At the Beginning, Keep the End in Mind

“How you want things to end is what you should think about at the beginning” is a decent translation of a liturgical line in Hebrew that states “sof ma’ase b’mahshava tehila”. It is a reminder that in any well crafted work, the craftsman often had the end in sight from the very beginning. If we consider the Torah as the ultimate work of craftsmanship, we can ask, what was the end that the Craftsman had in mind? This is a particularly relevant question as we re-start the Torah reading cycle this Shabbat.

This is also the question that Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (15th-16th C. Italy, he is often referred to as “the Seforno”) sought to answer in his deeply insightful composition called “Kavanot HaTorah” or “The Aims of the Torah”. In it he argues that there are really two ends that the Torah works towards, one in the contemplative realm and one in the active realm. Regarding the contemplative realm the goal is “to make understood and to teach through sound intellectual demonstrations, the existence of the Divinity, which is an enlightened essence that is separate from matter. It brings forth all other things and is preceded by none. It knows all through knowledge of itself”. However, the Seforno also argues that the Torah is not just interested in this philosophical understanding but also an ethical understanding of God, “to contemplate God’s goodly way and compassion upon all creations”. Evidence for this contemplation is only to be found in humanity’s “striving to imitate it’s Creator to the greatest extent possible…especially acting to benefit others”. Thus, for Rabbi Ovadia Seforno even the contemplative goal must be evidenced in the realm of action. He posits, to borrow a phrase from Socrates, “to know the good is to do the good”. What we see so far is that the first goal of the Torah is a philosophical understanding that can only be demonstrated through ethical behavior.

But what of the goal in the active realm? There, he puts forward that the goal is the performance of the 613 commandments. In the same breath, however, he explains a new dimension about the goals he has just articulated, namely that the goal in the active realm (i.e. bringing about the performance of the 613 commandments) also serves to guide humanity in general and the Jewish people in particular, to the first goal of ethical imitation of the Divinity. Driving home the magnitude of this insight, Rabbi Yehudah Kuperman, who edited the most recent edition of the Seforno’s work, notes, “this is a tremendous insight on the part of the composer, that the active commandments are secondary to the central purpose of the Torah, ‘to imitate the Creator to the greatest extent possible…especially acting to benefit others'”.

The great work of craftsmanship that is the Torah would thus seem to be a tool that was designed and shaped with a singular focus: to aid us all in imitating God’s ethical character, above all, acting in ways that bring benefit to others. And so, as we begin the Torah once more let us not miss the chance to keeps its end in mind.

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