Shiur #07: Imitatio Dei – The Ways of Leadership

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        Moshe's Request


Following the sin of the golden calf, Moshe succeeds in appeasing God and persuading Him not to annihilate the Jewish people. Following this appeasement, the Torah recounts a dialogue between God and Moshe, which is difficult to understand. The climax of this dialogue consists of God's revelation to Moshe when he ascends the mountain, with the second set of tablets. Throughout the revelation, Moshe is hidden in a cleft of the rock, while God declares His divine attributes:


“The Lord, the Lord, mighty, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in love and truth, keeping kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but He shall surely not clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, to the third and to the fourth generation." (Shemot 34:6-7)


In chapter fifty-four of Book I of the Guide, the Rambam explains part of this dialogue between Moshe and God, especially the significance of the revelation of God's moral attributes.


The unit starts with a request on Moshe's part:


"Show me, I pray You, Your way, that I may know You, in order that I might find favor in Your sight." (Shemot 33:13)


Thereafter, Moshe makes a further request:


"Show me, I pray You, Your glory." (Shemot 33:18)


The Rambam explains that this second request expresses the desire "to grasp God's essence." God responds to this request in the negative: "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live" (Shemot 33:20). It is impossible to understand God's essence. This is a central principle in the Rambam's philosophy, and we shall discuss this at greater length in future shiurim.


How then can we attain any knowledge of God at all? We can do so only indirectly, through His actions. As the Rambam puts it, it is possible to come to know God and to speak of Him in terms of "descriptions of actions." These describe not God Himself, but rather what He does. Although one cannot truly say of God, in the full human sense, that He is "wise" – for He is far beyond that which we refer to as "wisdom" – we may say that He performs acts of wisdom. In the Rambam's view, this is how we should understand Moshe's first request: "Show me, I pray You, Your ways." Here Moshe is not asking to know God's essence; rather, he asks to know His ways – His actions in the world. To this, God agrees. He tells Moshe, "I shall cause all My goodness to pass before you" (Shemot 33:19). The Rambam interprets this as follows:


The words “all My goodness” hint to God presenting before him all of existence, concerning which it is said, “And God saw all that He had done, and behold, it was very good” (Bereishit 1:31). By “presenting before him” I mean that He showed Moshe their essence and their connection with one another, such that he would know God's control of them and how it operates, in general and in every detail. It is to this that God refers when he says, “He [Moshe] is trusted in all of My house” (Bemidbar 12:7). In other words: “Moshe understands the reality of My world in its entirety with a true and lasting understanding”… The grasp of these actions is therefore [the grasp of] the qualities of God by means of which He can be known." (Guide, I:54)


God shows Moshe all of existence – i.e., He explains to him the manner in which He directs reality. God also adds a further expression describing the manner of His revelation to Moshe:


"And you shall see the back of Me, but My face shall not be seen." (Shemot 33:23)


What is the meaning of this distinction between “seeing the face” and “seeing the back?” The Rambam explains as follows, in his Mishneh Torah:


What is it that Moshe was asking to grasp, when he said, “Show me, I pray You, Your glory?” He sought to know the truth of the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, so that he could know Him in his heart in the way that one knows a person whose face one has seen and whose appearance is engraved upon his heart. That person is then distinct in one's mind from other people. In the same way, Moshe asked that God's existence would be distinct in his heart from the rest of reality, such that he could know the truth of His essence in and of itself. And God answered him that the mind of a live human being, comprising a body and soul together, is incapable of grasping this truth fully. But God did make known to him that which no man before him had known, and which no man would know after him – such that he did grasp something of the truth of His existence, so that the Holy One, blessed be He, was distinct in his mind from the rest of reality, in the same manner as if one sees the back of a certain individual and grasps [on that basis] the appearance of his entire form and attire, such that in his mind this person is distinct from other people. And it is to this that the text alludes in saying, “You shall see the back of Me, but My face shall not be seen.” (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah 1:10)


According to the Rambam, the distinction between "seeing God's face" and "seeing God's back" is another way of describing the difference between perceiving God's essence and perceiving His actions. Even knowing His actions gives us some knowledge about Him, but this knowledge is limited. The Rambam compares this to identifying a person by seeing him from behind, without seeing his face.


The Rambam draws another important lesson from these verses. Moshe asks:


"Show me, I pray You, Your ways, that I may know You, in order that I might find favor in Your eyes."


Paying close attention to the wording, the Rambam arrives at an important insight, which sits well with his overall philosophy:


Moshe's words, “in order that I might find favor in Your eyes,” are proof that one who knows God is one who finds favor in His eyes; fasting and prayer are not sufficient [to achieve this aim]." (Guide, I:54)


Rashi understands the verse differently; he explains that what Moshe meant was that God should reveal Himself to him because Moshe had found favor in His eyes. The Rambam's understanding is exactly the opposite. He maintains that man's purpose is to know God; it is through this knowledge, and as a result of it, that he “finds favor” in God's eyes. In other words, the “finding favor” in God's eyes does not precede and justify the knowledge of God; rather, it is its result.


B.        The Thirteen Attributes


The Rambam's explanation sheds light on God's revelation to Moshe in the cleft of the rock. According to the conventional interpretation, the focus of this revelation is the very act of God passing before Moshe: "And God passed over before Moshe, and He called out" (Shemot 34:6). According to the Rambam's understanding, the focus is on the content of the message: the "descriptions of actions" which Moshe discovers, such that thereafter He understands God's ways. The Rambam views the thirteen attributes of God as expressing the ways in which God operates in the world.


How does this actually work? How, for example, do we see in the manner in which the world operates that God is "merciful?” The Rambam explains:


For example, when we contemplate His gentleness in the forming of fetuses of animals, and the fact that He gives strength to them, and to those that raise them following their birth, so that they will not perish or be destroyed, protecting them from harm, and aiding them in their vital activities – actions of this sort are occasioned among us out of tenderness and emotion, and this is the meaning of mercifulness – thus it is that God may be said to be “merciful.” (Guide, I:54)


Someone who observes the laws of nature and its wondrous harmony, the way in which all of nature is organized in the best and most efficient manner, such that the needs of every being are fulfilled in the proper measure – such a person will immediately gain the impression that God is "merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in kindness and truth." This is an important and interesting point in the Rambam's philosophy: scientific knowledge (physics, biology) is translated into moral knowledge. From a familiarity with nature we come to recognize God's moral attributes. Modern philosophers, following the lead of David Hume, tend to draw a sharp distinction between facts and values. For the Rambam, no such rift exists. God's attributes bridge the chasm between these two worlds. The study of science is also the study of morality.


Here the Rambam adds an important warning. When we speak of mercy, we are describing an emotion. We cannot suggest that God acts out of an emotional response; after all, emotion sometimes causes us to deviate from the plain truth. For example, we sometimes feel mercy towards criminals, and refrain from punishing them, where in fact we should mete out harsh treatment. The Rambam cites the verse in Malakhi (3:17), "And I shall have compassion upon them as a man has compassion for his son,” and explains:


This is not to say that God is tender and soft-hearted. Rather, this act, which emerges from a father towards his son solely as a result of soft-heartedness, compassion and tenderness [i.e. - emotional responses], emerges from God towards those who are close to Him – but not out of tenderness, nor out of change. (Guide, I:54)


The Rambam also formulates this more generally:


The meaning here is not that God has personality traits, but rather that He performs actions which are similar to actions which, among people, arise from personality traits – i.e., from psychological tendencies. It does not mean that God Himself has psychological tendencies. (Guide I:54)


When God performs kindness towards His creatures, we refer to this as "mercy." However, God is not merciful in the way that we mean it; He has no emotion of mercy. God acts in the best and truest manner, in accordance with absolute justice. However, this conduct generally leads to acts which we, as humans, would attribute to a feeling of mercy. Mercy, as an emotion, is an inaccurate guide to truth, but it is closer to justice than are other emotions, such as jealousy and hatred.


Sometimes, though, God is described as "jealous,” "vengeful,” etc. Indeed, sometimes we even find an act on God's part that parallels actions which, among people, arise from a feeling of anger:


His actions towards mankind also include great calamities, which overtake individuals and bring death to them, or affect whole families and even entire regions, spread death, destroy generation after generation, and spare nothing whatsoever. Hence there occur inundations, earthquakes, destructive storms… God is therefore called, because of these acts, "jealous," "revengeful," "wrathful," and "keeping anger;” that is to say, He performs acts similar to those which, when performed by us, originate in certain psychical dispositions, in jealousy, desire for retaliation, revenge, or anger. They are in accordance with the guilt of those who are to be punished, and not the result of any emotion. (Guide I:54)[1]


However, if we find that God manifests the attributes of mercy and gentleness as well as attributes of anger and fury, then seemingly we have learned nothing of His ways; all that we are able to know is that God possesses both the one type and the other. The Rambam asserts that this is not so. The thirteen attributes of God convey a very important concept about God:


These thirteen attributes are all attributes of mercy, except for one – “visiting the iniquities of fathers upon children."


As the Rambam understands it, God's guidance of the world expresses His attribute of mercy far more than it does His attribute of strict justice. Even the attribute, “He shall surely not clear the guilty,” which is usually interpreted as the attribute of justice, is understood by the Rambam as an attribute of mercy: "He shall not uproot him altogether."[2] This tells us something about God's actions and guidance: God acts out of pure logic, and this logic generally entails acts of kindness and mercy; only occasionally does it lead to acts of anger and fury.


Imitatio Dei


One of the most important points in the Rambam's discussion remains to be addressed. According to the Rambam, knowledge of the ways of God's actions is not merely comprised of theoretical knowledge. Once we have learned God's ways, we must make ourselves resemble Him by imitating His behavior. This applies especially to political leaders:


The governor of a country, if he is a prophet, should conform to these attributes.


The Rambam's assertion that the ideal political leader is a prophet, is one that we shall discuss in the future. For now, let us turn our attention to the assertion that this leader should imitate God in his attributes. What is the lesson that a leader should learn from God's attributes?


Acts must be performed by him moderately and in accordance with justice, not merely as an outlet of his passion. He must not let loose his anger, nor allow his passion to overcome him, for all passions are bad, and they must be guarded against as far as it lies in man's power. At times and towards some persons he must be merciful and gracious, not only from motives of mercy and compassion, but according to their merits; at other times and towards other persons he must evince anger, revenge, and wrath in proportion to their guilt, but not from motives of passion. He must be able to condemn a person to death by fire without anger, passion, or loathing against him, and must exclusively be guided by what he perceives of the guilt of the person, and by a sense of the great benefit which a large number will derive from such a sentence.


The first aspect in which a leader should imitate God is through his decision-making. Just as God acts purely through an exact calculation of the proper and just behavior, so should a leader. He must not act out of emotional pressure. We might object and say that only God is able to act out of a precise and meticulous weighing of reality, while humans have no choice but to follow their emotions. However, the Rambam rejects this argument out of hand. The story is told of a certain Minister of Defense who agreed to a prisoner exchange deal involving the release of terrorists, under highly unfavorable conditions. When asked how he could have agreed to such a transaction, he replied, "I could not face the mothers." This is precisely the sort of behavior that the Rambam speaks out against.


The other aspect of God's actions that a leader must imitate is:


Nevertheless, acts of mercy, pardon, pity, and grace should more frequently be performed by the governor of a country than acts of punishment.


We have seen that in the Rambam's view, twelve out of the thirteen attributes are attributes of mercy. From this, the Rambam concludes that a leader, too, must concentrate more on acts of mercy, rather than on acts of anger. A political leader must be guided by logic. However, if logic leads him to a stern and strict form of governance, then he must know that he has erred; God Himself guides the world with gentleness, and therefore this is the path of justice and truth. 


Chapter fifty-four concludes with an assertion that anticipates the final chapter of the Guide (which we will hopefully address in the future):


The chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the verse, “You shall be holy” (Va-yikra 21:2): “He is gracious, so you shall likewise be gracious: He is merciful, so you shall likewise be merciful.”


This instruction, presenting Imitatio Dei as "the chief aim of man,” seems to hold a message not only for political leaders, but also for each and every one of us.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] R. Avraham, son of the Rambam, proves that God possesses no emotion of anger, from the verse, "And now, let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and I shall consume them" (Shemot 32:10). A person does not ask permission to be angry; anger is either aroused on its own, or it is not. God asks permission, as it were, to be angry – meaning that there is no real emotion of anger here; rather, it is an act of punishment (Ha-Maspik le-Ovdei Hashem, "Al Arikhat Apa'yim," Jerusalem 5733, pg. 50).

[2] There is a basis for this understanding in the words of Yirmiyahu (30:11): "yet I shall not make a full end of you; rather, I shall correct you in righteousness, and shall surely not leave you altogether cleared." In other words, “I shall correct (punish) you, but not consume you.”