessed, and the One Who gives Form will cause Himself to be exalted.”

This line is more worthy of contemplation than of my simply suggesting a possible interpretation:

  • These words are conjugated in the reflexive. What does it mean that we are saying these are things G-d will do for Himself? And if He will be causing His Own blessing and exultation, what is He waiting for before doing so?
  • Also, why does Rav Shimon pair G-d’s ability to makes something from nothing with the notion of blessing, whereas G-d as the One Who gives those things form and function, using the same term Hebrew uses for a potter, with His being exalted and “uplifted” or “raised” in some way?

Notice that Rav Shimon draws our attention to being betzelem E-lokim, in the “image” of G-d and associates this with eternal life. In order to merit permanence, one must be in the image of the Permanent, and the only things we make that can persist until the end of history are those that fit Hashem’s Plan for the end of history.

In this, Shaarei Yosher follows standard Litvisher thinking, that we are placed in this world to hone our tzelem E-lokim, to perfect ourselves and be whole. (In contrast to Chassidus, for example, which focuses on cleaving to G-d.  For an introduction to this topic, see Aspaqlaria for Lekh Lekha 5757), and for a more complete set of meanderings, see the Forks in the Hashkafic Road category of this blog.)

But what is the tzelem E-lokim? How do we define wholeness and perfection? Effectively, all we have said so far is that our task in life is to become as good as possible at accomplishing His Goals, and to internalize them to make them ours. “הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו — He [Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] would say: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” (Avos 2:4)

We haven’t really found our Mission Statement until we understand how G-d expects us to understand and further His Goals. Then we can make ourselves and our actions in His “Image”.

That’s the question for the next shiur.

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    Since each person has unique capabilities and a unique mission, each mission statement has to be personalized in some way.

  2. micha says:

    RBM, you’ll see shortly that the answer is such a broad platitude that some customization is necessary in order to reduce it to pragmatics anyway.

    My point is to show that Rav Shimon will be presenting an alternative to many of the currently popular answers: intellectual perfection through Torah study, cleaving to G-d, sanctifying this world, etc… which are also platitudes too broad to implement without bringing yourself to the table to provide detail.

    This was just the first sentence of a two-and-a-half page text. Hang on for the ride, and feel free to invite your friends!

  3. Neil Harris says:

    I’m really looking forward to this venture.

    Perhaps (without sounding too Chassidush), the connection between “G-d’s ability to makes something from nothing” and giving blessing is that an aspect of ex nihilo is the paradox that Hashem “reduced” part of himself to make room for the world to be created (without really diminishing from his essence). Blessing/Bracha is similar in the sense that there is a constant flow of “goodness/chessed” from Hashem that is never ending and constantly replenished.

    PS- R Aryeh Kaplan has an essay regarding paradoxes in the “Aryeh Kaplan Reader”.

    • micha says:

      R’ Chaim, I won’t be getting more than 2-1/2 pages into the intro. Just the mussar piece.
      But I always wondered about the mishnah of “ein doreshin ba’arayos” and email lists or blogs…

      R’ Neil, I found the Google Books version of R’ Aryeh Kaplan’s essay “Paradoxes

  4. Bob Miller says:

    To what degree can a Jew intuit his own specific mission, and to what degree does he need mentors, etc., on a higher spiritual level to clue him in?

  5. I can’t wait until you reach Sec. 1, Ch. 14 then we can discuss if איסור נדה is dependant on the טומאת נדה or not…

  6. micha says:

    If anyone sees this and wishes to email me with a suggestion about how often the shiurim in this series ought to go out, I would appreciate it. I am trying to balance keeping the posts small enough to give you time to think through each point behispa’alus, but not going so slow that we lose R’ Shim’on’s train of thought.

  7. Andy says:

    Perhaps this belongs more on one of the ‘Forks’ posts linked-to here, but I’m not sure if anybody still looks at the comments over there…

    I’d be curious to understand how you see the approach of the Rambam fitting in to the d’veikus/temimus debate. In particular, his explanation at the end of the Moreh Nevuchim on the pasuk in Yirmiyahu (“ki im b’zot yithallel ha’mithallel…”). It seems to be almost the inverse of the Ramchal, advocating for d’veikus as a means to achieve temimus in this world.

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