Rav Ovadia Sforno, is a sort of unsung hero in the world of Biblical commentaries. He constantly plays second or third fiddle to Rashi and Ramban as a choice to explain some difficult passage in the Chumash. In addition, there are so many other commentaries that spice up their books with Midrashic elaborations, mystical insights, or Hasidic stories, that he tends to get ignored entirely. But those who ignore him do themselves a great disservice.
Ovadia Sforno was born in Cesena, Italy around 1475. His education was quite broad for the time, including both Jewish and secular studies. His name became known among scholarly circles in Rome, especially for his comprehensive knowledge of the Hebrew language. The Renaissance scholar, Johann Reuchlin, sought his assistance when he wanted to learn Hebrew to better understand the Bible. This acute knowledge of Hebrew is very evident throughout his major work, his commentary on the Bible. It was through this commentary, commonly referred to as ‘the Sforno’ that his reputation as a peer to Rashi and Ramban became established.
His technique was somewhat unique for its time and has never really been duplicated. He analyzes the words of the passage in question, applying a degree of exactitude that is rarely found in Biblical commentary. He discovers, with uncanny frequency and depth, profound spiritual concepts from the Hebrew words themselves. A little nuance here, an interpretation of a metaphor there, contrasting different usages of words in numerous places – these are the building blocks of the Sforno commentary. Interspersed throughout all the details are brilliant and broad sweeping insights into human nature, God, Judaism, and purpose. These insights are drawn from a background collage of Talmud, philosophy, and mysticism, all of which he was master of. In several places in the first few chapters, Sforno spells out his answer to the dual question: What was God’s purpose in creation and what is our purpose in life?
‘And God saw the light, that it was good…’ (1:4)
Sforno: God saw and chose the existence of the light because of the ultimate purpose which was good, because of that He brought it into being through His active intellect.
‘And Hashem God said: It is not good for man to be alone; I will make for him a corresponding helper’ (2:18)
Sforno: He will not attain the intended goal in (being created) in the likeness and image (of God) if he must occupy himself alone in the needs of his life’.
Sforno associates the word ‘good’ with the ultimate purpose. He does this a few other times in the opening chapter of the Chumash. But what exactly is ‘good’? Neither from the aspect of God or from the aspect of man are we given much of a clue as to what this crucial quality could be.
Fortunately, Sforno wrote quite a bit and tended to focus on similar points throughout his writings. He wrote a magnificent essay called ‘The Goal of the Torah’, found at the beginning of many printings of the Chumash that have his commentary. In this essay, he expands on his idea of purpose. He writes that the intention of the Torah was to enable human beings to grow in three vital directions: intellectual, spiritual, and, in deed. The intellectual component was the classic philosophical goal of understanding God’s existence and essence. The spiritual component was a profound appreciation of God’s ways – how God deals with the world, with humanity, and with individuals. The component of deed was to translate these two rather cerebral components into action. In other words, the third step was to actually be like God. It is through this three-step program that human beings become ‘good’, and God’s ultimate purpose is achieved.
This three-fold theme permeates many of Sforno’s writings, from his commentary of the Chumash, to books of the Tanakh, to his more general essays. He spells out these ideas many times until it becomes almost like a user’s guide to finding purpose in life. It’s not easy or one-sided. It is a beautiful synthesis of the various schools that preceded Sforno in the world of Jewish thought. It took a broad-minded spiritual/intellectual who was able to see beyond the confines of enshrined tradition and established systems, into the arena of universalism that was a central theme of the Renaissance outlook of Sforno’s Italy.
Regardless of it roots, what is Sforno’s answer to the big question? The ultimate goal was ‘good’, as Sforno reads so carefully from the words of the Bible. Enabling the world, and ultimately mankind, to achieve this ‘good’, required a very specific formula for creation. It had to provide an arena in which one unique creation, human beings, could understand, appreciate, and finally, emulate, the source of that goodness. In other words, a creation in which human beings could become like God, to whatever degree possible. This, in a sense, was God’s ‘blueprint’ for creation, a phrase that Sforno never used but has become somewhat of a favorite among more recent Jewish thinkers. The blueprint is this threefold program: God’s essence becoming knowable through creation, God’s ways being revealed as an inspiration to the human spirit, and humanity putting that spiritual inspiration into action through deed.
The first two components, Sforno explains, are gleaned from the ‘thinking’ part of the Torah. It is from those passages that reveal something about God’s existence that we understand what we can about God’s essence. From the passages that deal with God’s ways of dealing with the vicissitudes of the created world – through love and mercy, or power and judgment, showing patience or displaying anger – we understand God’s ‘personality’. The two ‘thinking’ components are complemented by the ‘active’ component – the actual commandments – to produce a complete human being.
This complete human being, by the way, need not be Jewish. Sforno makes no mention of a Jewish monopoly on human perfection. On the contrary, he writes of the entire human race sharing the common goal of emulating God both in thought and deed. The Jews are merely the singular group that descended from those Biblical figures who dedicated their lives to precisely this goal. Consequently the Jews were rewarded/charged with the tools necessary to set an example for the rest of the human race. The Torah is that set of tools, but the ultimate goal can be achieved by anybody. The Jewish mission will not be complete until such a universal goal is met.
This goal of being like God is firmly embedded in the words of the Torah. The famous description of man being created in the image and likeness of God lays down the guidelines for what it means to be like God. God has certain traits. Among them are absolute freedom of will, desire to do good, dealing with others through mercy and kindness, or judgment and anger, and existing with a purpose and a goal. We, as human beings, have the ability to emulate those essential qualities in our own way. We have the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical tools necessary to succeed. We have a world around us that was specifically created to facilitate such an achievement. We cannot do it alone, without the help of others, whether Jews or non-Jews. We need each other to fulfill our purpose. We were given this task in the form of a choice – to either devote our lives to knowing and emulating God, or to shirk this task. The one thing God could not do for us is to make that choice. That task is ours, and ours alone, to make.
A popular inspirational slogan among Christians is ‘What would Jesus do?’ It comes in very handy in making those tough choices, those moral dilemmas that require some source of motivation beyond normal will-power. What do Jews have as an alternative? The Christian version is an easy fit since Jesus was a human being who had to deal with human emotions and hang-ups (ok, they say he was a god, but we know what we think about that one). How does one really compare oneself to God? Does God really have human-sized problems that require human solutions? Perhaps the answer to this Jewish dilemma is that we do have the innate ability to rise up, to some extent, to God’s level. We can deal with our own ethical and moral dilemmas in a God-like manner. It’s simply a matter of knowing how God deals with situations and acclimating to act in a similar manner.
To know how God deals with things one must look into the Torah. It may not be so easy to find the answer to any given situation, but for starters, it doesn’t hurt to read the text along with a commentary that elucidates what’s really going. The commentary of Sforno (available in English) is a pretty good place to start. It may require a bit of instruction from one who is familiar with this genre, but that shouldn’t be all that hard to find. What are you waiting for?
The second stage, acclimation, is a little tougher. It’s not so easy to translate theoretical knowledge, even if it is meant to be spiritually uplifting, into actual behavior. But God did give us a mind and a soul, complete with free will and an internal compass that helps us through the storms. It all boils down to realizing that you can truly emulate God. You were created in the image of God and that image enables you to be God-like. You cannot do it alone. You need the help of others; you need to help others. You also need the help of God. But the bottom line is that you can do it. You, in your own way and through your own situation in life, can be like God.
Food for Thought
Being like God is a wonderful goal if one has a definite image of what God really is. Many people today lack that image and have no blueprint to guide them. How does one be like God if one has no idea what God is like?
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