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Derech HaShem - Preface

I am learning (once again) the Ramchal's Derech HaShem with a chavrusa.  The plan is to go very slowly and methodically to understand each concept before going on.  I've decided to write up notes as we go along both to clarify my own thoughts and to share them with any who are interested.  Even more than usual, I welcome comments, insights, and questions on these posts.  I will do my best to respond, expand, and disseminate those points that are not clear at first.  Please note: this is not a translation of Derech HaShem, rather something like marginal notes on the text.  As such, they may not be edited as some of my other posts; but I think it is worth getting the thoughts out sooner rather than waiting till I have time to pretty them up.

The Ramchal prefaces his work by introducing his system and approach.  He makes the point that when trying to understand a complex system, the system must be describable in terms of parts; each part has its own function and also a relationship to other parts.  To understand more detail, each part itself can be further described in terms of its parts and the relationship between those parts.  For example, a car can be described as a drive train, passenger compartment, and body.  The drive train consists of the engine, steering system, braking system, transmission, etc.  Another example would be the human body; a human body consists of a nervous system, digestive system, circulatory system, etc.  The digestive system consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, etc.

How exactly one chooses to break the systems down is somewhat arbitrary.  For example, do you look at the mouth as part of the digestive system, respiratory system, communication system, or do we make up a new system name altogether?  There are even some "bad" choices; saying the body is made up of cells is true but not very helpful.  Part of the job of a teacher/rebbi is to use a suitable methodology for description.  A good teacher will be able to be flexible and tailor the description to the student.

The Ramchal is a master teacher par excellence. His sefer Derech HaShem is a description of how HaShem has chosen to present the running of the world to us.  In the sefer we will learn the purpose for which man was created and how this world helps us to achieve that purpose.  It will not tell us how to best utilize this world (this is M'silas Yesharim), nor will it tell us why HaShem chose this particular way for us to achieve His purpose (that is Da'as T'vunos).  By the end of the sefer, however, we will have a good understanding of what HaShem wants for us and how Torah and mitzvos (which can only be performed in this world) help us to attain our shleimus (ie, to perfectly achieve the lofty goals and aspiration that the Creator has for us, His children).

The Ramchal divides his exposition into four main aspects:
  1. Existence in general and particular
  2. HaShem's supervision/hashgacha
  3. Nevua
  4. Avoda
It seems that the Ramchal means that all of these are relatively equal in importance.  However, that seems (at first thought) to be difficult.  After all, the nature of existence, hashgacha, and avoda really do see like three dimensions of reality that are crucial to understand.  But nevua?!  We don't even experience nevua anymore.  I might have made it a minor section under hashgacha, but certainly not a major dimension of critical knowledge for understanding out situation.

Whenever this happens (in Torah, at least) , it means that we need to adjust our perspective to appreciate what we are being taught.  Think about our own selves.  I am alive, I can decide what I want to do, and I can direct my body to carry out my desires.  That's (1), (2), and (4).  But I also know what I should do and something of both the benefits of doing those things and the consequences of failing.  Without that last bit, I am just an animal.  A smart animal, an animal who has the wherewithal to be able to get what it wants and needs; but an animal and no more.  Without morality and direction, I am not human.  Nevua is that extra dimension that gives existence meaning and purpose.  We may not experience n'vi'im saying over n'vu'a every day, but every moment of our lives has a meaning and purpose that has been revealed to us via n'vu'a.  That knowledge that gives meaning and purpose must perforce come from "outside", otherwise it is just another part of the system.  I think that may be why the Ramchal made his major division this way.  With that we can restate the sections:
  1. Existence: the place where we achieve HaShem's purpose
  2. Hashgacha (Divine Providence): the manner in which HaShem's purpose is realized
  3. Nevua (Prophecy): absolute/certain knowledge of what our mission is; in general and in particular
  4. Avoda (Service): what we do to achieve our part of fulfilling HaShem's purpose
At this point we are not discussing how nevua works nor how it functions and interacts with the other areas.  Instead we are only focussing on why the Ramchal included this as a crucial dimension of knowledge equal in status to existence, hashgacha, and avoda.  On that issue, I think it needs to be stressed that nevua represents a link directly from the Creator.  Take the example of someone who selflessly helps starving and sick orphans.  Most people would call that an extreme act of chesed.  Yet, if they are from Ameleik, that would be an act of evil.  In fact, the systematic destruction of Ameleik (genocide!) is precisely what the Torah commands (we can't do it right now, but that doesn't change the directive).  If we decide what is right and wrong, then everything is relative and up for vote.  So even though it may look selfless, it is absolutely selfish because it is doing what I want.

The only way to do something selfless is to do something simply because the Creator commanded it; especially when it makes no logical sense.  That is possible only via nevua.


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