Man’s Perfections


Moshe Ben-Chaim



This past Shabbos, my close friends Jeff, Howard, and Lewis were revisiting a previously studied section of Talmud, and we discussed it again this morning. It discusses man’s perfections. As we studied, we noted some interesting insights.

The Talmud (Sabbath 31a) cites a passage in Isaiah 33:6:

“And it shall be, [that] the faith of your times will be the strength of your salvation, wisdom and knowledge; the fear of God is his storehouse [treasure].”

This verse is cryptic, but the Talmud elucidates two explanations. The first view suggests that each word in this verse refers to one of the six tractates of the Mishna. The Mishna – the Oral Law – is divided into six portions, which govern each area of human existence. In our verse, says the Talmud, “faith” refers to tractates of planting; “times” refers to tractates of holidays; “strength” refers to tractates of women; “salvation” refers to tractates of damages; “wisdom” refers to tractates of things sanctified; and “knowledge” refers to tractates addressing ritual purity. That view concludes as does the verse, “even so, the fear of God is his treasure”.

The second view – that of Rava – states the following: “At the time when man is entered for judgment [after death] they say to him, ‘Have you dealt honestly in business? Have you fixed times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you anticipate the ultimate salvation? Did you debate in wisdom? Did you deduce new understandings from comparing ideas?’ But even so: if the fear of God was his treasure, then it is good. But if not, then it is not good.”

Both views correlated individual topics to each of the words in the verse. According to the first view, each of the six words refers to one of the six tractates of the Mishna. According to Rava’s view, each word is a reference to some activity. The question is, what is the dispute…or is there one?

I suggest there is no dispute; rather, each view alludes to a unique topic. But let us understand the verse. Read it again, “And it shall be, [that] the faith of your times will be the strength of your salvation, wisdom and knowledge; the fear of God is his storehouse [treasure].” Isaiah teaches the people that our salvation is dependent. Meaning, our good lives are based on something. The first view suggests our good depends on the adherence to the complete Oral law, the Mishna. But it is only through a devotion to the “entire” six tractates that we realize the true good. This is why this first view clearly states that each of the six words in the verse refers to each of the six tractates. What does this uncover? It reveals that man must guide “every” area of his life by God’s word. To assume we possess greater knowledge than God – in even one area – we make a grave mistake, and thereby forfeit our good. Therefore, the first view states we must follow all six tractates of the Mishna.

In this view, Isaiah is addressing the part of man who wishes to escape from Torah adherence. True, Torah can be perceived as ‘restrictive’, but this emotional response exists only as long as one is ignorant of the good contained in each area of the Oral Law. However, once one engages in study of the Oral Law – realizing the perfections afforded – he no longer runs from Torah observance, but he runs towards it. Thus, the verse concludes, “the fear of God is his treasure.” This means to say, that man’s study of these tractates must have the objective of arriving at a fear of God, or rather, an understanding of God’s ideas, referred to as a fear; since we are awed at God’s immense wisdom. When man’s study is not for ulterior motives, but rather, for the “fear of God”, then he is living a perfected life. When man views God as his “treasure”, then he has reached perfection.

Rava had a different view. He held that this verse addressing man’s ultimate good is not so much addressing the ‘body of law’, as it is addressing man’s “application” of the law. Thus, Rava cites six “actions”, which epitomize man’s perfection: “faith” refers to faithful business practice; “times” refers to fixed times of study; “strength” refers to procreation; “salvation” refers to the ultimate salvation; “wisdom” refers to debating Torah with others, and “knowledge” refers to deriving insights through critical thought. But Rava too concludes, “But even so, if the fear of God was his treasure, good, but if not, than it is not good.”

How are these six actions more indicative of human perfection over others? Let us review these six actions: honesty in business, fixed Torah study, procreation, anticipation of the salvation, Torah debate and deductive reasoning. At first glace, we feel these are arbitrary. Wherein lies the rhyme and reason for Rava’s selection of these six? However, with some thought, we expose primary categories.


The Self: Rava’s First Two Perfections

What causes a person to cheat in business? Maimonides states in his Commentary on the Mishna, that in business, one must seek a deal equally fair for all parties. And if one cheats, he displays an overestimation of the self; he feels more entitled to success, than the other party. However, this is generated from his ego. The ego is constantly seeking gratification, and expresses itself in a myriad of areas: evil speech about others (to raise one’s self esteem), cheating in business, clothing, cutting off someone in traffic, impatience in all areas, arguments in relationships, controlling children, seeking position of power, gambling, the list is endless. However, one who is objective, and views every other person with an equal right to existence, will not cheat in business. He will seek a fair deal for both himself, and his partner. He appreciates that God created the other person, just as He created himself.

We learn that honesty in business is an expression of one, whose ego is in check. However, if all this person does is work, bereft of learning, or with no “fixed learning schedule” – the second perfection – he displays more of a value for wealth, than for his soul. Thus, one who fixes times for his learning expresses a priority for learning: he cannot let a day go by where learning is absent from his schedule.

So these first two topics cited by Rava address the “self”. Moreover, these two perfections address man’s two faculties: his instincts and his intellect: man addresses his instincts, primarily by refining his ego, and he addresses his intellect, by fixing times of study.


Others: Rava’s Second Two Perfections

Rava’s next two areas of perfection are procreation, and anticipation of the future salvation – the days of the Messiah, when all peoples will recognize God.

If one is not involved in procreation, he thereby displays a concern for the self, and not for others. Thus, one who engages in procreation displays his alignment with God’s will: that “mankind” continues. He is not concerned with “his” life alone, but with the lives of all people. However, without his anticipation of the salvation, he does not express a desire for the “best” state for man.

We now understand Rava’s next two perfections: procreation expresses man’s perfection in aligning his will with God’s will, that mankind continue even after his demise, and he also desires the greatest state of existence for mankind, that the ultimate salvation arrives. Unlike the first two perfections, these second two perfections deal with mankind, not the self.


Wisdom in Both Roles: Rava’s Third Two Perfections

Now, although man must restrain his ego, fix study times, procreate and anticipate the salvation, these first four perfections have a higher goal, above these actions themselves. These four are not “ends” in themselves, but have as their goal an additional, ultimate good. That good is “knowledge of God”. This brings us to Rava’s last two perfections – debating Torah with others, and using critical thinking – what is clearly “knowledge of God”.

Rava says the words “wisdom and knowledge” in Isaiah’s verse, refer to debating Torah with others, and using critical thinking. My suggestion is that these last two perfections, are actually teaching the “objective” of the first four. They are not necessarily actions independent of the first four, but actually compliment the four, by describing what our goal must be when refining our ego, learning, procreating and waiting for the salvation. In all of these first four actions, we must have as our underlying goal, the last two: “wisdom and knowledge”. These last two perfections are not on par with the first four mentioned, but they come to “compliment” the four. Meaning, these last actions of debating and using reasoning, refer to both roles we mentioned: the self and others. We said that the first two address the individual, and the second two address others. In his last two perfections, Rava refer to actions, which address the individual (critical thought) and others (debating Torah). Rava states that man’s ultimate objective when alone or with others must be wisdom.

This is why God granted us the “Tzelem Elokim”, intelligence. A Rabbi once explained the reason why our intellect s labeled, “Tzelem Elokim”, or “form of God”. Of course, God has no form. However, this term means that man possesses that faculty, through which he may understand God. So vital is the intellect, God underlined its elevated status by joining His name to it, in the “form of God”.  Therefore, Rava’s final two perfections are debating Torah with others, and deductive reason, a solitary activity. These two reflect back on the ultimate good for both the self (deductive reasoning) and others (debate in Torah). In essence, Rava’s view is that man perfects himself when alone, and while engaged in society. These two capacities explain all of Rava’s six perfections. However, there is more to our verse.


Something Higher than Knowledge

How did each party conclude his words? What is the final quote in the verse? It is this: “But even so, if the fear of God was his treasure, good, but if not, than it is not good.” What does this add?

Both parties agree: man’s perfection cannot be limited to the sphere of the self, to others, or to the six tractates of the Mishna…his ultimate perfection depends on his underlying relationship with God. This is man’s third role, above his solitary life, and his life among mankind.

For in all six areas of perfection cited, man might yet perform these perfections in “action”, but harbor a distance from God, or lack a relationship with God. Actions might be easily accomplished, but true perfection requires that we relate to God, that we pray to Him, and truly feel we are created entities, with a deep feeling of thanks and a desire to express this gratitude. Even Torah study can be divorced from a relationship with God, if for example one learns to surpass others, for mental gymnastics, or even if he truly enjoys the ideas. But if man’s six perfections do not eventuate in a closer attachment to God, he misses the mark. This is the lesson of the ending of our verse: “But even so, if the fear of God was his treasure, good, but if not, than it is not good.”

Man’s ultimate perfection is his attachment to God, and this is achieved only through the constant, preoccupation with a study of the universe, and the Torah. Man has the capacity to find the deepest, most enduring and satisfying life through his realization of new truths. When man uses his intellect, he realizes how perfect the world is, from biology to physics, from the words of the patriarch’s to God’s commands…all is revealed by God to avail us to a life of a delight in knowledge. Physical enjoyments are limited, novelty wears off, and conditions are required for these temporal, instinctual satisfactions. In stark contrast, the enjoyment of wisdom, and feeling we receive when understanding a new truth, permeates our entire being, and through it, we realize answers to our questions, and develop a lasting appreciation for God’s world and Torah. Our attachment to God is the final objective.

We marvel at how precise is this verse in Isaiah. This one verse is but a single drop in the endless sea of knowledge. But simultaneously, this one drop fills our souls as if it is the entire sea. The precision and perfection of design realized in but a single verse, must awaken us to a new appreciation of how much more knowledge exists…we are excited at the prospect of the next Talmudic section we will learn.

But ultimately…we must arrive at a love for God.