Mishlei: Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding II
“For God grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6) We began our study of this verse by differentiating between an internal and external Midah. We now turn to the Shemonah Perakim of the Rambam, Chapter 6: The Difference Between a Pious Person and One Who Overcomes His Desires.
“Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “A person should not say, ‘It is impossible for me to eat milk and meat,’ ‘It is impossible for me to wear Sha’atnez,’ or ‘It is impossible for me to engage in forbidden relations.’ Instead, he should say, ‘It is possible for me, but what should I do? My Father in heaven decreed against it.’” (Sifra, Kedoshim. Please note that there are differences between our version of the text and the Rambam’s version.)
There are commandments which, even if they had not been recorded in the Torah, it would have been proper to inscribe them. They are referred to by some of the wise men of the later generations who have fallen as “rational commandments.” There is no doubt that a soul that desires to perform any of these (forbidden) acts is a soul with depraved qualities. For a refined soul will not desire any of these base things at all, and will not suffer discomfort from holding back from them.
In contrast, the matters which our Sages said that a person who overcomes his natural inclination is greater and thus earns a greater reward refer to Mitzvot that require obedience. For in truth, had the Torah not forbidden them, they would not be considered evil at all. For this reason, our Sage said that a person should continue to desire them, and should feel that the only thing preventing them is the Torah’s decree.”
The Rambam is differentiating between two directions in serving God: The ‘rational commandments’ reach up, from our natural feelings and inclinations, until they develop into an experience that is connected to God and His Torah. A person will not kill because he naturally recognizes murder as evil. He begins his “observance” in himself, on this world. However, he can raise his awareness to such a high level that he will not murder because God, to Whom he is so connected, forbids it. He has gone from below to above.
The other commandments reach down from above to below. The person refrains from Sha’atnez because the Torah forbids something he may desire. He begins with an attachment to the Divine that can control his earthly desires. However, he can reify his awareness into a natural inclination that will prevent even the desire or willingness to wear Sha’atnez. This person takes that which is Divine, above and makes it part of him, who is below.
A person must take his natural inclination to respect his parents and transform it into something far more powerful by inculcating his life with Torah so that his respect for his parents is an expression of his awareness of, and connection to, God.
The Rambam is describing two different applications of the sequence of “wisdom, knowledge and understanding.” Certain Mitzvot begin above and for them the verse describes the process of learning the wisdom of the Torah, developing into practical application to himself, and transforming himself into a reflection of that wisdom through Binah – Understanding. This is the person who can take the Divine and make it part of his daily life.
The “rational commandments” must also be processed through “wisdom, knowledge and understanding,” but in a manner that takes our natural inclinations and raises them to the Divine. This is the person who can take his behavior here, below the Heavens, and raise his natural desires to the Divine.