Man’s Many Calculations

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

The following are notes on Rabbi Chait's recent answers to a student’s question.

Student's elaborations are placed in brackets. 

Maimonides: Laws on Shmitta and the Jubilee 13:13:

Not only the tribe of Levi, but every human being who has entered into the world, that his spirit generously directs him and he understands from his own thinking to separate himself to stand before God, to minister to Him and to worship Him, to know God and to go upright as God created him, and he breaks off from his neck the yoke of calculations of the masses that people chase…this person is sanctified as holy of holies and God will be his portion and his inheritance for eternity. And he will merit in this world provisions to sustain him just as the priests and Levites [are provided]. Behold, King David, peace be upon him, said, “The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup; You support my lot” (Psalms 16:5).

Question: The wise person does not discount the necessary calculations to provide for his life now, and for all his years. How then does Maimonides praise such an abandonment of calculations?

Answer: Koheles 7:29 says, “God created man upright, but they [man] have sought out many calculations.” This should read that God created man upright but they have sought out many evils” (“evil” is the appropriate contrast to “upright,” not calculations). So we must explain how the word “calculations” is more appropriate. 

Numbers 21:26,27 reads: 

Now Cheshbon was the city of Sihon king of the Amorites, who had fought against a former king of Moab and taken all his land from him as far as the Arnon. Therefore the proverbists [ha’moshlim] would say, “Come to Cheshbon; firmly built and well founded is Sihon’s city.”  

Torah Temimah cites Baba Basra 78b:

“Ha’moshlim”: these are the people who rule [hamoshlim] over their evil inclination. They say, “Come to Heshbon,” meaning: Come and let us calculate the account of  the world, i.e., the financial loss incurred by the fulfillment of a mitzva in contrast to its reward, and the reward for committing a transgression (the pleasure) in contrast to the loss (damage to the soul). 

“Let it be built and established”: This means that if you make this calculation, you will be built in this world, and you will be established in the World to Come.

As expressed above, “calculations” can be a good. But Koheles 7:29 refers to calculations as an evil, as it is contrasted against God’s goodness in creating man upright. What then are man’s corrupt calculations? Targum writes as follows:

God made Adam the First upright before him and just; and the serpent and Eve seduced him to eat of the fruit of the tree, because those who eat its fruit would be wise to discern between good and evil, and they brought upon him and all the inhabitants of the earth the day of death; [then] they sought to find many calculations in order to bring deficiency upon the inhabitants of the Earth.

Targum teaches that it was only after bringing mortality to mankind, that Adam sought these many calculations. These calculations refer to man's obsession with many physical preoccupations. Sforno writes, “Adam was involved in many troubles before he even ate bread.” [Simple bread is insufficient for the distorted man, who derailed the plan for simplistic physical needs, into a preoccupation with its preparation and many details, like sweetness.] God made man “upright”: to be satisfied with simple physical needs, but Adam toiled greatly for certain types of breads, to find very sweet things (Sforno). 

The highest expression of human preoccupation with the physical are yachts. Men furnish these luxurious boats with the finest furniture and decorations. These are the many “sought-out calculations” Maimonides describes which the “upright” man abandons. Maimonides’ phrases of “sought-out calculations” (cheshbonos ha’rabim), “upright” man (yashar), and “which God made” (she’assahu elohim), are clear references to Koheles 7:29.

The question was, “The wise person does not discount the necessary calculations to guide his life now and for all his years. How then does Maimonides praise such an abandonment of calculations?” The answer is that Maimonides refers not to financial matters per se, but to the same calculations that King Solomon refers to: preoccupation with obtaining the finest and most exclusive physical luxuries completely unnecessary for the upright life God intends for man. [Maimonides explains that if man can follow the simpler and upright life which is God's plan, and he abandons what the rest of society seeks, namely the yoke of unlimited luxuries, he then lives properly and earns God’s providence. Maimonides’ words bear this out as he says about this man:] 

He separates himself to stand before God, to minister before him and to serve Him, and to know God. He goes upright as God created him and he breaks off his neck the yoke of calculations of the masses that people seek, he thereby renders himself holy of holies [distinct from all other men] and God is his portion and his inheritance forever.

All this refers to this unique individual's ability to abandon society [their preoccupation with physical security] and instead, to follow God. [The perfected man does not follow “what people seek.” Why? Because, “God is his portion.” He selects God over man. He selects simplistic physicality over distracting extravagance. He selects God’s security over imagined financial security: “God is his portion and his inheritance forever” as he knows the true eternality of our existence. Upright man is compelled to abandon the physical which distracts his mind from the pleasure of wisdom and seeking God.]

Targum says preoccupation with the physical follows the onset of mortality. [This is because mortality created much fear in Adam, explaining why God blocked the path to the Tree of Life immediately after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. With the onset of mortality—the punishment for eating of the Tree of Knowledge—came the fear of death and an immediate obsession with the physical, expressed in man's preoccupation with securing many fine physical acquisitions.] This is Targum’s message: “and they brought upon him and all the inhabitants of the earth the day of death; and they sought to find many calculations…”  These calculations—these obsessions with the physical—were a direct result of mortality. [They were man’s attempt to regain immortality through grabbing on to the physical in every possible expression.]