Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

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Seeing is believing but the most powerful forces are often unseen, hidden. The metaphysical, Ran teaches, is more powerful than the physical. In the last piece of the third Drasha , Ran discusses the mitzvot Moshe and Aharon were taught in Parashat haChodesh (Shemot 12). In line with themes we’ve seen before and will again, Ran portrays these as emblematic of our ability to overcome nature with proper religious activity. Let’s see each mitzvah for itself, and then how they bring that theme together.

Making Our Own Calendar

In this series
* 1: Drasha 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: Drasha 1: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: Drasha 1: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: Drasha 2: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Drasha 2: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Drasha 2: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Drasha 3: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

Ran notes that Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon that Nissan should be the first of the months לכם, to you, implying that it’s not the first for others. As he points out, there actually isn’t a New Year in a lunar calendar. The moon delineates months well, but not years (the sun creates a natural year, as we can easily see from the cycle of seasons). Nissan is only worthy of being the first month because in it we left Egypt, not because of any natural world parallel.

So, too, we call Tishrei the beginning of the year, and count years from there, not because the world was actually created then (Ran thinks we rule according to the Talmudic view that the world was created in Nissan), but because that is when Hashem judges the world, which is what allows for the year to proceed.

This lack of natural parallels is because, according to Ran, we should mark off all events, count all time periods, according to matters set up by the Torah, not natural law. This supports his general theme that mitzvot introduce us to a metaphysical plane of existence that is superior to (and shapes and controls) the natural one, but he has one more point to make about the calendar mitzvah.

Handing Over the Truth To Chazal

This is not the theme of this Drashah, but it will come up again, so let me introduce it briefly. Rosh haShanah 22a sees this reference to לכם, to you, as telling us that the calendar is set by the court. All holidays are dependent on the court’s pronouncement of the New Moon (and, when necessary, adding a second Adar to ensure that Pesach happens in spring). That is why R. Yehoshua had to obey when Rabban Gamliel commanded him to come on the day R. Yehoshua himself thought was Yom Kippur. The court decision counts, not some objective reality.

The importance of Chazal guiding us to the right spiritual result is also prominent in Chagigah 3b, where the Gemara sees Kohelet 12:11’s comparing the Sages to an ox-goad as meaning they guide us from the ways of death to the ways of life. Ran adds that it’s not the kind of cleverness that can lead to damage (note that he’s tossed off fairly casually the important point that intelligence and cleverness aren’t always the same as wisdom, and can sometimes lead to disastrous results).

That is why, for Ran, the Gemara continues to say that Shemot 20:1’s saying that Hashem spoke “all these words” to Moshe at Sinai means all the various views in all the future debates about Torah. Whatever that means practically, Ran is bothered by why Hashem wouldn’t just teach Moshe the truth? His answer is that since Hashem has decided to leave the decisions in the hands of the Sages of each generation, they were all told to Moshe at Sinai. For all that the rejected opinion might be the “truer” one, the higher value is leaving that decision process in the hands of Chazal.

Prefiguring Central Ideas in Early Mitzvot

As I said, that’s an idea to which Ran will return. It comes up here because it explains why this first mitzvah would have such a large Chazal component. Any time Hashem gave a first mitzvah (here, at Marah, and at Sinai), Hashem wanted that to reflect essential elements of Torah generally. One such theme is the role of Chazal. Another is that mitzvot allow us to shape our experience of nature, such as by not being subject to some natural calendar. A third is that mitzvot themselves overcome nature.

That is true for placing the blood on the doorposts to protect Jewish homes from the plague raging in Egypt. Note that Ran assumes the plague of the first-born was natural, in some sense, and that the blood stopped it supernaturally, as a function of our observance of the commandment, not because the blood itself did anything. (Remember also that Ran, in later Drashot, will mention the Black Death, the bubonic plague of 1348; the idea of plague would be very much alive for his listeners.)

At Marah, Moshe put a tree into the water that, according to tradition, ordinarily made it more bitter; here, it removed existing bitterness. That was a place where Hashem commanded more mitzvot, so the water experience was to remind them that mitzvot and Hashem’s word can control nature. Sinai, of course, was so completely supernatural it can go almost without mention.

Physical Reward and the Protection of Mitzvot

It is to drive that point home, Ran says, that the Torah always promises physical rewards for our mitzvah performances, and why miracles were common among the Jewish people. When our spiritual actions have an impact on our physical circumstances—when our refraining from idol worship and serving Hashem brings us better rain in the Land of Israel—that shows that it is the spiritual that rules the physical, not the other way around.

So, too, Ran doesn’t see miracles as having been aimed at improving people’s faith in the Divinity of the Torah (he is sure that the Revelation at Sinai sufficed for that, since the verse seems to say that; fortunate is he not to live in our generation!). Rather, it was a reminder that Hashem can overcome nature at any time.

Of course, Hashem minimizes His violations of nature, which is why the Jews had to stay inside. Theoretically, if the blood on the doorpost could save them, there was a way for them to be outside that night and stay plague-free. But since that would have added a layer to the miracle, and required that each individual Jew be worthy, Hashem made it happen this way instead.

Ran leaves us with another expression of what is by now a recurring theme, and a first glance at an upcoming one: First, what is the interaction between the metaphysical and the physical? Do mitzvot “only” make us better people, or do they affect how nature impacts us?

Note that Ran was trying to convince his audience, meaning they had trouble with it then; our scientific age certainly breeds that kind of disbelief. Where do we, as believing Jews come down on this issue? Ran was saying, let’s be clear, that not only the blood on the doors, but the calendar, too, was meant to teach us that listening to Hashem lets us control nature, not vice versa.

That raises the stakes on his second claim: Chazal were meant to be in charge of the application of Torah to the world, with those same metaphysical ramifications. Much as Hashem wants the holidays observed in their right time, or the laws of ritual purity enacted as Sinai had it, He chose to entrust that to the Sages, and to have their decisions, right or wrong, be our guide. We’ll have to see where he takes that in coming discussions, but it already gives us what to think about in terms of our sense and our reaction to the Torah scholars we know.

About Gidon Rothstein

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