Know thyself and Thy Mesorah

Rabbi Yoni Sacks

In private communication with David Guttman, as well as in comments on David Guttman's blog to R. Micha, I made reference to the fact that proper understanding of the model of the soul presented in Shemone Perakim, is extremely useful in understanding the Mesorah of Rambam as presented in the MT. I have been thinking about this statement of mine about the soul a lot lately. How do I illustrate what I mean, without resorting to meaningless terminology, or as my dear student RJM puts it so eloquently, heavy jargon?

Ignorance of Self

The answer lies, as it so often does, in allowing Rambam to speak for himself, without getting in the way. In Shemone Perakim, Rambam presents the issue of developing proper Middot in the soul by means of an important analogy, one which deserves our undivided attention.

ואתה יודע, שתיקון המידות הוא ריפוי הנפש וכוחותיה. וכמו שהרופא, אשר ירפא הגופים, צריך שידע תחילה את הגוף אשר ירפאהו בכלל וחלקיו - מה הם, רצוני לומר: גוף האדם, וצריך שידע אילו דברים יחלוהו וישמר מהם, ואילו דברים יבריאוהו ויכוון אליהם, כן רופא הנפש הרוצה לתקן מידות האדם, צריך שידע הנפש בכללה וחלקיה, ומה יחלה אותה ומה יבריאה

Clearly, Rambam is instructing us to relect upon our educational relationship to himself as a Baal Ha-mesorah, as somehow being like that of the therapeutic relationship of a doctor to a patient. In so instructing us, Rambam is clearly not interested is some feel - good, pretty words. There would be no need for an elaborate technical description of the soul to achieve a feel good experience. Rather, Rambam seems intent on fostering a certain insight about the Mesorah we otherwise would overlook. But what is this insight?

The answer is clear in the Rambam, yet somehow mystifying to us. By virtue of telling us that the Doctor of the Soul must come to learn the nature of the soul, it is clear that most of us, do not have knowledge of our souls. This simple fact, that we need instruction by an expert to identify our souls, implies that we do not know how to identify our very selves. It is the removal of core ignorance, the inability to identify  ourselves, that constitutes the education of Torah and Mitzvot. In a sense, to learn torah then is to recognize and identify ourselves.

This notion, that we do not know ourselves, is also implicit in the dictum of the great philosophers of Greece. What could "know thyself" mean, if not that we are currently ignorant of what and who we are? Clearly, wise men generally,and Rambam in particular, intend to awaken a reader who needs to first and foremost be informed that he ,in fact, does not know his own soul, that he is unaware of his very identity as a man.

But is this not preposterous, to say that we do not know who and what we are? Not if we consider the reality of education, Jewish and Non-Jewish as we experience it today. In fact, ignorance of soul is the elephant in the room that permeates all education. We all know that educators limit themselves to politely solving problems proper to the popular fields of study -the various "subjects.”  For them the crowning glory of man is the ability to solve official problems about things other than ourselves. No wonder then that focus of modern education lies exclusively in the issue of the manner to in which to present, or perhaps sequence, the problems of the various subject matters external to us. Thought is always limited to solving problems about external objects; rather than reflection upon the soul as a phenomenon in it’s own right. When was the last time we saw the identification of the soul, its whole and parts, as an important issue in school? Such talk would be a disaster, it would waste so much time, we would never cover the subject matter of general and Torah subjects.  We are totally preoccupied with the results of soul -problem solving- never on soul itself. No wonder we never stop to consider the best way to understand mizvot as means by which  the soul can be given tikkun through the therapy of a Doctor.

This  failure on the part of education to isolate a natural “thought ability” underlying the act of the identifing and solving problems of particular subject areas is bizarre. Is not all of modern science founded on the notion that all things have natural principles, open to our research? Why should man, body and soul, be exempt? How does this ignorance of our very selves arise?