During the period of the Rishonim, Torah scholarship was concentrated on four distinct areas: commentary on the Bible and the Talmud, Halacha, philosophy, and mysticism. Each of these fields had it's distinct approaches, some favored by Ashkenazim, some by Sefaradim. Each of them was an arena of study to itself, differing from the other three in profound ways, and in some cases seeming totally at odds with any competing path. But in certain ways, in specific situations, and under the guidance of unique individuals, the pathways converged, each contributing to the others’ growth and depth, sometimes combining together to create a hybrid.
For example, Maimonides was both a philosopher and a halachist. This combination can be seen in his works in both fields. Sometimes there are contradictions, but more often there is synthesis. There were others who combined commentary and Halacha, or commentary and philosophy. Rarer still were those who combined one of these areas with mysticism. The rarest of all were those who managed to bridge the yawning gap between philosophy and mysticism, two fields that were increasingly at odds with each other.
There was at least one individual who managed to combine them all in one lifetime. This seemingly impossible feat required a very broad mindset, a fortuitous period in Jewish historical development, and a highly unique personality. These three factors were to be found in Nachmanides, better known by his acronym, Ramban (Rav Moshe ben Nahman). He was born in 1194 in Gerona, Spain. Most of his life was spent among the Jews of northern Spain who had been under the authority of the Christians for centuries. He mastered both Talmud and Halacha, while learning the somewhat secret knowledge of mysticism. He also delved into philosophy.
Ramban was forced to engage in a public religious debate with an apostate named Pablo Christiani around 1266. This event, a harbinger of what was to come in Christian dominated kingdoms, forced Ramban to leave Spain and immigrate to the Holy Land. He eventually settled in Acco (Acre), on the northern coast. There, despite his advanced age, he became the leading scholar of the community and wrote his major work, his commentary to the Chumash. He died around 1270. His burial place, perhaps fittingly, is a bit of a mystery.
This commentary to the Chumash is nothing short of remarkable. Ramban covers virtually everything, from discussions in the Talmud and Midrash, to Rashi and others, to his own straightforward interpretations, to philosophy, to his frequent final destination, mysticism. Buried in this massive commentary at the end of the weekly reading called Bo in the middle of the book of Exodus, is a long and magnificent passage that intersperses all the various pathways. Towards the end, one finds a brief thought that is neither philosophical, mystical, or commentary on the text. It is vintage Ramban:
‘The intention of all the commandments is that we believe in our God and acknowledge that He created us. And this is the intention of creation, for we have no other reason for the initial creation and God has no need for the lower realms other than that man know and acknowledge to God that He created them. And the intention of all forms of public worship is that people should have a place to gather and to declare: We are your creations.’
Nachmanides has stated rather unequivocally the reason why God created the universe. It is true that his reason is ‘man-centered’ in that it ignores everything accept for human beings, but it is not quite what one would have expected. This reason leaves one feeling both intrigued and a little puzzled. What exactly is so pressing about us saying to God that ‘we are your creations’? Isn’t there some other reason why God created everything? Isn’t there something more important for us human beings to be doing? Finally, does God really need this public acknowledgment of His vital role in our existence?
These are not easy questions to answer. One wishes that Nachmanides himself were around to answer these questions. Unfortunately, he left us these tantalizing hints as to what it’s all about but didn’t fill in the details. Perhaps it’s better this way. We have to figure it out, to grope a bit in the dark and come up with the best that we can come up with. But to do so, we have to enter into the mind of the person who wrote these words. Why would he say such a thing?
Ramban, as previously noted, epitomizes the Jewish scholar who tried to combine all the facets of Judaism into one system of thought. To such a person the Torah was not complete if only looked at from a philosophical angle, or from a mystical angle, or even from a Talmudic or Midrashic angle. All of these angles are pieces of the essential truth of the Torah, but taken individually, they are not the entire truth. It is only when they are put together in some coherent whole that the fog is truly lifted.
Philosophy says that we can use our minds to figure out what it’s all about. Truth is all around us, waiting to be discovered through the rational use of the mind. Mysticism, to some degree, says the opposite - truth is ultimately hidden under the veils of mystery and can only be revealed in bits and pieces. The more one uses rational thought as his or her guide to understanding, the more one misses the essential mystery. The rabbinic view, while occasionally taking elements from both of these, ignores them for the most part. It simply takes the Biblical stories and commandments at face value and tries to learn Jewish sounding lessons from them.
Nachmanides believed that the rational and mystical components could and should be combined and that they both could shape and be shaped by the rabbinic component. This synthesis can be detected in his approach to the question of the purpose of creation. Let us examine the components of his answer. ‘We are Your creations’. This simple statement includes three essential factors: human beings, God, and the relationship between those two. It is through the third factor that we understand what the other two really are.
What are human beings? That’s an easy one. We are who we are. We live, we die, we struggle to survive and to enjoy our lives. We try to understand a little of our situation and our world, and if we are fortunate, to accomplish something and find something meaningful in the time we are given. But who really are we? How did we get here? What does it really mean to be? Why do we struggle and enjoy when it all ends in death?
To these questions Ramban has a straight forward answer: we are creations. This statement is not as simple as it seems. Do we really feel that we are creations? Do we truly believe that our existence is no more real than that of some imaginary creature that we conjure up in our minds? That is what it really means to be a creation - to be a product of the mind of another. In our case, that mind is the mind of God.
This brings us to the second factor, God. While God is a familiar enough concept through Bible stories and so on, what is God’s most essential quality? Nachmanides writes, that when all the divine dust clears, God is the Creator. This is the basic essence of God – God is God because He creates. This is what the Torah means when it refers to God, that God enables everything else to exist. We exist because this inconceivably great ‘mind’, enables us to exist. God is the enabler of our existence.
This puts things in a fascinating perspective. Our relationship to God is one of Creator/created. We, as the created, have, as our purpose, the mission to acknowledge God as our creator. God, the Creator, created everything to enable us to do just that. This relationship establishes a fundamental truth about both us and God. Human beings need to acknowledge that they are creations and that God created them. This acknowledgment, more than anything else, tells us who we really are. To know that one is a creation is to know ones place in reality. It enables us to understand ourselves as an aspect of God’s mind. It also enables God to be known and, to some extent, understood. There is nothing more meaningful and more essential than this understanding.
This relationship is a kind of meeting point between the contrasting systems of philosophy and mysticism. Philosophy seeks to know everything through rational thinking. This relationship that Ramban speaks of is the ultimate in knowing. It is the most fundamental truth. We are creations and God is our Creator. But this relationship also expresses the essence of mysticism, a parallel system of knowledge in which the ultimate is to grasp the divine mystery that lurks behind the veils of the world. The only real truth is that God is unfathomable. Nowhere can this truth be better glimpsed than through the realization that we are God’s creations. That is all we are, but that is enough, for it tells us how we play a part in the great mystery.
Wow. Try meditating on that one while drinking a beer. Nobody said this meaning of life stuff was easy, but what are we supposed to do with this one? First off, it has to be noted, if it isn’t clear already, that the meaning of life is serious and deep. It cannot be pondered while chilling in front of the TV or in between websites. To get into meaning of life and the purpose of creation, regardless of one’s religious orientation, is to get into intense matters.
The awareness that one is a creation can be truly enlightening. It can bring anyone to nothing less than an entirely different outlook on life. You are not simply a random result of some meaningless cosmic belch that scientists call the big bang. You are a creation. That means that something thought you up and wants you to be here. You can call that something whatever you want. You can worship it and revere it or you can pretty much ignore it since it already did its thing, but you cannot escape this awareness. Evolution, the Theory of Everything, artificial intelligence – these are all fine pursuits and they all may lift some parts of the veil, but they can never budge the fundamental truth of creation.
If you consider yourself religious in some manner, but cannot remove the unsettling obstacles that prevent you from God-consciousness, this is your pathway. If you consider yourself to be non-religious but face the unsettling feeling that there’s got to be something else, this is your pathway. Think about creation. Think about you as a creation. Think about whatever it is on the other end of that process. Call it God if you wish. It is your Creator. This experience, however you choose to experience it, can be both humbling and exalting. It is humbling to understand that your essence is to be a creation of Another. But it is also exalting, for it allows you a glimpse of that mirror that connects you to your Creator. God looks into that mirror and the image on the other side is you.
Food for Thought
It may be very important for us to acknowledge that we are God’s creations, but what does God get out of us stating that ‘we are Your creations’? Does God really need this?
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