Living in Hashem’s Presence is dangerous but beneficial, which is why He gave us a powerful tool for survival. Last time, Ran reminded us that Hashem’s direct guidance could lead to our being wiped out. At the same time, only Hashem can decide to forgive our transgressions and refrain from administering punishment. That would mean that if Moshe could guarantee a way to avoid destruction, being guided by Hashem would be better than an angel.
Ran unfolds his view of how all this worked by analyzing the back and forth of Shemot 33, but the textual issues are too technical and detailed to review here. The upshot is that when Moshe first hears that Hashem will not be going with the people, Moshe asks Hashem to teach him the Attributes of Mercy, to guarantee that he could always successfully avert destruction. Once he knows those, it will make sense for him to ask Hashem to go with them, since the danger of annihilation will have been pre-empted.
Ran notes, almost as an aside, that Hashem’s teaching these Attributes brings a subtle shift in the balance of power in the universe. Up to that point, only Hashem decided when miraculous events occur. Once Hashem makes a pact with the Jewish people that these Attributes will never fail to secure some positive response, Hashem has given the Jewish people some of that control as well.
We can, at our will, invoke these Attributes and “force” a certain reaction. I mention this because it’s another element in the view Ran is building of how and where we have the right to act to change the world—one piece is that Hashem has empowered us to pray using these Attributes, which gives us influence that was until now restricted to Hashem. We do this on those fast days when we recite Selichot and in the days leading up to and including Yom Kippur, but in the time of the Talmud, we would do it whenever a time of trouble approached, with the confidence that we had been promised a positive reaction.
Does Hashem Take All the Air in the Room?
Ramban wondered why Moshe protested Hashem’s plan to send an angel here, but hadn’t done so right after the Golden Calf (earlier in chapter 33), when Hashem had also said He was going to send an angel. Ran dismisses the question; that time, Hashem said there would be an angel, not that the angel would replace Him. There could be both.
To support that claim, Ran refers us back to the plague of the first-born. The Haggadah records the traditional view that Hashem executed that plague Himself, as it were. Yet Hashem also warned the Jews not to leave their homes that night, which tradition explains as being the only way to avoid the forces of destruction which, once unleashed, do not distinguish based on merit. But that assumes, Ran says, that the ordinary forces of destruction were still afoot. Hashem being active somewhere doesn’t mean the angels aren’t (and the reverse as well).
To me, Ran is drawing a careful line. Even when Hashem is directly involved in the world, meaning Nature has been suspended, that can be in one area but not others. Yes, the death of the first-born came from Hashem. Away from that event, the forces of destruction operated as they always did. Could Hashem have protected the Jews from those forces? Sure, but Hashem only works that way when Hashem works that way.
The Lack of Providence Outside Israel
There’s a geographical component to this as well. After Moshe protested the angel’s leading us instead of Hashem—which I’ve been reading as meaning the Jews would be susceptible to the same natural forces as any other nation—Ran reads Hashem as answering that this substitution would only be while they were in the Desert. Once they arrived in Israel, they would be graced with the Divine Presence.
That’s because the desert is particularly dangerous, in two ways. Ran accepts the common medieval view that all lands outside of Israel are guided by other forces (Ran says the stars, but we can easily translate into “nature”). That makes the Jews outside of Israel more susceptible to idolatry, since their lives are actually, in some sense, under supervision of a force other than Hashem.
Second, the desert is inherently dangerous, making it less than prudent to add to the danger. Ran knows of and disagrees with others who take a frummer position (I use frum to translate מתחסדים, make themselves excessively pious), insisting that Hashem’s powers and influence reach equally to all places. He says instead that Hashem made a world in which some places are more prone to problems than others; in those places, we need to take more care to avoid tragedy or disaster.
One of the notable points of this comment is Ran’s comfort with saying that just because an idea sounds like it involves greater faith and reliance on Hashem doesn’t mean it’s accurate.
The Threat of Annihilation
Moshe insists the Jews need Hashem’s Presence even in the Desert, to demonstrate how different they are from other nations, and Hashem concedes. Moshe now needs to know the Attributes, such that he can pray successfully should another event like the Golden Calf occur.
Ran doesn’t address the following question: He had asserted (as did others before him) that idolatry brings the threat of annihilation. However, the other time in the Torah that Moshe invokes the Thirteen Attributes—in the face of Hashem’s mentioning the possibility of wiping out the Jews– is after the sin of the spies (Bamidbar 14). Either Ran has overstated his case and another sin can bring annihilation or the sin of the spies was, in some sense, idolatry. I can actually defend either option, but this isn’t the place; I just wanted to stimulate readers’ thinking about what sins have the power to bring the danger of national destruction.
Either way, Ran has brought us to a convenient stopping point. He has made clear that Hashem always directly guides the world in Israel and sometimes elsewhere. Other times, that is delegated to angels and/or other forces.
What we have to start thinking about is what that does to how we should or shouldn’t take action to change our lives. Natural events, we’ll see, are within our rights to change, but that which is beyond nature is also beyond our legitimate attempts to impact. Next time.